Broadway to Wisconsin: Actress tutors Janesville students

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Nick Crow
Thursday, July 17, 2014

JANESVILLE—Karen Olivo has experienced life in the big city. A Tony Award winner for her role as Anita in “West Side Story,” she has sung, danced and performed most of her life.

Now she wants to share her knowledge and give back to the next generation of aspiring stars.

Olivo was at Parker High School last week to lead workshops for young actors in the school district's summer musical, “All Shook Up.” She worked with students on auditioning, how to set the tone of a performance and being themselves when channeling a character.

“What we're trying to do is get to who we are, the core of us,” Olivo told the actors.

Olivo recently moved to Madison from New York City. She has lived in Wisconsin for about a year, she said.

“It's like getting Aaron Rodgers to show up for a football practice,” Jim Tropp, director of “All Shook Up,” said last week. “That's what she is to the music and theater scene. I think she has the passion (to teach). I just want every kid to take everything they can from her.”

This week, as Tropp prepared his actors for opening night tonight, he said he saw a difference in them.

“They are completely focused. They are ready to go,” Tropp said.

Change of scenery

Olivo said she moved to Madison because she was interested in making art in a different way.

“New York with all of its opportunities and L.A. with all of its opportunities, you can get pigeon-holed,” Olivo said. “I consider myself to be an artist besides just acting. I wanted to start exploring things on a wider scale. I was looking for a harmonious balance between my personal life and professional life.”

The actress is writing her first original production, “The Suitcase Dreams,” which will premiere in Madison in September.

Olivo first met Tropp and Jan Knutson, co-music director of “All Shook Up,” last year at Madison's Overture Center for the Arts, where Janesville students were performing scenes from the musical “Les Miserables.” She was impressed with the students and even let them hold her Tony Award, Knutson said.

“She is so genuine and passionate about the art,” Knutson said. “She brings that to anyone who works hard. She's all about nurturing and bringing out the strengths of the students.”

Olivo said she hopes to pursue more teaching opportunities. So far, she has taught one semester of depth coaching at UW-Madison and has done some one-on-one teaching and a few workshops.

Students start choosing their career paths in high school, and Olivo said she likes being part of that process.

“If I can be there to steer them in whatever direction is best for them, it's good because there's a lot of structure that needs to be in place,” she said. “This is a really good time to help high school kids identify if this is something for them.”

Parker senior Xochitti Flores said she relished the opportunity to learn from Olivo.

“She taught me that chemistry creates a better show,” Flores said. “She's definitely taught me new concepts that I never thought about.”

One-on-one time

Besides leading a workshop for the entire cast, Olivo also chose eight students to work with her one-on-one Saturday.

Irving Romero, a Parker senior, was one of those actors.

Romero said he “adores” acting and wants to pursue theater as a career, but he always felt emotionally blocked by things that have happened in his past. 

When he and Olivo talked about the song he had chosen to work on—“Being Alive” from the musical “Company”—he felt those bad feelings well up.

“She just gave me a look like it's gonna be OK,” he said.

Romero said Olivo taught him how to incorporate his own story into his character. The process was an emotional one for him and the other students.

“Every one of us cried,” he said.

“This is the first time I've found someone with a similar connection (to) what happened in my past. After practice, I felt like a new person because I was able to let go.”

Romero posted this message on his Facebook page:

“I feel so blessed I have never cried so many tears of joy in my life! Thank you so much Karen I would have never done it without you, you helped me get out of my cage which I have been trapped in for such a time, and now I am free at last, I will carry this on throughout my whole entire life, God bless you Karen Olivo, the journey has just begun!”

Tropp, the director of “All Shook Up,” said Olivo's rapport with the students was what impressed him the most.

“To have her here really says something about her character,” Tropp said last week. “She's about the kids; she's about the individual; she's about the art. It's huge.”

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