Isabel Olson
Edited by: 
Kristin Hanson

Q: How did you become involved in the performing arts?

I grew up as a gymnast doing competitive gymnastics from three through thirteen years old. That grew to be my biggest love, and it taught me everything I know about life still, how to work in a team, sportsmanship, competition. The rigor of that kind of amped up when it got to the upper levels, and I realized that what I really loved was the dancing. I loved to be on the floor beam and the dance of that. I started to have injuries and so eventually I transitioned into dance towards middle school. I did pretty intensive dancing for about six years through high school, training in ballet, jazz, musical theater, and modern. In high school I also started to write for my school paper in journalism. We had never had an arts section. I decided that I was going to start being a theater critic so I started to really familiarize myself with the Atlanta theater scene and I got press passes to thirteen different Atlanta theaters. I got to know these different companies and I started going to see as many works as I could. Sitting in the audience at those shows and having to look at it from a critical perspective as an audience member started to really get into my brain what a director might feel like or how the shows could improve. I started to notice what they capitalized on and then had to go back and critically analyze it to review. I found it to be a very useful skill set.

At the very end of my high school career, I was just starting to really get interested in doing theater myself because it had been all dance performance up until that point. And I decided, well, the best way to learn something is to start from the very bottom so I wrote a musical with my two friends. We composed and wrote the lyrics and I directed it, we raised all the funds and it basically was a year and a half long process. The show is called “Half-Step” and we put that up the summer after I graduated. After seeing what it's like to be a writer, what it's like to be a director, doing costumes all of that; that's when I realized this is absolutely what I want to spend my life doing. It was a very quick realization.

Q: How can theatre and the performing arts be a platform for social justice issues?

I'm thinking about this so much lately. I'm a strong believer that theater can intersect with activism and that's what I want to dedicate my career to do. I've considered going into law or going into other forms of social justice work but I've always come back to theater and to the performing arts as a means to do all of that change. I think you literally have an audience and you can not only teach but engage and have a conversation. That's something that there really isn't a platform for in society and I think in the pandemic especially, we realize how essential culture is to education and to dialogue.

Somebody said this the other day in the Broadway Black meeting, basically I think law and society can move forward at its own pace but if culture stays behind, we will never, as a whole, change and go in the direction of social movement. I think that culture can actually be one step ahead of where we want to go: it can present our future. And it can push law and it can push the criminal justice system and how we look at the environment and raise awareness. It can push us towards a better future. I think that's something I'm really starting to become aware of.

And We Look On is a performing arts piece that uses many different mediums: puppetry, dance, movement, projection, music, all these different things, and slammed it into one piece about the climate crisis. You had to practice what you're preaching, so I had to make sure that we were building using environmentally sustainable materials. We used recycling in Ann Arbor to source resources for the puppets and for the construction of the set.

And We Look On was quite abstract. That piece was, I think, a perfect example of activism because I had never envisioned doing a performing arts piece on the climate crisis. I think it's not as easy to see right immediately. What I particularly loved about doing that show was that there were so many challenges that came up with just doing a piece in the climate crisis. That's one thing that we don't often do enough of in theater, we need to be more environmentally conscious on how we're building and constructing and not just wasting energy, especially if that's what the show is about. AWLO created a lot of awareness for me that that's really possible because our show wasn't lacking on any front. It had everything we needed and we did it much more environmentally friendly than I normally would have done. I think it's interesting to think about not using a script and not using predetermined material, rather, knowing that as artists we can create our own anything. The world is our literal oyster, we can create shows that use any style or medium to tell anything about a subject. And I think we have to be more bold, in that sense, in terms of how we approach activism.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction)

Yes, well, I graduated into a pandemic. And I thought that I had done everything right, with getting a theater degree and a history degree I was well rounded. I was ready to get to New York City, and start my career, and that didn't happen. And that's okay. But the past couple of months have been very fortunate, too. I think I've always had an open mind, knowing that I'm interested in a lot of subjects and it doesn't have to just be the performing arts to keep me happy. That is my true love, but I decided that I couldn't get a job in the performing arts right away so I actually started working as a contact tracer for COVID-19 with the Georgia Department of Public Health. I've started to help on the pandemic front with tracing. Those who've been in contact with somebody who tested positive for COVID-19, I talk to these people and make sure that they stay home in quarantine, because it can basically reduce the spread by about 50% if we help to stop those people from going out and spreading it further. I’ve learned to appreciate what I have and to appreciate my health and to just be educated and aware of the global pandemic. And what's happening in the United States right now. It's been a really challenging job, and definitely not what I expected. To graduate and do anything in medical health, like, that is not what I expected. I really appreciate the work because I feel like I'm helping in a way that I can. I know I have solid communication skills from a theater degree, and I know how to relate to people. It's also given me a lot of perspective on how fortunate I am in my own life.

Q: Can you talk about the initial cancellation and how it affected your final semester?

Second semester senior year I had applied to many jobs and many fellowships, most of which were in Manhattan, which as you know is not the place to be right now. I actually went to New York City over spring break, to network to see some old collaborators and just kind of get a lay of the land because I thought, “I'm moving here.” Then of course over the next week after I'd gone to New York City everything started to shut down. School was canceled, my senior thesis was cancelled, all of the stuff that I've kind of built my entire career up to just fell flat. Um, but I don't think I saw it as something, I wasn't terribly upset about it, I felt like in the grand scheme of things, my personal goals and trajectory can get back on track eventually. I could see that the overall picture was much more important than my senior thesis or something like that.  

But with the shutdown in the United States, it certainly wasn't surprising to have to go back home like three days after I was in New York City. And I think what's shocking is just how quickly we adapt to the given situation. I guess what's really scary is not knowing when the United States is going to get our pandemic under wraps because we are not doing what we need to be doing. The medical professionals in the CDC have been pushed to the side and have been trampled on by the United States government who have no interest in protecting its citizens. And that scares me as an artist, because eventually I want to get back into the performing arts, and the longer we are out of this career, the more detrimental it is to the industry.

Q: What does a daily routine look like for you? What have you been working on during this time?

So I spend about 30 hours a week contact tracing. That's my part time job right now. I've also been really working a lot on enjoying this time as just a mental refresh and reset button. I've been exercising a lot, which has been really positive. I have been reading, I joined a film club, and a book club at Michigan where we read theater books or musical theater books and watch films related to the fields and activism within the field and discuss it every week. That's kind of kept me engaged with other students and engaged in the industry which has been really nice. I'm just starting to get back to writing my play on the Stanford Prison Experiment that came to a close, I'm just starting to pick it back up and this is a great time to be writing, which is something I'm really interested in. It's a phenomenal time to be a playwright. It’s called “Bright, White Hell.”

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I believe that we need to focus. I think that during my time in college, in watching the performing arts world, we have focused a lot on diversity and I think diversity is extremely important. But I think equity is key. I don't think it matters if you have some diversity in your cast if everyone is not equitable within that production. And I have witnessed examples of inequitable spaces during my time at Michigan. I dream of the performing arts world becoming a world that is led more by people of color, by more women, by more LGBTQ members, and  by a more diverse range of people who are heading up regional theaters or regional dance companies, not just in Manhattan. I really want the performing arts world to become a place that is not only accepting of everyone and telling the stories of everyone but performing for everyone. And by everyone I mean the audience. Not only do we need socio-economic access, we need geographical access to communities that are not affected by the arts for change. We need to get into parts of the United States that don't have community theaters, that don't have dance programs. Where we can actually present different messages than maybe what those places are used to to start a conversation because we are so radicalized in as a country right now that we're not conversing even within the performing arts world we're just mostly a very liberal clump of people, and we have to use our power for good, and that is not being done very often.

Transcription courtesy of