In the “Aha!” Moment // By Mikaela Bennett

Actor Mikaela Bennett shows up to rehearsal and, despite her Juilliard training, is delightfully unprepared.

Re·nas·cence (rəˈnasns, rēˈnasns):
The revival of something that has been dormant.
When Artistic Director Jack Cummings III called and asked me to contribute to Transport Group’s “While We’re Home” essay series, instantly I knew I would end up writing a love letter to this incredibly special theatre company who, in our short time together, made such a large impact on my relationship to my artist-self.
I was fresh out of college.  I had just graduated from The Juilliard School with a Bachelor’s Degree in Opera and had declined a full scholarship to return for my master’s degree largely because I had this immense craving to follow my heart back to its first love, musical theatre, to see if she would take me back after some time apart and see where our relationship would take us if she accepted me.  I am so grateful I did.
Shortly after making this decision, I met a team of creatives who changed my world forever and continue to do so to this day.  I was asked to join the company of Renascence, a world premiere musical about the life and work of American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, with music by Carmel Dean, book by Dick Scanlan, co-directed by Jack Cummings III and Dick Scanlan, and choreographed by Scott Rink.  This was my first time working on a new musical and originating a theatre role.  My only other experience in the New York theatre scene, at the time, was working at City Center Encores! which was a very different experience because of how quickly those productions go up.  So, I showed up to our first rehearsal for Renascence with all of the knowledge I acquired from my opera degree, which was to study and coach all of your music and be off book and ready to perform before you enter for your first rehearsal.  Well, was I in for a treat on our first day!

I was in complete shock when we all sat around the piano together as a company and our brilliant music director, Geraldine Anello, plunked through and taught everyone their music, one by one, note by note, while we all got to experience the intimate moments of each other’s musical journey.  Or at our first table read, where again, we were all sitting together as a company, everyone present—open to discovery without expectation—and ready to create through the collaboration of each person’s vulnerability and what they naturally could contribute to the artistic conversation of that moment.  I was completely overwhelmed and intimidated, yet completely entranced by the magic I was seeing happen—inspired to find where I somehow fit in, and how I could get to that place of artistic freedom.  I had never seen it before in a rehearsal space.
While in college, my coaches and teachers would speak about the artist’s “process” and experiencing those “aha! moments”—you couldn’t force those breakthroughs to happen, but when they did, you would forever be enlightened.  I never understood what they meant by that.  Sure, I graduated from conservatory training and left with so much new knowledge about newfound passions, my abilities, techniques, expanded repertoire, and all the things you hope to get out of your arts education.  Yet, I still didn’t feel like I knew myself as an artist.  My body and voice still felt somewhat foreign to me, regardless of how many years I spent solely focusing on myself as a student.
I spent so much of my time in rehearsals obsessively watching and absorbing my colleagues’ work in the room—completely inspired and blown away by their brilliance and vulnerability.  I was eagerly studying their process while also being a part of the process myself.  One of the things about this experience that I am most thankful for is the way Jack and Dick naturally created that vulnerable, open space when it was needed.  Time after time, we would be working on a scene and they would stop us and ask various personal questions and prompts to get us out of the scene and into our bodies, and to find connection between not only ourselves and the characters we were creating, but connection between each other as actors and colleagues.  Sometimes these discussions would last for a long time, making the very obvious point that these moments, breakthroughs, or shall I say personal “aha! moments”, were just as important as the words or music on the page.
It was not about being vocally perfect and beautiful all of the time, or having perfect rhythmic accuracy every moment, or perfect diction, or perfect placement or technique—all of the things that I had been intensely studying for years as a student.  It was about being in the moment which is, in turn, your perfect artist-self.  This experience awakened something in my soul that has allowed me to discover the parts of myself that I had been curiously craving for so long and opened the door to further self-discovery and artistic hunger.
Because of this experience, my toolbelt has become better equipped and more readily available and more accepting of the process it takes to build an artist.  It has enhanced the performer and collaborator I am today: a more curious artist who is willing to go into the unknown and play.  I felt like I finally knew the path to finding out who I was as an artist, what I wanted to contribute, and how to collaborate.  And through taking these moments to stop focusing on myself and let others in, I found that promised enlightenment.
It only makes sense to be in a renascence of your own when you’re working on a show titled Renascence.  This show, like Ms. Millay, gifted me with a re-birth that has changed my outlook on what it means to be an artist.  My expectations have changed not only for myself but for those who are creating with and around me.  This experience and specifically this theatre company, the way they work, the artists they choose to be in the room, the creative playground and safe space they demand, and the excellence that blossoms out of the insistence of self-discovery has set the standard for what I hope every opportunity to collaborate will entail.  It was the gift I never expected to receive yet accepted with open arms.
It was there I learned the beauty of vulnerability.  The beauty of the unknown.  The beauty of discovery.  The beauty of truly being in the moment.  And most importantly, the beauty of being a good listener, not only through ears, but through an open artistic soul.  Thank you, Transport Group, for giving me this precious gift, that I now share with others.

About the author:

Mikaela Bennett is a graduate of The Juilliard School and is celebrated as a singer and actress for her work on stage and in the concert hall.  She most recently appeared as a featured soloist in Daniel Fish’s concert conception of The Most Happy Fella at Bard SummerScape and made her Festival Napa Valley debut as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi under the baton of Kent Nagano.  In 2020, Ms. Bennett had the distinct honor to appear as a featured soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel performing Aurora written by Wayne Shorter.  In 2019, Mikaela was honored by Lincoln Center with a “Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists.”  In May 2019, Mikaela made her critically acclaimed debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago playing Maria in West Side Story.  In July 2019, Mikaela starred in the title role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella at The Muny.  In August 2019, Mikaela returned to the BBC Proms (where she had previously played Maria in West Side Story) with the John Wilson Orchestra performing music from the Warner Brothers film studio which was broadcast live on British television.  In November 2019, she sang the role of Mary Wintergreen in MasterVoices’ concert production of Gershwin’s Let ‘Em Eat Cake at Carnegie Hall.