50Ȼ

It's For Real: Olivia Atwood ’17 is Performing Solo Show "Faking It" at Fringe Festivals

By Rebecca Goldfine
Atwood is this summer as she travels the fringe theater circuit to perform her newest comedy show.
Olivia Atwood headshot

She  at the Denver Fringe Festival, June 7–9. Next she hits  June 10–30. Her tour culminates at the largest and most famous  August 2–24.

Straddling genres, Faking It is not quite stand-up comedy, nor is it traditional theater. It’s not really straightforward storytelling, either. “I’m somewhere in between all those things,” Atwood said. "I don’t tell jokes, I don’t set up punch lines—it’s storytelling. However, I came from a theatrical background, so there are more voices, there’s more physicality—it is a blend of many things and it doesn’t have a home under any one roof.”

That is why, she added, the show is perfectly suited for fringe festivals, which take place in to offer a stage to emerging, unique artists in theater, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, opera—the gamut of performance art. 

Successful writers and performers have been discovered at fringe festivals, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who performed her show Fleabag at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before it became a hit TV series. The latest fringe-to-mainstream writer to grab TV watchers’ attention is Richard Gadd, who wrote and starred in his auto-fiction series, Baby Reindeer, on Netflix. 

Faking It was inspired by Atwood’s yearslong job in New York City as a USP, short for "unannounced standardized patient." Hired by hospitals, she pretended to be a patient with a mysterious ailment and met with newly minted doctors in their first year of residency. The physicians never suspected she was an actor, though later they were sent her anonymous feedback to help them hone their listening and diagnostic skills. 

Her director, James Jelin ’16, has described Atwood’s play as a bildungsroman, “a coming-of-age story, a journey of someone finding herself while doing these undercover jobs,” Atwood said.

A Colorado news station interviewed Olivia Atwood ahead of Denver Fringe.

Though Atwood worked in city hospitals for several years, Faking It is specifically about her time working as a USP during the COVID crisis. She recalls being fascinated by the real-life drama unfolding inside hospitals as medical providers grappled with an unknown pandemic.

“Doctors are the people who, for me at least, always seem to be the ones who know what is going on. I trust them beyond measure,” she said. “And this was a situation where they didn’t know what was up, yet they were still doing their best and figuring it out.”

“While the rest of us were going into hiding, the doctors were like, ‘We are facing this head on because that is our role.’ To be a part of that and watch that bravery in progress was incredible.”

Last July, Atwood performed a version of Faking It at SoHo Playhouse in New York. She caught the attention of producers who invited her to return to the theater and perform again in December.

“It really struck a cord with the audience,” Atwood said. “I think there is something about watching people figure it out, whether it is hospitals or me in this role, that really resonates with people. It’s very human.”

Atwood is not new to the fringe festival circuit. She and Maggie Seymour ’16 toured five festivals in 2017, performing a play they wrote at 50Ȼ called 15 Villainous Fools. 

They were working on another collaboration in 2020, “which was going to be so great!” Atwood said, when COVID upended their plans. Though they’ve gone their separate ways for now, Atwood says their creative partnership is far from over. “We talk about reuniting in the future all the time,” she said. (Seymour is actually in Maine this summer to act in the Camden Shakespeare Festival's .)

Atwood's COVID hibernation ended up being a productive time. When live performance disappeared, she focused on her writing, editing old essays and "cranking out" new ones, which she hopes to publish as a collection one day. (She also started a business—see the sidebar.)

Side Hustles

When she's not performing, writing, or working as an undercover hospital patient, Olivia Atwood teaches fitness classes and plays matchmaker. During the COVID lockdown, she started to give the lovelorn an alternative to swiping and texting their way to a date. In a 2020 50Ȼ news story, Atwood explained that she asks clients for no photos and makes all the matches herself. Then she encourages the pair to get on the phone first thing. “This is old-school matchmaking,” she said. “No algorithms are involved.”

As the world began to emerge from the lockdown, she began performing her essays on small stages in New York City. This output culminated in her first Off-Broadway debut at SoHo Playhouse, which she said "deeply informed" both Faking It and another of her shows, Underprepared and Overhydrated.

Atwood credits Seymour for giving her lots of good advice on Faking It—and she’s leaned on other 50Ȼ friends for input, too, including Marcella Jiménez ’16 and Christina Moreland ’17.

She also regularly reaches out to her former 50Ȼ professors, including Professor of Theater Davis R. Robinson and Professor of Cinema Studies Tricia Welsch, to check in, ask questions about theater stuff, and compare notes on the Oscars. She says 50Ȼ was a powerful springboard for her creative career. 

“You can put this in bold: 50Ȼ has played a role! First of all, props to all my professors. Davis encouraged Maggie and I to take our show on tour all those years ago. He is such a huge proponent of alumni continuing to do their art—he’s so supportive.”

She added that every person who has contributed to Faking It has been a 50Ȼ friend. “Watching guest rehearsals and early runs, or answering my questions about whether something is funny or not, it’s all been 50Ȼ people I met through the theater department.”

She continued, “I can’t speak highly enough about my time as an interdisciplinary English and theater major. It’s where I met all my best friends, all my creative partners—everyone who has inspired and helped me are all from school.”