Things are getting a whole lot more musical around FIU Theatre with the official launch of our BFA degree in Musical Theatre and new assistant professor, Olivia de Guzman is leading the charge.
Last year, the department conducted a national search to find the perfect person to develop a dynamic program dedicated to training students who aren’t just good singers and dancers, but are well-rounded actors. In de Guzman, FIU found what they were looking for – a passionate educator and skilled performer whose career has shown the range and versatility that is the hallmark of the theatre program.
De Guzman’s impressive resume includes roles in iconic musicals like Into the Woods, Avenue Q, and Miss Saigon, but also in non-musical plays like Hedda Gabler and Office Hour. She is also a company member of the Brierley Resident Acting Company at the Dallas Theater Center. Aside from her acting career she also ran an arts space/coffeehouse, has designed escape rooms, and has extensive experience as a musician and voice teacher. In the Spring, she will direct Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the first musical under the new degree program.
We sat down with de Guzman a few months after her move from Dallas to get to know more about her, what makes her tick, and her tips on conquering an escape room.
What has surprised you the most about Miami so far?
It rains. A lot! When I thought about Miami, I always thought sunshine and beach. But it rains like a lot a lot. I’ve learned to carry my umbrella everywhere.
What made you fall in love with the theater?
I started performing when I was very young. I’m Filipino-American and Filipinos love to sing and dance and perform. At all the family gatherings my parents would be like, “oh sing for your aunties and uncles!” So, I would say part of it is a cultural thing. But also I started voice lessons at age 10, and in high school I became a big choir nerd and a theatre dork. And that led me to figure out that I had something that I was good at, and I enjoyed the work, the discipline of the training, and the process of creating.
Is there a role that you’ve played that has taught you something?
The first one that comes to mind is playing Hedda Gabler in 2021. You know, it’s relatively recently that representation has really begun to matter in the theatre. It was much later in my career before I got to play a role like Hedda – I certainly wouldn’t have imagined myself in it when I was younger. It taught me that the industry has shifted. The theatre artists that are up and coming have a totally different mindset about representation and inclusivity. That’s quite meaningful to me.
If you could go back in time and originate (be the first to ever play) any role in the musical theater canon, which one would it be?
This is really tied up in what I was talking about as far as representation. Traditionally, in the “canon,” there aren’t a lot of roles for actors of my type. So, I never really have an answer for these kinds of “dream role” questions. Maybe I would say like, a Velma Kelly (Chicago), or a Sally Bowles (Cabaret). A character with a little bit of attitude and complexity. A strong mezzo.
What excites you most about the new BFA in Musical Theatre program?
The faculty at FIU Theatre is invited to put their stamp on things and create something new as opposed to following a mold. At first, I was like, “okay, what do you want me to do?” And they’re like, “No, what do you want to do?” As a creator, as an artist, who doesn’t want that green light and that freedom? Also, the students that I’ve met so far are extremely talented and hungry. It’s the most fun to work with students with that attitude. We’re going to build something very special here.
What advice do you have for a high school student auditioning for the BFA in Musical Theater at FIU?
Choose content that specifically excites you, that fires you up to act and sing, versus what you think I want you to do. Then prepare. And just know that – like with any audition – I want to cast you! I want to book you, I want you to get accepted. So channel any nervous energy into having fun!
What song puts you in your happy place?
I’m gonna go with… Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. Oh, that’s so random! But let’s go with it, why not?
What’s the biggest pro-tip you have for getting out of an escape room?
Honestly, it’s all about attitude. You have to treat it like a sport. Go in there, wreck shop, and win this game. As long as you have that kind of forward momentum and you’re pushing your teammates, you’re probably going to do pretty well. Sometimes new escape room players want to take their time or they’re not confident, but you really just have to go in and hit the ground sprinting.
What makes a great teacher?
You can tell when a teacher loves it. They love process. They love seeing people have light bulb moments. They love seeing the growth. They love being there for the failures and the successes. I also think the best teachers strike the balance between pushing students out of comfort zones but also supporting them, so they feel safe to take risks.