Tony Winner Karen Olivo On Returning to the Stage After Leaving NYC Behind in Search of a "Full Life"

Last seen on the New York City stage in Murder Ballad — an experience she described as "going into battle" — Tony Award winner Karen Olivo refreshes and refocuses at her new home in Madison, WI, and preps for a short summer return to NYC.

Karen Olivo
Karen Olivo (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

*

When Karen Olivo called from her new home in Madison, WI, to chat about life post-Broadway, she immediately explained, "Art has never been an issue." The actress posted on her personal blog March 18, 2013, that she was "transitioning" into a new phase and leaving New York City show business behind. She cited a split from her second husband, an internal struggle and tough breaks in the biz as reasons to head out of town.

Not realizing her message — intended for fans and friends — would go viral, Olivo was faced with additional anxiety before taking the final leap after closing the first Off-Broadway incarnation of the hit musical Murder Ballad. The performer, exploring new artistic freedoms, has kept a low profile since then.

"Murder Ballad was the hardest thing I've ever done because it exhausted me emotionally as well as vocally and physically," she confided to Playbill.com. "I started to think, when I was crawling back to my apartment nightly, 'Yeah, that was really great work, and I'm proud of what me and my castmates have done,' but then I kept thinking, 'I'm going home alone again…' I'm going to ice my knees and cover my cuts and my bruises and go on vocal rest and hopefully order something in and fall asleep in front of the TV, and I don't think this is the life I want to live. I can't even see my friends because the work is asking so much of me…"

She thought, "This is no way to live. This is no way to live for barely cutting it monetarily. That's when it really started to weigh on me. Something is very uneven. For what I'm putting in, I'm not getting nearly enough back. I'm not getting refilled, and I've never been one of those people [who] love to say, 'It's the applause that fills you.' That's bullshit. It actually isn't. You need a full life. You need something outside of adoration from fans and things like that because then you don't have anything to draw from when you're on stage. I realized I was depleting my life — my personal life had withered away to nothing, and here I was trying to draw from the well that had run dry."

Will Swenson and Karen Olivo in Murder Ballad
Photo by Joan Marcus

Olivo, a tried and true New Yorker — having been born in the city before relocating to Florida (and later attending the University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music) — made her Broadway debut in Rent, starred in the short-lived musical Brooklyn, rose to fame as Vanessa in In the Heights and won a Best Featured Actress Tony Award for her portrayal of Anita in the 2009 revival of West Side Story. As her career rose, her social life began to decline. The high performance standards she held for herself took a toll on her relationships, and she described herself as "self-involved and insecure."

"I think before [moving to Wisconsin], I was a really great actor and singer, and I could hold up the things that I needed to do," she admitted, "but I don't think that I was the best person."

She added, "When you're 'in it,' you don't realize that your personal life is on display a lot, and I guess I had never really had a taste of what privacy feels like. When you're coming up, it doesn't really matter — you almost want everyone to know everything about you because you are trying to make a name for yourself — but when you get to a point which real things start happening in your life, you don't want everyone, [including] your Twitter feed, to be a part of that. I realized that I neglected the privacy and the personal in favor of exposure, and so I started pulling all of that back, and Wisconsin is the place to do that."

In Madison, Olivo feels like ("And this is going to sound crazy," she said) she is exploring more art than she ever did in New York or Los Angeles. Aside from dipping into different musical styles — in preparation for a new album, funded through Kickstarter — Olivo enjoys visual art, writing as a contributing artist for local company Theatre LILA and, most importantly, teaching musical theatre styles at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Her newfound love for teaching, she said, is even helping her prepare for her next artistic endeavor — returning to the New York City stage (for an extremely limited stint) in Jonathan Larson's tick, tick… BOOM! as part of Encores! Off-Center. "Being an educator now, having to stand on the other side of the table, and critiquing people and talking about process [is] helping me as an artist to see material from so many different perspectives," she said. "Even now that I'm writing with Theatre LILA, too, I have to think about, 'What's the voice? Is the voice clear? How is the actor supposed to interpret the voice? Are there any bumps in the writing that I can smooth out?' I feel like I get to have a lot of hats on. I guess I could have done that in New York, but New York — when you're 'in it,' and you're on the treadmill, and you're running as fast as you can, it's really hard to see that you can change the incline and you can slow it down if you want."

Olivo will play Susan in tick, tick… BOOM!, which will run June 25-28 at New York City Center, and she's most excited that her family is planning to see the show and that she is reuniting with her In the Heights co-star and close friend Lin-Manuel Miranda.

"When Lin brought this up to me that they were doing tick, tick… BOOM!, it was a no-brainer," she said. Miranda mentioned the production was in the works, and Olivo immediately took interest in the project since Larson's work holds a special place in her heart.

Robin De Jesus and Karen Olivo in In the Heights.
Photo by Joan Marcus

During her first week at the Nederlander, when she made her Broadway debut in Rent, "one of the swings said, 'They have a video tape of Jonathan down in the green room,' and we had this grainy, little TV. It was a VHS tape," she recalled. "And, he was like, 'Yeah, they think everyone should watch it so you can actually see him perform,' and the first thing that I saw him perform was — I think it was at a cabaret, something that someone taped of him doing — 'Sunday' from tick, tick… BOOM!, and I remember being honored that I actually got to see him perform, and every single night, I had to go up and retell a story that he wasn't there to tell."

Olivo will play opposite Miranda, who stars as aspiring composer Jon (based on the late, Pulitzer and Tony-winning Larson), and she has already begun to dig into the depths of Susan.

"The thing that I already know about the way Jonathan wrote women is that he reveres them, and all of them are a mystery," she said. "They're these floating apparitions, but they sew everything together. Without them, you have no story, so with this, I kind of feel like there's a reason that there's only one woman in it, and there's a reason that she plays all of the women in his life — the ones who mean the most — and I kind of get that. I like that he makes the women in his shows play everything. They have to have so much diversity, and that's the challenge, too."

Aside from making new friends, finding a theatre community in town and cultivating conversation (where "we didn't have to talk about theatre or TV shows," she said with a laugh), Olivo will be assistant directing a production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at Wisconsin's Four Seasons Theatre following tick, tick… BOOM!.

"I think this might be the takeaway, and I'm not really sure," she said. "I'm only at the very beginning of learning the most interesting things about myself, and it was really important for me to take the success and the idea of who I should be — the personality stuff — out of my way to see that I had a really long road ahead of me. I think that it's making me a better person, and that's the only thing that I'm really, really interested in." As for a return to the city, "I don't think that I'm going to be going to New York for anything, [but] I can't say for sure," she said. "I always keep all the doors and the windows open."

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)