Karen Olivo on Performing ‘Fun Home’ at Home with Forward Theater Company
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Karen Olivo in Forward Theater's 'Fun Home.' Photo by Ross Zentner.
Karen Olivo almost took her journey with Fun Home on the road. She had been in talks to play Alison in the national tour, but decided instead to take on the role of Angelica Schuyler in the Chicago production of Hamilton in 2016 to stay close to her family.
“I’ve always wanted to play Alison, but I didn’t know I’d get to do it at home with Forward,” Olivo says.
After making Madison her home four years ago, the Tony Award winning Olivo joined Forward Theater’s advisory committee and has experienced much of their work from the selection side of the process. But now, with artistic director and sister-in-law, Jennifer Uphoff Gray directing her as a performer, the tragi-comedy that is Fun Home takes on a whole new meaning.
The multi-award winning musical shattered glass ceilings when it became the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist and an all-female writing team of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.
Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home journeys with Alison from childhood through adulthood with three actresses playing her at three different ages. While adult Alison is often thought of as the lead performer, Olivo doesn’t so much see that to be the case.
(L to R): Rachael Zientek, Karen Olivo and Chantae Miller. Photo by Ross Zentner.
The actress is onstage for the entire show, but largely as the omnipresent narrator.
“(Alison) is pretty small in material you know, she just happens to be the conduit,” Olivo explains. “There is a lot of observation and a lot of me seeing me conjuring memories. That makes it very different than the stuff I’ve done before. I usually have a lot of costumes and material...Alison Bechdel is trying to fade into the wallpaper most of the time.”
Fun Home charts the exploration of Bechdel into her sexuality as well as her navigation through her past. The majority of the show takes place in the “fun home,” which is the way the Bechdel children refer to the family’s funeral home.
While Alison is a role Olivo has been interested in playing, taking on the role is a scary endeavor. But that’s a feeling Olivo is used to–she always takes on roles that scare her.
“That’s the only reason to do things,” she says. “If it seems like it’ll be easy I don’t usually bother with it.”
Part of her intimate connection with the character of Alison is derived from Olivo grappling with her own history. Olivo and Alison are roughly the same age and Olivo is often asking questions of her own past and how that impacts her life as an adult.
“I personally have my own family issues that are somewhat unresolved and always sort of made me question, so this is a wonderful trade,” Olivo says. “I get to delve into Alison’s situation while safely using those same techniques to figure out my own life.”
What’s more, Olivo can navigate the actor’s path to self discovery with her own family in the room with her. On top of sister-in-law Uphoff Gray as the director, Olivo’s husband James Uphoff is the Fun Home sound designer.
When interviewed on the first day of tech rehearsals, Olivo was excited to work with her husband again. They first met on Broadway while both working on the same show. She noticed right away that Uphoff was always “two steps ahead of what was happening on stage.”
Once, when her microphone went out during a show in which she couldn’t leave the stage, she suddenly noticed him waiting in the wings with a new one.
That was the first moment when she realized that Uphoff was a great guy, Olivo says.
Now she’s a “huge fan” of the family in general.
While they were both still living in New York City, Uphoff started taking Olivo to visit family in Madison where Olivo got a taste of Forward Theater.
(L to R): Karen Olivo, Clare Arena Haden, Chantae Miller, Tryg Gundersen, Donovan Lonsdale, Matt Daniels and Andy White.
Photo by Ross Zentner.
“I got to see the work Jen was doing and I was astounded,” Olivo says. “ Because, I’m embarrassed to say, like a lot of professional actors on the coast you feel the only art is happening where you are. But it’s a huge, huge misconception that only good art happens in the coast or in Chicago. Coming to Madison and seeing how artful everything was done here at Forward and knowing it was Jen orchestrating all of that gave me a lot of confidence when I moved here. I knew I’d have an artistic family.”
And now in this 10th anniversary season and first musical endeavor for Forward Theater, Olivo’s artistic family and her real family are merging.
Olivo has seen Forward Theater from the point of view of an advisory committee member as well as an audience member and it’s been an exciting journey to see things from another perspective. While she had high hopes for working on the show she says it is definitely “exceeding my expectations.”
Although she is on stage the entire show as Alison, Olivo sees herself largely as a supporting actor. She gets to observe everything going on, while still being part of it, which is what she loves to do.
She says she enjoys being a scene partner and having the opportunity to be part of a team. is giving her the chance to do the kind of performance she really “loves” to do.
“I get a front row seat,” Olivo says. “I get to see (the other actors) work through all of these things. I feel like I should be paying Jen back for allowing me to hang out with these really skilled, lovely people. My job is to watch them go out there nightly and leave hearts on the floor.”
“Fun Home,” presented by Forward Theater, runs Nov. 1 – 25 at The Playhouse at Overture Center for the Arts. For tickets visit forwardtheater.com or call the Overture box office at (608) 258-4141.