Karen Olivo to Make Directorial Debut — Her Personal Connection During a Time of "Transition"

News   Karen Olivo to Make Directorial Debut — Her Personal Connection During a Time of "Transition"
Tony Award winner Karen Olivo, who left New York City showbiz behind for a "full" life in Madison, WI, will make her directorial debut this summer with Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen's song cycle Fugitive Songs; she discusses how the piece hits close to home during a time of transition.

Presented by University of Wisconsin-Madison's University Theatre — where Olivo teaches song interpretation — performances will be held July 16-26, prior to a remount at the beginning of the school year in September.


The piece, a 19-song journey across America in which its characters find "Reasons to Run," is personal for Olivo. She recorded the song cycle alongside Gavin Creel, Alysha Umphress, Joshua Henry, Barrett Wilbert Weed and Matt Caplan for its 2012 release on Yellow Sound Label.

After years of knowing the material, when she hit the recording studio, "I got really nervous!" she admitted. "They sent me the music, and there were times where I would get a lump in my throat because I couldn't believe I was going to get to sing it. It like tears your heart out.

"Ever since that time, I've been hounding Chris, like, 'You should do it. You should remount it somewhere.'" But, since the songwriting duo has been so busy developing Tuck Everlasting, it never came to fruition. When the rights were released by Samuel French, Inc., Olivo took it upon herself to revive Fugitive Songs.

Her cast, whose character names model the tracks from the 2012 recording, includes Alyssa Beasley (Barrett), Nick Connors (Matt), Jana Cozine (Rachel), Megan Hofschulte (Karen), Ethan Larsen (Gavin), Andrew Lonsdale (Joshua), Kate Mann (Kate), Jeremy Mendoza (Jeremy) and Hannah Ripp-Dieter (Alysha). Because Olivo knew the material so well, including Miller and Tysen's True Fans — a story about three guys who ride cross-country to the Basketball Hall of Fame, where a few of Fugitive Songs came from — she decided to split up and reassign some of the characters' songs to flesh out their arcs. She also added the character of Rachel, a girl Gavin sings about (who is traveling the states by Greyhound) in the song "Lullaby."

Olivo thought, "How does Gavin sing this whole song about this person? I want to see Rachel. I want to know more about Rachel. I don't want it to be over." Olivo said that she's now taken "Wildflowers," a song she performed on the album with Gavin Creel, and given it to the new character of Rachel.

"There's actually a production note in the [materials] that you get from Samuel French, which say that they're completely behind you shifting the format to include more actors," said Olivo. "Once I saw that, that's when I felt like the door was open, and I know Chris so well, so I called him."

The writers are completely supportive of Olivo in her process to rediscover and redefine the material. So are her students, which — for Olivio — is the most exciting. (In Fugitive Songs, Olivo sings about her "Reasons to Run" and the inability to be "static one more second…" Art imitated life for the actress, who openly talked about the need to leave New York City behind.)

"The reason that I picked [Fugitive Songs is] not only because I love the composers, but because I'm in a transitional stage," she said. "This is all about people who get to a point in their life in which they're like, 'The choices that I've made have gotten me up to this point, and now I have to shift, and I have to do it quickly and I have to do it boldly.' And, I think most of my students are in the same place. Most of them are double majors in some capacity. Some of them are not even in theatre at all, but it's kind of their love and their passion.

"Currently, at University of Wisconsin-Madison, there's not a musical theatre degree. There's only a theatre degree, and the college is also known for some outstanding work in science and things like that, so a lot of them are going through what these characters are going through. A lot of them have issues with their family. A lot of them have issues with what they want to do or how they see themselves, and so I feel like the moment that I brought the music up to them, they were all like, 'Wow, this is incredibly hard,' but it only took some rehearsal, and they started making it their own, and that's kind of a thing that I've been working on — getting students to not emulate anything they've see on YouTube or anything that they've seen on a stage — [but] getting to the core of who they are as an artist and as a storyteller and finding the courage to stand on stage and sing someone else's material and bring a piece of themselves to it because that's what makes it different, and that's what makes it interesting. There's also an element of danger. When you show a bit of yourself on stage, there's that moment of, 'I can't believe I'm sharing with so many people at once.' And, that can lead to all of these realizations, and hopefully they happen on stage.

"This is the show that really pushes you to look at the depth of the emotion and the immediacy of the situation… They're really, really great, and I think that they also know how important this piece is to me because I'm going through my own life transition, and I think they know that I've got a lot of ideas that I want to implement, and it takes them being as committed as I am… It's something that's going to change us. I think we all can see that. And that's what the theatre does, right? If it's good, it changes you."

The creative team includes costume designer Jim Greco, set designer Rob Wagner, lighting designer Ben Golden, sound designer GW Rodriguez and stage manager Holly Wilinski.

Performances will be held at the Mitchell Theatre at 821 University Avenue. For more information and tickets, call (608) 265-2787 or visit Theatre.Wisc.edu.

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