Humans of Harker: Presence on and off the stage

Joel Morel’s (12) contagious energy spreads to his fellow performers


Emily Tan

“There's a division between your character that you're portraying on stage and who you are in real life, but it's kind of not necessarily a straight-cut division. I felt the confidence I gained as a person and the energy that I had translated to my artistic work and made me a better performer and more confident and comfortable on stage, which lended myself to the charisma on stage that I had. I guess people noticed, which gave me even more confidence — I felt like I was doing something right,” Joel Morel (12) said.

Clad in a spring green polo and suspender set, Joel Morel (12) bounces across the stage, raising his eyebrows and smiling from ear to ear during upper school choir Downbeat’s performance of “Na na na” by Pentatonix at the 69th Annual Family and Alumni Picnic. Energy and excitement flow through his every snap, twist and kick. From his dazzling performances at school events, to his sharp movements dancing to upbeat songs as a part of Kinetic Krew, to his powerful acting in the musical “Urinetown”, on top of his co-presidency of the a cappella group Signature and his involvement as a director in the Student Directed Showcase, Joel seems to be everywhere when it comes to performing arts. 

Ever since he was young, Joel has felt an affinity to music, always singing and dancing around the house. Keeping him open to different options, his dad signed him up for sports, assuming he would be an active kid. In reality, he was the player on the field who never really paid attention to the game, or sat on the field and picked grass or ran away from the ball. When his friend introduced him to his local Jewish community center’s theater program, Joel’s life changed. 

“The adrenaline that I felt onstage in front of all these people who seemed to be supporting me in what I did was gratifying,” he said. “It wasn’t scary like sports. There wasn’t any ball to run away from and I guess my ignorance of what I was doing made me feel like it was something that wasn’t scary.”

Joel’s love for musical theater grew when he came to Harker in fifth grade, the year he decided to join the fifth-grade production “Flat Stanley Jr.” Upper school vocal teacher Jennifer Sandusky reflects on her first impressions of Joel, saying that he was always bursting with energy and eagerness, and on top of that, extremely talented. 

“He was just a great dancer and performer from the beginning, and singer. He just loved it so much.” Sandusky said. “I remember being really grateful because when you’re planning the fifth grade show and you’re giving out all these parts, there’s a lot to do. I was really grateful that a kid came in and he was able to sing one particular song that was pretty tough to sing at the time, so that was exciting.”

After entering Harker, Joel expanded into other forms of artistic expression, one being dance. His involvement in dance at school allowed him to improve in his hip-hop skills, but he is now looking to take ballet classes to improve his technique and build fundamentals. Ultimately, Joel’s dance also connects back to music: whenever he listens to music, it overwhelms him and influences his movements. 

“I take dance and get all this training to figure out how to use my body in a more effective way, in an easier way,” Joel said. “When I take classes for long periods of time, I feel comfortable in my body and I feel like it’s not as hard as it once was when I first started to move my body in a certain way, and I also find new ways that music can move me. When I dance, I’m primarily driven by music.”

Even though he loved performing arts, it wasn’t until sophomore year that he transformed it from a hobby into a full-time commitment. Watching all the talented upperclassmen performers, Joel sensed a gap between himself and the performer he wanted to be — on top of attending show after show, workshopping extra monologues and putting in additional hours to improve his skills,  Joel attended a “life-changing” performing arts summer intensive at New York University. 

“I felt confident. I felt like I had done my job and that kick-started the journey that I was on, but watching all these shows, it didn’t really evolve into just a checklist of what I needed to do to be a good actor,” Joel said. “it exposed me to a lot of new avenues I could explore and opened a lot of doors for me in understanding what was possible as an actor.”

In addition to finding new possibilities for his future, Joel discovered something just as important — motivation. When he returned from NYU, Joel kept that spirit with him and it has continued to impact his attitude toward performing arts to this day.

“My journey never really stopped. It was still progressing at the same rate that I had been progressing [at] in New York with all these amazing professors — it was interesting. It was less of what the teachers could offer me and it was more of what I could offer myself and what I could discover on my own and it was more self-driven.”

On top of focusing on improving himself, Joel also expanded his view to his fellow actors with regards to helping them on their journeys as well. Mathew Mammen (‘19), Joel’s friend since middle school, has performed with Joel countless times in both musicals and choirs; in addition to his always bringing fun and humor to the conversation, Mathew reflects on Joel’s growth in terms of the way he interacts with his peers. 

“He’s embraced looking outward and looking at the big picture, helping others, helping himself in the process, and helping the whole group,” Mathew said. “He’s helping people often with their craft, their acting, their singing and all. I would say he’s actually quite generous with his time and he does give a lot of good feedback. He’s very helpful, he’s very, very honest, and I respect that about him.”

Likewise, Joel’s finding inspiration didn’t just change his own experience as a performer; it also spread to his peers. Over the past summer, Joel, along with the rest of the “Urinetown” cast, took a trip to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Kalyan Narayanan (12), fellow Urinetown cast member and close friend since elementary school, reflects on one of Joel’s most admirable traits that he saw first-hand in Scotland: motivating other people.

“We [the cast] were all in on how energetic and impassioned and skillful his performance was during the entirety of the trip,” Kalyan said. “So every night we had to try to match him and try to harness what he was getting at because he was very inspiring.”

At the festival, in addition to being surrounded by talent from around the world, Joel and the cast had the opportunity of performing on the same venues as professional actors, which for Joel served as affirmation that he was on the correct path.  

“There’s a division between your character that you’re portraying on stage and who you are in real life, but it’s kind of not necessarily a straight-cut division. I felt the confidence I gained as a person and the energy that I had translated to my artistic work and made me a better performer and more confident and comfortable on stage, which lended myself to the charisma on stage that I had,” he said. “I guess people noticed, which gave me even more confidence — I felt like I was doing something right.”

Even though Joel felt his confidence grew throughout the trip, his time there didn’t come without its struggles. When “Urinetown” received a review that praised him and the cast highly, Joel’s confidence lifted, but those words also planted seeds of self-doubt and anxiety.

“I felt an obligation to not dip in performance and to [perform well for] the people who were coming to the next night who might’ve seen the review and were expecting an amazing performance from this specific character. I felt an obligation to either match…or exceed their expectations a little bit, which was scary,” Joel said. “I’m glad that that happened, though, because I’m farther along on my artistic journey than I ever thought I would be at this stage. I’m getting more and more confident as I see myself growing even more and more.”

In the end, it all comes down to motivation which Joel found through both his fellow actors and outside pressure by turning struggle into a drive to improve.

“Joel has probably the strongest ambition of anyone I currently know at the moment, and I greatly respect that about him,” Mathew said. “He won’t necessarily always get the best part, but he will always make the most of the parts he’s getting. He’ll always make the most of the opportunity he’s given; his ambition is healthy, it’s directed. I think it will push him to do very incredible things.”