Lyric Theatre major Anna Benoit has had a busy year so far! She performed and taught at the Ozark Actors Theatre over the summer, and began her senior year at the University of Illinois. She recently performed in Lyric Theatre @ Illinois' fall 2019 opera, The Adventures of Little Sharp-Ears, and will be performing the role of Sally Bowles in next semester's Lyric Theatre @ Illinois, Dance at Illinois, and Illinois Theatre's co-production of Cabaret. Anna has been lighting up the stage almost since she was born, and has continued to grow as a dynamic and versatile artist. Our interview with her gives some insight into her life as a student and performer:
How did you first get into performing?
I started taking ballet classes when I was three years old! My performing experience began in children's ballets playing such inspiring roles as: tree, brick, pond and bat. As I got more serious about dance, my mom suggested that I take voice lessons so I could audition for community theatre. In eighth grade, I was cast in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and I never looked back. In high school, I began studying classical voice as I continued performing in musicals and ballets.
What would you say is most inspiring to you as an artist?
That every time I walk on stage I am helping to tell a story or convey an emotion or message that may very well impact someone in a way that matters.
What have been some of your favorite roles?
I loved playing with the quirkiness of Rona Lisa in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Her character made for great fun in the rehearsal room and onstage. Tess, in Crazy for You was also a favorite. Dancing to Gershwin tunes with some of my favorite people in the world is hard to top. I am currently working on Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Delving into this complicated character is a joy and a challenge, as she is different from any character I have previously played.
What drew you to the Lyric Theatre @ Illinois program?
I attended the ISYM Musical Theatre camp before my senior year of high school. While at the camp, I was lucky enough to study with Professor Harris, and to work with Professors Wigley and Tilley. There was no turning back. The opportunity to cross-train as a singer, actor and dancer in a Big 10 program was all I could as for.
How has Lyric Theatre @ Illinois helped you as a performer/artist?
I have had the opportunity to explore every aspect of that which is sung theatre. No other program could have offered me the diversity of experiences on stage from La Boheme to Crazy for You.
What is one of your favorite Lyric Theatre @ Illinois memories?
Sharing a stage and collaborating with my extraordinarily talented, wonderful, spirit-building friends and roommates. I have also dearly loved watching the studio recitals and performances of my classmates. Professor Tilley's attempts to teach me a cockney accent will also live on as a favorite LTI memory.
What was it like at the Ozark Actors Theatre this past summer?
I performed in Mary Poppins, Our Town, and My Fair Lady. During my summer there, I worked with three different creative teams and an incredible company of actors. I taught at the Broadway Bound Summer Camp directed by Taylor Louderman, the original Regina George in Mean Girls on Broadway. I learned so much about the discipline and commitment it takes to sustain a career in this field, but also how joyful and impactful performing can be.
Anna has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama by the Broadway World 2019 Regional Awards for her roles as Professor Willard and Mrs. Soames in Our Town at the Ozark Actors Theater. You can cast your vote for her through December 31st, 2019 here: www.broadwayworld.com/st-louis/voteregion.cfm
You can keep up with Anna at her website: https://annabenoit.com/
Our season may be over, but you can catch our students performing all over Illinois, the Midwest, and the world this summer!
“I’ve always felt like I have a compositional voice...something to say that isn’t there.”
That voice started before she was even in grade school, when Elizabeth Gartman remembers sitting at the piano and writing songs to entertain her family. She may not have known she was composing at the time, but her love of creating music followed her as she grew up and throughout high school when she took an independent study that allowed her to learn about compositional software and compose works for her high school choir.
When Gartman came to the School of Music at UIUC she originally started as strictly a voice major but missed having the opportunity to compose. Faculty member Erin Ghee took Gartman under her wing and helped her put together a composition portfolio that allowed her to be admitted to the composition program, in addition to her voice performance degree, starting in the spring semester of her freshman year.
In addition to it being her own primary instrument, Gartman thinks there is something really special about writing for the voice. “There is so much expression that is so specific to the voice and also incorporates the element of theatre that you can’t get out of other instruments.” When librettist Susan Bywaters approached Gartman in a coffee shop about collaborating on an opera, she jumped at the chance.
The two quickly started working together with Bywater’s libretto taken from the life of John Murray Spears. The opera, entitled The New Motive Power refers to the machine John Murray Spear aspired to build in the 1850’s that he believed would be our new messiah and could connect the world with invisible wires. The opera tells the story of John Murray’s inspiration and creation of the machine. Gartman was immediately drawn to the relevancy of the story and its connections to our relationships to technology and religion today.
Gartman says her and Bywaters are equal collaborators in the process, but the libretto always comes first. Currently, Gartman is composing the music for Act II while Bywaters continues on writing the libretto for Act III. “Composing for opera is totally different than composing for anything else,” Gartman says. “You can’t just write pretty music, you have to write music that is true to each character and what they want.”
Elizabeth credits both the composition faculty and Lyric Theatre @ Illinois faculty in helping her to find her compositional voice and giving students opportunity to explore and develop new work. Last year, Elizabeth was involved in a workshop performance with LTI in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects of Prism, which went on this year to be performed at Prototype Festival and LA Opera. “The faculty here have so much experience with new works and I feel so fortunate to be able to develop something with the faculty guidance of professors like Dr. Davis, Dr. Gunn, and Dr. Tharp.”
In the Opera Scenes workshop performance of Act II in the spring, which will feature LTI students, Elizabeth is hoping for an informative experience that will help the duo to move forward with the goal of a fully staged and fully orchestrated performance in 2020. “This experience is all about receiving feedback and how we can make it a more effective story.”
We are so proud of the work that Elizabeth has done here at Lyric Theatre and the University of Illinois and are excited to be continuing our support and promotion of new works with one that was developed right at home! Mark your calendars to see Act II of The New Motive Power performed by the Opera Scenes class on May 1 at 7:30pm in the Tryon Festival Theatre, and visit the link below to hear a sample of The New Motive Power and Elizabeth’s other compositions:
For many music students, a week full of classes, rehearsals, and time in the practice room is enough for the great college balancing act. Now add traveling to New York City and premiering two brand new musicals in one semester. For some it’d be too much, but for 19-year old sophomore Lyric Theatre major Sophia Byrd, it’s about more than just another chance to perform. “I want to use my artistic platform for a purpose.”
Sophia found her love of music singing in the Chicago Children’s Choir. While college brought her to Urbana-Champaign, her connections with the Children’s Choir have continued to provide opportunity. One of those opportunities was this past October, when Sophia traveled to New York City to perform a brand new musical.
Place, written by USC composition professor Ted Hearne, features a six person cast and tells the story of gentrification and displacement in Chicago. While the role Sophia performed was originally written for Allison Sims (a UIUC alum herself), scheduling conflicts for the New York production found Sophia bumped up from understudy to leading lady.
Fully produced by Beth Morrison Projects and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Place features just about every musical element a singer could ever run into all in one piece. “It has everything. Classical, atonal, post-tonal, contemporary. Each number was a different genre,” Byrd said, sighting her combined jazz and classical training as instrumental in helping her learn the piece.
When asked what experiences as a part of Lyric Theatre were most helpful during her process, Byrd also immediately sighted faculty members. “I could not have done this without Sarah Wigley. She helped me with vocal technique, all the way up to the day of the performance. She’s completely changed the way I think about singing.”
Sophia initially came to UIUC to major in jazz vocal performance for the opportunity to write her own music. However, her involvement with projects like Place has found her passions drifting elsewhere. “I’ve realized that performing someone else’s words gives you so much more freedom to actually focus on bringing a message to life, which is so different from actual composition.”
This month finds Sophia back in New York City premiering The Good Swimmer through the BAM New Wave Festival. While the end of the semester brings more tests, final projects, and deadlines than usual, it’s not stopping Sophia from being involved in projects she’s passionate about. From one show onto another, and we can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.