Talent, hard work propel Naperville skater-turned-actor as an understudy in 'The Notebook'
You won't see Alex Benoit on stage every night in "The Notebook." But if you do see him during Chicago Shakespeare Theater's world premiere, it's likely because the show would not have gone on without him. Literally.
The Naperville native is one of six understudies in the new musical adapted by composer/lyricist Ingrid Michaelson and writer Bekah Brunstetter from Nicholas Sparks' best-selling 1996 novel and its 2004 film counterpart. Prepared to step in at a moment's notice for an indisposed principal, Benoit covers six roles. It's a challenge memorizing dialogue, songs and blocking for six characters, but the former competitive figure skater-turned-actor is accustomed to those.
Less than five years ago, he was training in Michigan, competing internationally for Team USA and attending theater classes at Oakland University.
"I needed to be in the rink as much as I could, but I knew I wanted to better myself as an actor and artist, so I maintained a full academic schedule and performed in shows," he said.
He rose about 4:30 a.m., skated from 6 a.m. to noon, attended classes from 1 to 6:30 p.m., rehearsed from 7 p.m. to sometimes 1 a.m. then slept for a few hours before waking and doing it all over again.
Encouraged by family and friends, he made sacrifices to pursue his art and his sport while also maintaining his place on the dean's list.
"As long as you're doing things you're passionate about, there's always a way," he said.
The 26-year-old comes by his athleticism naturally. His father played Division I football at Northwestern University and his mother was an accomplished ice dancer during the 1980s, who also judged national championships.
As a child, Benoit -- the youngest of three boys -- played baseball, football, hockey and other sports before taking up figure skating at age 8.
Along with athletics, the arts figured prominently in the Benoit household. At 9, to improve his skating, he began taking dance classes at Naperville's School of Performing Arts. That sparked an interest in musical theater, which prompted him to participate in "a smorgasbord of creative and athletic endeavors."
"For a while, I did everything capable of fitting into my schedule," said the Naperville North High School graduate, who in addition to skating competitively in middle and high school, did theater and performed with the show choir.
He earned bronze medals at the Junior Figure Skating Championships in 2009 and 2010. He switched to ice dancing at age 16 following an injury and competed nationally and internationally with partner Elliana Pogrebinsky, coming in fourth at the 2017 U.S. National Championships and seventh in the 2018 competition.
He retired in 2018 to devote himself to theater full time.
"It was a scary decision," he said, "but I felt in my heart I was supposed to be somewhere else, doing something else."
The talent, hard work and determination that earned him success on the ice rink also earned him success on Chicago-area stages. He worked consistently, appearing in Drury Lane Theatre's "Mamma Mia!" and "Matilda" before playing Rapunzel's prince in Writers Theatre's Jeff Award-winning "Into the Woods."
Eager for more training, Benoit applied to the masters program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 2019.
"I didn't think I'd get in. They have such a low acceptance rate," he said.
But two months later, he learned he'd been admitted to the program in what he described as a wonderfully opportune moment. It was in London that he met his wife, actress Jordan Ashley Grier, then a fellow LAMDA student.
"I like to think that my life is a series of beautifully serendipitous moments," said Benoit, who attributes his success partly to being in the right place at the right time with the right mindset.
Among them is "The Notebook," which marks his first time on stage since the COVID-19 pandemic. Benoit acknowledges the challenges of adapting a beloved book and film to the stage, but says Michaelson and Brunstetter have crafted a story that feels both familiar and fresh that he believes audiences will find rewarding.
"Hopefully, any time you make a piece of art it touches someone," Benoit said. "I'm grateful every day that we get to do that."
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When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 30
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (312) 595-5600, chicagoshakes.com
COVID-19 precautions: Masks recommended