Why Karen Olivo Left the Big City
By STEVEN McElroy
Fans of Karen Olivo could hardly have been surprised when she belted out what Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called a “rafter-rattling performance” of “Come to Your Senses” at City Center last weekend. They knew this Tony Award-winning actress could sing, so her well-received turn in the Encores! Off-Center presentation of “Tick, Tick ... Boom!,” which grapples with the sacrifices it takes to make a life in the theater, was to be expected.
Then again, that she was on a New York stage at all was a bit unusual. Hadn’t she made a decision much like her dancer character in the show and retired from performing?
Early last year, Ms. Olivo, 37 and a 2009 Tony winner for “West Side Story,” announced in a blog post that she was “starting over.” Shortly thereafter, she left New York for Madison, Wis. “It took a good look at what I was capable of to see that what I was giving away for the price of a ticket was a fraction of me,” she wrote in a message that concluded, “I leave behind the actor, and I start learning how to be me.”
The aftermath of the post was “like a game of telephone,” Ms. Olivo said on Sunday afternoon, the day after she finished the short run of “Tick, Tick ... Boom!,” an autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, author of “Rent.” Her visit to New York was temporary, and she had never planned to quit entirely, she said. She also didn’t intend for that sayonara message, meant for the small circle of friends who were reading her blog, to become Such a Big Deal among theater people.
In a career that started before she finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, Ms. Olivo enjoyed plum opportunities in “Rent,” “Brooklyn the Musical“ and “In the Heights.” She was a series regular on “Harry’s Law,” a television job that had her living in Los Angeles for a while.
But there were plenty of defeats, too, on both coasts: demoralizing auditions, readings and workshops that paid little and went nowhere, periods when she barely worked the minimum number of weeks to keep up her Actors’ Equity health insurance and a stint as “the worst waiter there ever was.”
Ms. Olivo’s last job before leaving town was in the Off Broadway production of “Murder Ballad,” a physically demanding show that, she said, ultimately broke her down. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I did not expect it to be as hard as it was,” she said. “I had just split with my second husband, and I had a lot of emotional baggage.” She decided, she said, to step off the treadmill.
Today, her world is quite different. Ms. Olivo lives with her fiancé, James Uphoff, another former New Yorker, who works for Electronic Theater Controls in Middleton, Wis. They met a decade ago, when she was in “Brooklyn” and he was a sound technician on the show. At the time, they were just friends who rode the subway home to Brooklyn (the actual place) together.
In New York, Ms. Olivo said, “I was a full-time actor with very little personal life, and now it’s a fraction of my life.
“I was also operating like an actor in life,” she added, “which is scary — constantly wanting people to like me and thinking that I had to promote myself and the truth is, in life, you don’t need to do that.” She felt it was important to remove herself from the scene and have “regular conversations with people about things that have nothing to do with pilot season or what is going to be nominated for a Tony,” she said.
Ms. Olivo seemed serene and chatty on Sunday. Her time in Madison has included teaching musical theater performance at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, working on a CD and doing some writing for a theater company called Theater Lila.
Oh, and she makes pottery.
“Tick, Tick ... Boom!” is about a musical theater composer, much like its creator, who struggles financially and artistically, and watches some of those close to him give up the theater, tired of being broke and underappreciated. It was Lin-Manuel Miranda, her co-star in “In the Heights” and who portrayed the Larson character in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” who thought of casting Ms. Olivo in the show. He presented the idea to the director, Oliver Butler, who agreed. When Mr. Miranda asked Ms. Olivo to come to New York to join him in the show, she said, she did not hesitate. “If I feel it in my stomach and think I’m supposed to do it I just don’t think about the logistics,” she said. Do the reviews have her hungry for more? Not necessarily.
“This is the thing Madison has given me as far as perspective,” Ms. Olivo she said. “It is fast, it is furious, you’re everyone’s favorite and then every show ends, and the only things that really stay current in your life or are substantial are the bonds that we have with people.”
Now that “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” has ended, Ms. Olivo was planning to spend a few more days in New York, seeing some other shows (being unable to see friends’ performances is one of the downsides to having left the city, she said) before heading back to her more peaceful life in Madison. One more benefit of that move became clear in performance only last weekend, she said: Performing is less arduous now.
“It was easy, and that is hard to say, and I think it had to do with the fact that I loved doing it,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to do it because I was thinking about reviews or expectations or anything like that. That wouldn’t have been able to happen years ago.”