Knoxville’s own Shamicka Benn, a 2001 graduate of Bearden High School, is returning to Knoxville this weekend with Chicago the Musical. Shamicka fondly remembers her high school musical days under the direction of Leann Dickson. Mrs. Dickson made a great impact on Shamicka, who she says prepared her incredibly well for a career in professional theatre. We caught up with Shamicka as she readies for her second Chicago tour at the Tennessee Theatre.
TT: What are some of your best memories of growing up in Knoxville?
SB: My family time. Both my Momma, Leslie Garner, and my late, Daddy, Juan Anthony Benn Sr. are both from Knoxville so they generously shared their childhood favorites with me. I adored my fishing catastrophes (because I usually caught more tree branches than I caught fish). I always enjoyed multiple trips to the annual Tennessee Valley Fair. And countless sunsets playing in our backyard, and Tyson and Fountain City parks. The performing opportunities I was given. I grew up training at Cindy Houston’s studio, called The Dance Agency, where I began falling in love with the gift of the stage. I loved performing in the Dogwood Arts’ Festival, fundraisers to raise money and awareness for St. Jude’s Hospital, in the Fantasy of Trees and the Christmas parade through Downtown, Knoxville. It gave me confidence to audition for shows at Bearden High School under the brilliant direction of Leann Dickson who prepared me for a plethora of shows I had the honor of doing at our very own Bijou Theatre.
TT: You graced the stage of the Tennessee when you were young and again in 2008 with a previous tour of Chicago. What do you remember most about those experiences?
SB: What I remember most about the Tennessee Theater is the chandelier adorned, grand raked foyer that led you into the lobby. I remember walking down that slope with all my costumes, at the end of a full day of dress rehearsal, and feeling like I was living the dream, even at ten years old. I remember how wide the balcony felt as I searched for my Daddy with his prized video camera. And the vintage, spinning dressing room stools where my Mom worked the assembly line as the fastest and tightest french braider.
TT: You’ve been with the Chicago tour for several years. How do you think you’ve changed as a performer during that time?
SB: I think the biggest thing that has changed for me as a performer over the last 10 years is trusting myself. When I started this show I was intimidated by the gift of welcoming the audience into our world for the next 2.5 hours. I also used to be restricted by the fear of “messing up” in this show, but as I’ve gotten older I understand that life is messy. The stories of the women in this Cooke County Jail are based on true stories and I myself, survived through some of that heart ache in a way that revealed to me the strength I had in me just like these women. I have taken the advice of some of our industry’s legends and constantly remind myself that this is a “play” so I do more of that.
TT: What’s your favorite Broadway show? Aside from Chicago, of course!
SB: The first Broadway show I ever saw was C.A.T.S. and I fell in love with the transformation those performers took on to tell their jellicle stories. It’s always had a special place in my heart ever since.
TT: We have a program called Youth Arts Alliance that provides subsidized tickets to area students to see Broadway shows. One of our hopes is budding performers will be inspired to chase their dreams after seeing a performance. We read that seeing Chicago with your dance studio when you were younger was a turning point for you. What hooked you and inspired you to shoot for Broadway?
SB: It takes a village!!! Growing up my family was financially blessed but there were times when the weight of my parents’ investment in my talents would be too much and “the village” would appear. I’m referring to the fact that I always felt that I had aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers, dear friends and their parents who invested in me and enabled me to continue to be enriched with opportunities to attend shows and stay inspired. Because of the love and support of my community I felt limitless and that’s how I wandered courageously down the path to Broadway.
TT: What advice would you give a high school student who wants to pursue musical theatre?
SB: “FILL YOUR CRAYON BOX!” I have the gift of partnering with a company called Broadway Connection that contacts local dance studios along our tour route, to allow us to come teach choreography from the show. We always conclude with a Q&A and I always tell the kids “collect as many crayons as you can so that your box is equipped to color a wide range of pictures”. Translation: Learn as much as you can and develop each skill so that you are more valuable and versatile in your career.
TT: Knoxville has grown so much in the last several years, particularly downtown Knoxville. Is there anything in particular that you plan to check out while you’re here?
SB: I am super excited about being able to enjoy Market Square with my friends and loved ones after one of the shows. I’ve heard it’s filled with many charming restaurants!
TT: The Tennessee Theatre has also grown in the last few years with more and more programming and patrons, and our Broadway series is more popular than ever. We have record numbers of subscribers and ticket sales continue to increase. What role do you think arts and culture plays in a city like Knoxville?
SB: Arts and culture bring to life the voices and stories of all people in a way that people can bear. I’ve always been so grateful to be a part of the entertainment industry because of the escape we provide to patrons attending, but also because of the responsibility I have to provoke a thought process of awareness to greatness or injustice that otherwise might have not occurred. Our town deserves to be enchanted and enlightened.