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Karen Olivo Finds Fulfillment in Fun Home in Madison, Wisconsin

After Hamilton and Moulin Rouge!, Olivo takes the stage once again in her adopted hometown.

When Karen Olivo announced that she was giving up a life on Broadway to move to Madison, Wisconsin in 2013, many thought they'd never get to see the West Side Story Tony winner onstage ever again.

Not so.

In fact, Olivo has maintained a busy and prosperous theater career for herself. In 2016, she did West Side Story in Austria, followed by a nearly yearlong stint as Angelica Schuyler in the Chicago production of Hamilton. She started teaching at Northwestern and released a solo album. She played Florence in Chess at the Kennedy Center in February, and Satine in the Boston tryout of Moulin Rouge! this past summer.

Now, she's back in Madison, and playing Alison in Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's musical Fun Home at the Forward Theater. The experience of working on this particular show — which she says "inspired and decimated" her upon her first viewing — is a mightily fulfilling one, and exactly what she's been looking for since the move.

And it's a family affair. Olivo's sister-in-law, Jennifer Uphoff Gray, is directing, and Olivo's husband, James Uphoff, is the sound designer. But there's more: Everyone involved is making art for the sake of it. "They realize that there are other things in the world that matter," Olivo explains. And that has made all the difference.

Karen Olivo stars in Fun Home at Forward Theater in Madison, Wisconsin.
(© David Gordon)

How did this production of Fun Home come about for you?
My sister-in-law is the artistic director of Forward Theater here in Madison, and I've been on their advisory committee since a little after I moved here in 2013. I've been trying to find a piece to do with this company, because I really respect them. They do great work. But my schedule, as you can imagine, has been kind of crazy. This was the first opening I had, and I jumped at the chance. It is a miraculous piece of theater.

For those of us who don't know much about Forward Theater, tell us a little bit about the company.
Forward Theater is in its 10th season, and they have been the only professional theater with Equity contracts in Madison for some time. What I love is that they pick things that are pretty critically acclaimed, and that they involve people in the community. They make sure they can hire as many professional local actors as possible, and then they do a hefty amount of outreach based on the piece, so not only does Forward do great artistic work, what they do for the community is really important to them as well.

How has living and working in Madison changed the way you look at theater?
Before I moved to Madison, I was a little bit of a theater snob. I thought that all of the good theater was happening in New York or Chicago, and no one else could possibly be doing anything good. And then I fell in love someone who was living here. Every time I came here, I would see theater and I was blown away by the level of detail, how specific every actor was, and how these people take it as seriously as we would on Broadway. It really broke the myth wide open for me.

These people are all incredible artists and they do so many other things. They're not immersed in the entertainment business the way we can be when we're on the coast. It allows you a more well-rounded experience, I think. I've been going away to do big, splashy things, and then come back here and no one really cares what I did in Boston. They're like, "Hey, what's in your garden?"

Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit in Moulin Rouge!
(© Matthew Murphy)

I'll bug you about Boston, then! How was your Moulin Rouge! experience?
It was an incredible experience. It was more work than I've ever done. I've never been the lead of a splashy, big-budget musical like that. I've never been that kind of tired. But it was so rewarding. I loved the responsibility of having to be the face of a company. The things those performers would do nightly would leave me in awe. We created our own tight-knit group of misfits and really bonded. I love them dearly.

Fun Home is the opposite end of the spectrum. Tell me about this production.
Our production is very different from any production you'll ever see because we all look different. Our Small Alison is African-American; our Medium Alison is closer to what you would see if you saw the Broadway production, and then me! [laughs] That's the only big difference. The piece itself is structurally sound, so there's no need to get groundbreaking in any other way than the representation of different identities, which is incredibly important.

What are you finding to be the most fulfilling part of building Fun Home?
When you do theater in New York or Chicago or Boston or out of town, there's so much pressure put on the monetary part of it. Are we selling tickets? Will this move? Is there buzz? No one is expecting this to propel their careers. These people are carving out art because they want to. There's something so pure about that.

I'm inspired by the younger actors that I get to work with, and these older local actors who are tackling a piece that is difficult for all of us. They dive so deep. As Alison, much of my show is observational. I set the scene, I watch it play out, and you only find out how I feel about it at the very end. I get to ride incredible waves with these actors, who are fearless and giving everything.

Rachael Zientek, Karen Olivo, and Chantae Miller in Fun Home at Forward Theater.
(© Ross Zentner)
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