Sylvie Benson ’25 is a singer and songwriter who will be playing one of the lead roles in the theater department’s upcoming production of “Rent.”
“Rent” is a rock musical centered on a group of young musicians trying to survive in 1980s New York amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Benson will be playing one of the musicians, Roger. Though Benson identifies as a woman, she said that portraying a man was not an issue for her.
“I feel like playing a man is not a deep challenge just because, [although] I very much identify with femininity, I also feel like I have a bit of masculinity within me that I can sink into [and] draw upon,” she said.
Benson elaborated that playing Roger has made her more conscious of both her physicality and tone. She said that her vocal coach at Dartmouth, Louis Burkot, has helped her prepare for the role.
“I have some really low parts because Roger, being written for a man, is a tenor…And [Burkot] has helped me figure out how to access a more masculine sound in my voice, a fuller sound in the lower section of my voice…and how to do that healthily,” she said.
Decker Jackson ’25, who is also a part of the ensemble for “Rent,” commented on Benson’s portrayal of Roger.
“Never in my life have I seen Roger played by someone who identifies as female, and I think she’s absolutely killing it,” Jackson said. “… She’s got the rocker persona going on, [the angst], she’s got the leather jacket … She does it really well,” said Jackson.
“Rent” is not Benson’s first experience with performing arts at Dartmouth. She has previously performed her original songs through Dartmouth’s Friday Night Rock, a student-run organization that hosts free concerts. In preparation for her performance last fall, Benson arranged a set of nine original songs and recruited fellow student musicians Jackson on keyboard and Connor Norris ’25 on guitar.
Benson explained how opening for musician Eartheater on Oct. 29, 2021 through FNR was an amazing opportunity.
“I had never gotten to play a set of my original songs in front of a crowd before,” she said. “I [had] played one song here and there around my county, but this was my first real concert, and I was getting paid for it too.”
Though she was nervous about certain technical aspects of her performance, she explained that her nerves dissipated once she was on stage.
“I was really nervous about the finger work on my guitar and my voice not coming through,” she said. “But when I got up there, I just realized everyone is there to walk into the room of the song that I’ve built, they’re there to enjoy the music and they want me to succeed.”
Elaborating on the supportive environment of the concert, Benson noted the audience’s attentiveness and their willingness to listen.
“[The first song] was very soft and it was about laying in this grassy field, just allowing your worries to slip away, and it seemed like people were really willing to embrace that message … That was where I was like ‘They actually care and they want to hear what I have to share,’” she said.
Jackson, who performed alongside Benson, described his experience with their collaboration.
“You’ll play [music] with people and it won’t be a super fun experience or it’s not super inclusive, but playing with Sylvie wasn’t that way,” Jackson said. “She’s really energetic and excited about music, and really willing to alter her style, or take suggestions.”
Benson’s close friend Gwendolyn Roland ‘25 also commented on her FNR performance.
“You can kind of tell when people have that knack for performing … and you can tell with Sylvie because she is just as good a performer in her dorm sitting on the floor trying not to wake up the downstairs neighbors as she is in Sarner Underground [in] full costume, full lights,” Roland said.
Of the nine original songs she performed, “The Clock” and “Didn’t Sign Up for This” were written by Benson for Savon, a band in her hometown that she has been a part of since 2020. Both of these songs became available on Spotify this past winter with the release of Savon’s first album “Stuck on the Large,” which features seven songs co-written by Benson.
Benson’s prior band experience inspired her goal of forming a band at Dartmouth.
“I want to make a full band with other students here who want to be musicians as their career,” she said. “… I’m looking for people that I can move forward with beyond college.”
While speaking about her future ambitions, Benson expressed her passion for genre-blending, a technique utilized by her favorite rock band, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.
“I just think there’s so many incredible types of music in the world … [Genre] blending is so inspiring to me,” she said. “It’s my goal to one day be able to create psychedelic folk music.”
Through her songwriting, Benson wishes to impart messages of environmentalism, including an appreciation for the natural world.
“Most of my songs have motifs related to nature somehow because I think it’s such a powerful force,” she said. “It’s just this unbiased space where you can process your emotions.”
She mentioned how AURORA, a Norwegian singer and songwriter, has been an important source of inspiration for her in embedding environmental activism within her songs.
“[AURORA] is able to create these environmental anthems that maybe don’t seem like they are initially,” she said. “And because of that, they are able to creep into your mind with their beautiful melodies and imagery and then you’re willing to listen.”