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Building up artists of the future

Tony Award winner KO steps out of the Broadway spotlight and into the classroom
KO seated in theatre at Northwestern University
After more than two decades in show business, KO is shifting gears from Tony Award-winning Broadway artist to leader of Northwestern’s storied music theatre program. Photo by Stephen Lewis

A stage career was simultaneously a given — and a long shot — for Tony Award winner Karen Olivo, who now goes by “KO.” Born in the Bronx and raised in central Florida by a play-directing father and a mother who did everything else from stage managing to costumes and props, KO assumed working on shows was something everyone’s family did.

KO’s professional career began as an understudy in “Rent” and eventually led to originating lead roles including Vanessa in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” (2007 Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble Performance); Anita in “West Side Story” (2009 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical); and Satine in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” (2020 Tony Nominee for Best Actress in a Musical). KO also was featured in the Chicago production of “Hamilton” as Angelica Schuyler in 2016 and 2017.

Now after more than two decades in show business, KO is shifting gears from Broadway artist to teaching artist.

This fall, they were named the Donald G. Robinson Director of Music Theatre and associate professor in the School of Communication, where they will helm Northwestern’s storied music theatre program alongside Broadway colleague Alexander Gemignani, recently appointed artistic director of the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern.

KO spoke with Northwestern Now about their hopes for tapping the full potential of Northwestern students and transforming the theatre industry into a place that works for everyone. 

When did you know you wanted to pursue theater as a profession?

I was on a community theater stage the first time I did a monologue, and I just remember all the adults are watching and listening to me, and I was like, “Wait, I’m a kid!” This is a place where it doesn’t matter what your age is or who you are—people have to listen to you. This opened my whole world, because I come from meager beginnings, and it was going to be a bit of a struggle in terms of me finding a path for myself.

Who are your major influences?

My parents were formative. They set the foundation of respecting art and working hard at it. But I would say my favorite teacher would be a woman named Lucinda Holshue. She was my acting teacher my first year at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. It was right at the point where I realized that my upbringing was vastly different from those of my peers. I had mainly taught myself or was taught by people in community theater. My first traditional voice lesson happened there, and it was jarring to me. So, I was always looking at my peers and going, “Oh, I’m not going to make it.” Lucinda was instrumental in keeping me grounded and reminding me that regardless of how I presented, my experiences were valid and that I had a place. 

What has been your favorite production or role?

Before this past summer, I would have said “In the Heights.” But now my all-time favorite was the summer reading of a new musical at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center called “Siluetas.” One of the reasons that it’s my favorite is because it was the first time since I came out as nonbinary that I was able to bring my full self into a room, and I didn’t have to hide. Not to mention the group of individuals involved were the best humans. It was the kind of room that anyone could succeed in because there was a very clear sense of integrity and a value system. That comes from the top down. The artistic director was very clear about putting the right kinds of people in the room together. 

That experience reminded me that if the components are right in the room, I’m ready to make art in that form as a performer again. And it also taught me if it’s not that way, I don’t think I need to do it again.

When you’re not performing, what do you miss?

I miss every day going to a building and being in a collective and us deciding that we’re going to do something together, and then we lift it up off the ground. That to me is the purest form of the art.

A show, with prep, is three hours maybe. You know when it’s going to start and end. It’s a bit of a race, and it always felt nightly like there were a group of us deciding to run this race together. And everyone finishes. Nobody gets left behind. And that mentality is the thing that I crave. 

Why did you choose to become a professor?

Because I’m interested in changing things. I’m interested in the evolution of the art form. I’ve tried other avenues. I’ve tried advocacy, I’ve tried being the headliner in a room to negotiate things. But for foundational change, I must go to the source, which is the students. 

I love the art form desperately. The art form and the creators are being crushed by the weight of this need to produce. The best way to save this art form I love was to go into the academy so that I could build up artists who would be the future of the industry.

I think that what’s going to save humanity is storytellers, synthesizing humanity and handing it back to people who don’t have the framework for that, so they can understand what’s happening to them and how to progress.

What do you hope your students will take away from your classes?

One of the things I’m really centered on is slowing down. That’s a lesson I took from the pandemic.

The students who lost time during the pandemic now are feeling this pressure of catching up. And that doesn’t help the art, it puts the art in a vice, because there needs to be a sense of flow and relaxation for the art to come. What we are working on with the (music theatre) program redesign is to give students options, but within the options, to ask where the three places are you’d like to focus so you can be a leader in those rooms. 

Knowing a little bit about how everything works makes you a great negotiator and collaborator. But when you get into that composing place, you should be able to lead the room, and that only happens if you spend time there. 

Why Northwestern?

Northwestern is the perfect place to do this because students here are unlike any other students. You will have someone who wants to perform, write, design, direct and can produce their own content. That to me is an artistic director, that is someone who starts their own bespoke storefront theater. These are the people in the driver’s seat. I have a BFA in musical theatre and I could go to a place that molds the people who stand in the spotlight. But I would prefer to be the person who helps mold the person who assembles the room.

The person who says who gets to be in the room dictates the tone. And that’s at Northwestern, in my opinion.