Karen Olivo comes to Point Park, encourages students to stand up against systemic oppression

Former Broadway star speaks to COPA about championing diversity, avoiding exploitation of talents in the industry


Photo by Jacob Woodyard

Karen Olivo speaks at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Written By Amanda Andrews and Kylie Thomas

Throughout last week, the Office of Equity and Inclusion brought in ex-Broadway star Karen Olivo (she/they) to speak to students with a focus on issues of inclusivity and social justice. Olivo got to have in-depth discussions with students in the Conservatory of Performing Arts (COPA), Rowland School of Business, and School of Communication.

The visit comes as performers in both Broadway and COPA have, in recent years, criticized institutional failures to foster inclusive, diverse environments and protect artists’ mental and physical wellbeing.

According to organizers, Olivo’s visit is in part to address students’ recent concerns and start more conversations on how to improve the conservatory. Right away, they felt that students were receptive to their ideas.

“The first impression I got was I felt a lot of energy coming my way in terms of a necessity—a necessity to connect. It is really early in the school year too, so I think there’s always like that sort of buzz, but also eagerness,” they said. “I didn’t feel a lot of opposition. I felt a lot of people wanting to just get information and be able to be in the same space, which makes perfect sense given the current climate.”

Over the last week, Olivo mostly talked with COPA students, although luncheons for communications and sports, arts and entertainment management (SAEM) students were also held. The students’ receptiveness, in part, is in response to the university’s past issues involving disparities with diversity within the conservatory, especially in the last two years. In 2019, “Adding Machine” received criticism for its racist, homophobic, and sexist undertones, leading to its cancellation. Following in its footsteps, “Parade” and “Passing Strange” also received the axe in 2020 and 2021, respectively, after complaints about its content and treatment of students working in those productions.

Recently appointed COPA Dean, Garfield Lemonius, took control of the conservatory after the departure of Steven Breese at the end of last term, which happened after several controversies that occurred during Breese’s tenure. Lemonius has recognized these issues within COPA and said he hopes that Olivo’s visit is just a small catalyst to enact changes within the conservatory. According to Lemonius, accountability and dialogue about fairness and equity within COPA “needed to happen…so that growth can occur.”

“That, for me, is the legacy I want to see here at Point Park in the conservatory: a cultural change, a cultural shift where everyone feels that the learning that’s happening and the exchange of information, ideas, is moving us in the right direction,” Lemonius said.

A shift in career trajectory and advocacy is one that Olivo has made recently as well. Along with several television appearances, she is most known for her theatrical work, having originated the role of Vanessa in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights” and winning a Tony Award in 2009 for her performance as Anita in “West Side Story.” And, after several years away from Broadway, Olivo returned to the stage to headline “Moulin Rouge” as Satine, receiving a second Tony nomination for that role.

But in April of this year, Olivo announced they would not be resuming the role of Satine once Broadway reopened its shows for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time, Olivo publicly criticized Broadway’s silence over workplace abuse allegations about a longtime producer in the industry, Scott Rudin. Now, they say, Rudin was just “the tip of the iceberg” of the problems continuing to fester in Broadway and the wider entertainment industry.

“He’s a symptom to what’s actually plaguing the industry which is 150 years of no oversight. And that means on the structural level and financially. And I think there is obviously abuse, but within that, it’s the abuse of power that I’m actually talking about,” Olivo said. “I think for myself I saved myself and also now I’m able to take all of that energy that I would have been throwing at this Broadway show and making millions of dollars for someone and not knowing where that money was going to go. And now I can actually get in front of the industry and get people before they get there.”

They are a co-founder of Artists for Economic Transparency (AFECT), an organization that pushes for artists to hold the entertainment industry accountable for abuses—particularly targeted at people of color and the LGBTQIA community—and usher in change for underserved communities by withholding their own talent.

An annual study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition on representation on New York City stages found that between 2018 and 2019 nearly 59% of all roles went to white actors. Additionally, 29% of roles were performed by Black actors, 6.3% by Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) actors, 4.8% by Latinx actors and 1.3% by Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) actors. Indigenous actors were essentially invisible on stages, representing 0% of roles.

The reason for this gap in diversity, Olivo said, comes from the capitalist nature of the entertainment industry.

“It’s the misconception and the ignorance of the people who actually book the shows and have the money,” Olivo said. “They don’t know the culture, they don’t know that where I come from is built on community and collectivism. And we want to commune, we want to get in places and party. And so it’s very often that people say ‘well, they don’t have enough money, they don’t come to the theater,’—no you haven’t told the story that’s going to bring me to the theater. And once I hear it and once I know it’s there, I’m coming all the time.”

Michael Thornhill, Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity Inclusion Training & Assessment at Point Park, was the main organizer of Olivo’s visit to campus, having met her before through a social advocacy event. As a newer member of the Point Park community and an Afro-Latino man, Thornhill said that making the conservatory and the campus a more equitable place through initiatives like this for everyone, including underserved communities, ties in with his ganas—a desire to succeed. And he added that starts not only with the mind, but the body.

“We need a catalytic moment for our bodies to sort of get into alignment around the issue and around an opportunity,” he said. “And so I said let’s make a catalytic event. And then from there, let’s do the work in light of that event, and so Karen was like let’s go.”

For Thornhill, he said hoped that the visit not only could help students feel seen and heard but that it would also raise awareness for the services of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, which includes help with learning accessibility accommodations, Safezone training and Title IX cases.

Olivo said they believe that meaningful change is possible and that students at Point Park are capable of that, but across the board, the path to true reform lies in dismantling individualistic hierarchies.

“We have to regain humanity, and we have to take care of one another. We look at what’s going on in the world, we look at what is happening with our Earth. There are policies that are set, that at every turn can undermine people,” they said. “The only way we’re getting out of this, the only way that students can actually change things is if we start thinking of ourselves as a unit, as opposed to how can I get mine, what can I do for myself.”