My hero is a success and a quitter

Karen Olivo is one of my heroes. Last year, she quit.

She felt under-used, narrowed, and constantly angling for her next gig. The work she’d loved had to come to rob her of day-to-day satisfaction and genuine connection with colleagues and friends. She was, by many measures, a success.

Olivo won a Tony (2009) for her performance in “West Side Story” and has been singled out for performances in other notable shows.  “It took a good look at what I was capable of to see that what I was giving away for the price of a ticket was a fraction of me.” That blog post sent ripples through the theater community because it is an honest description of what many people feel. And it is what many people feel about other challenging, high stakes jobs, and many that are less so.

If Olivo felt that she wasn’t using all of herself, she also felt that she was playing a role that wasn’t authentic. “I was operating like an actor in my life,” she added, “which is scary – constantly wanting people to like me and thinking that I had to promote myself and the truth is, in life, you don’t have to do that.”

What’s important?

Today, she teaches musical performance at the University of Madison, writes for Theater Lila, and is working on a CD. She recently returned to the New York stage to play a role in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and reviewers loved her.  She doesn’t seem tempted to ride those reviews to another round of anxious stardom.  “…Every show ends and the only things that really stay current or are substantial are the bonds that we have with people.”

Olivo’s my hero because she saw that using her considerable skills cost her a great deal of her soul. By “soul,” I don’t mean her immortal, pre-existing, Platonic self. I mean “soul” in the sense of “genuinely human.” Think soul music, full of guts or heart or feeling. I mean the self that’s aware and mostly at ease. A self that’s very different from the watchful, wary, what-must-I-do-to-get-advantage self that Olivo felt she’d become. Sure, we can blame her for thinking about her predicament in ways that were bent by forces we don’t know about. But if she took steps to sustain her soul, she had to exercise a kind of courage.

As she wrote in her blog post upon leaving: “I leave behind the actor and start learning how to be me.” If that sounds too much like the way actors speak, and not enough like people with regular jobs, ask these Karen Olivo questions:

  • Am I using just a fraction of myself on the job?
  • Am I playing a role at work that doesn’t feel real?
  • Am I constantly reshaping myself to fit it, get people to like me, position myself for what’s next?

What’s that important to you?

Read the story here.  Quotes above, The New York Times.

Photo: Playbill

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