Olivia Oguma is a multidisciplinary artist (and diehard Cirque du Soleil fan!) based in Red Bank, NJ. The daughter of a sushi chef and a ballerina, Oguma got her start at 6 years old onSesame Street. Since then, she’s graced Broadway stages (Mamma Mia), originated the role of Kelsi Neilson in the first national tour of High School Musical, and worked on new musicals such as Snow Falling On Cedars,a stage version of the novel – and can now be seen in HAIR at Two River Theater as Jeanie and at Joe’s Pub hosting her Asian variety show, DiOrientalism, with Kate Rigg. When Oguma is not onstage, she sponsors a child through the Lelt Foundation, an organization that aids Ethiopian orphans founded by a Broadway pit musician (Anja Wood) that adopted an Ethiopian child. Her advice to young artists? “You need to decide what your definition of success is for yourself… sit down and say ‘I wanna be in the arts because I wanna tell stories.’” Read on to learn more about Olivia Oguma and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Olivia Oguma
Heritage: Japanese, Russian, Italian, and Kazak
Hometown: NYC (born and raised Manhattanite) with roots in Saitama, Japan
Current City: New York City
Current project: Playing Jeanie in HAIR at Two River Theater
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
There are many that resonate with me at particular times but in recent memory the most significant are my current project playing Jeanie in HAIR at Two River Theater, a theater I worked at in 2011 at a completely different point in my life. And recently in 2021, being the standby for the role of Melody Park in Letters of Suresh by Rajiv Joseph at Second Stage – a role that I actually got to perform for half a week. Those are my two most treasured memories at this point. I am also insanely proud of my residency at Joe’s Pub for my Asian variety show that I co host and write, with my partner in crime, Kate Rigg. It’s called DiOrientalism and we do a brand new show that we host, curate and write every 3 months or so.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
My advice is that you need to decide what your definition of success is for yourself. You cannot chase being famous or trying to book a big TV show. You have to actually wanna really be an artist and with that comes a lot of hardship. You have to embrace regional theater, you have to embrace all aspects of this career, which include the downtime, the rejection and the survival jobs. I see a lot of young people chasing a dream that is based on wealth or fame – and that is not sustainable nor is it a reason to choose this path. But if you sit down and say “I wanna be in the arts because I wanna tell stories” then I think you are on the right track.
How did you get your start?
I got started very early in commercials and modeling almost as an infant. I had my first professional job on Sesame Street when I was about 6. I ran around wearing a brightly colored sweater with geometric shapes on it, and because I had almost no teeth, they barely let me ever talk. But I was happy to be there. I did get a monologue on the New Year's Eve episode and that was one of the most amazing moments of my life, to this day.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
I have a few. I have been on Broadway and had some significant roles on TV, but the things that really stay with me that have climbed into my soul and refuse to leave aren’t those big things. They are very specific moments. I played Hatsue in the stage version of Snow Falling On Cedars, based on the book. It was the world premiere stage version at Portland Center Stage. There was a moment in the show where the family walked downstage in the most precise line – walking to the Manzanar internment camp to be interned. There was original music that literally was so powerful it gave me chills. That cast, that play, that time, was the most incredible of my life. Another few moments would just be lines from plays I had the honor to stand on stage and say. From the legendary Rajiv Joseph-- ”I feel like a plant that grew into a rock. Why did I grow this way?” and from Leah Nanako Winkler, a trailblazing Japanese American playwright, who writes incredibly multidimensional roles for Asian women that aren’t centered on their other-ness, “I still think you are beautiful and I think we are all recovering from one thing, if not the other.”
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
Most likely just making a living doing theater and doing the kind of theater I want to do. I was blessed to have a career in big musicals early on, which allowed me to do some very big things, like I was able to buy an apartment many years ago. But since those big jobs (Mamma Mia on Broadway and the 1st national tour of High School Musical where I originated the role of Kelsi Neilson), since then I have basically dove head first into the world of new plays off Broadway and regionally. And that’s one of the most rewarding things I have been given in this life, but also challenging because it truly is hard to sustain myself monetarily all the time doing new plays! But I have been resourceful, I am my father’s daughter, work ethic is in my blood and no job is ever beneath me, so I am proud of the fact I have managed to stay afloat in this career as long as I have while not having to make too many sacrifices. I also have a quality of life I always wanna maintain that does include being able to travel, and my passion for things like seeing Cirque Du Soleil! So sometimes I’m fully going “OK, to do this play next month and to travel to this country I have been dreaming of going to, I’m taking this full-time nanny job for two months in order to facilitate that.”
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I love Cirque du Soleil! It Is truly something I am passionate about in a way that I don’t even know if I can describe. I have accomplished the amazing feat of having seen every Cirque show currently running in the world. In May, I actually went on a solo trip to Bogota, Colombia to see the new Cirque show Bazaar. And recently, since we had two days off from HAIR rehearsals and I knew the newest show was in Virginia – I actually took a NJ Transit to Newark Penn, and then an Amtrak to DC, slept on my friend’s couch and then we got up and drove to Tysons Corner, VA to see it. The next morning, I got up and made the trek back to Red Bank, NJ. I just think Cirque is the epitome of art. I can’t really put it into words.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
I sponsor a child through the Lelt Foundation, which is Anja Wood’s charity to help Ethiopian orphans. She is the cellist at Hamilton on Broadway, and has been a Broadway pit musician for years who adopted an Ethiopian child. Anja got very involved with helping end poverty and provide education for Ethiopian children.
Do you have any mentors?
In the arts, in terms of mentors, there is only really one. I am perpetually indebted to Kate Rigg, my aforementioned partner in crime. We are very close, but she is older than me and we met doing a play called BFE by Julia Cho at Playwrights Horizons in 2005. I was an adult playing a child, and she was the age I am now, playing my mom. I think to call her a mentor isn’t even accurate – she is basically my other mom, my guru, the smartest person I know, and one of my biggest cheerleaders. She is also such a proud artist. She reminds me daily what a gift it is to have this as a career. She juggles many things, speaks 6 languages, and has degrees upon degrees in basically everything. You name it, she’s done it. She has an award for Activism from the state of New York, and she’s also written adult material for the Playboy Channel. She’s the kind person who once you are in her orbit, you can’t help but be inspired on a daily basis.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
Because I started so early It was mostly the path I was on. I have always thought at times though that this may just be one chapter in my life. I am so inspired by people who follow this career full force and then pivot later in life. I have a friend from the High School Musical tour who did multiple Broadway shows and now is a doctor! I have another friend from Miss Saigon who is now a dentist and a friend who fully transitioned into broadcast journalism and won several Emmys. I’m continually inspired by those people, as well as the people who find this career in reverse. I’m currently in a show with a man who just spent 3 years in the army as a medic. He is such a talented musical theater performer, but you would never guess that was the journey that led him here.
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
I have a really solid editing business where I edit reels for actors, choreographers, dancers etc. – basically anyone who needs a reel. I have a huge passion for editing. I would actually consider myself an actor and editor, so I don’t even know if editing counts as an odd job! I guess the oddest jobs I've had were working at a shoe store for a few days, which I was enthusiastically bad at. I did a catering gig at the Gracie Mansion, which was overstaffed so I just ended up eating cookies all night with the Mayor and his wife.
Do you have any other “special skills?”
I can ribbon dance— because I have done Miss Saigon a few times and that is something you have to learn to do for Morning of the Dragon. I can do a split, but only on the right side. NOT on the left. I can yodel. And I have an unhealthy wealth of knowledge regarding Cirque du Soleil.
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
My father (who has since passed away) was a sushi chef, and I have always found that job to be artistic. Especially because of his own attention to detail and presentation and how he handled the art of sushi. My mother was a ballet dancer. She still takes ballet class everyday, so I guess she is STILL a ballerina. My brother is also a ballet dancer who has danced with some very prestigious companies, and is now a company member at Charlotte Ballet in NC. When I left Mamma Mia, and we all got lovingly roasted at our last show, the joke of my roast was “even though her mother is a ballet dancer and her brother is a ballet dancer, Olivia dances like her dad, who is a sushi chef.” And that would remain accurate to this day.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
It will all work out. He’s not the one. Travel sooner and more often. Follow your gut and heart. But honestly, I would also just tell myself to hang in there because everything pans out just the way it's supposed to.
What do you love most about what you do?
I feel most alive when I am onstage. It’s as simple as that. I also love the community it has brought me. I love the sense of purpose it has brought me. Mostly, I love how human and alive I feel when I am being vulnerable onstage. There is nothing else for me that compares to that feeling.
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
Travel was my rebound and is usually always the thing that can reset me. There was a time when I didn’t want to do this anymore. It wasn’t really a mistake or failure as much as a complete feeling of wanting to give up. My father died and suddenly acting, performing, all of it seemed pointless. I didn’t wanna hear girls in a waiting room for an audition obsessing about their hair. I was so angry and vibrating at such a high frequency of anger – I couldn’t be giving and I don’t think you can be an actor if you aren’t a vessel. So I packed up a backpack and went on a solo backpacking trip around the world. It started with a one way ticket, and I didn’t come back until months later when I really knew I could be in NYC and be okay again. I was walking in Bondi Beach, Australia one day and It came over me that I was ready and I would be alright. Travel saved my life.
Do you have any self care practices you do to stay focused and sane?
Hot yoga, running, and audiobooks.
How do you prepare for a role you consider difficult personally, whether it hits too close to home or goes greatly against your personal beliefs?
I didn’t become an actor to feel comfortable, but I do think that if I feel really uncomfortable with a role, I just simply wouldn’t take it. For example, I got to a point in my career where I have turned down auditions because I didn’t want to play an Asian stereotype. But I welcome challenging roles. I don’t want to play one dimensional characters, I welcome playing a role where I get to dive into a circumstance that is heavy. It is cathartic and it's why we do what we do. I want to be challenged and I want to be stretched emotionally. True growth has never been born out of me being entirely comfortable.
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