Sassy sidekick. That’s the role in which Tracy Oliver MFA ’10 found herself perpetually typecast.
“I was always some version of Rizzo from Grease,” the young actress from Columbia, South Carolina, recalls.
Eager to show her range, Oliver came up with a strategy to change the roles she played: Take control of the story. So the Stanford graduate enrolled in the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Peter Stark Producing Program, and her transformation into a behind-the-scenes entertainment powerhouse began.
Oliver compares entering the Stark program to being thrown into a boot camp on reality TV. “It’s a very intimate program, where you’re suddenly working alongside 25 other grad students, day in and day out,” she says, but the grind was well worth it. “I saw just how much further USC put me ahead of other people my age.”
She praises acclaimed movie producer Larry Turman (his credits include The Graduate and American History X), a professor and chair of the Stark program, for preparing students for an evolving entertainment industry. When Oliver asked program faculty about producing content for online digital and streaming platforms, instructors helped her jump in. “Learning how to put my own content together changed my life,” she says. “This is so valuable in the Internet age, when access to places like YouTube allows everyone to see your work.”
Her Stark program experience proved vital when she became an actress, writer and producer for the popular Web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with friend Issa Rae from her undergraduate days. Relationships she fostered at USC helped bring together the series, which she says felt like “a third year of grad school.”
Awkward Black Girl became a calling card for Oliver, who soon landed writing gigs with studios and networks. Often the only woman in the writers’ room, she feels a responsibility for representing female and minority characters. “Before Scandal and Empire, there was a 10-year period when there was a lack of content for people of color,” she says. “There are still areas, particularly in the comedic space, I’d like to tackle.”
Another of the areas to be tackled is the arts: FOX Television recently hired Oliver to develop a one-hour drama set in the ballet world. She’ll partner with American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Misty Copeland on the project.
Meanwhile, her resume in television has grown to include writing for The Neighbors on ABC and serving as executive story editor for Survivor’s Remorse on STARZ. The experience gave her a chance to pay it forward. When Survivor’s Remorse needed a new staff writer, Oliver submitted a writing sample from Marquita Robinson MFA ’12, who studied movie producing in the Stark program. Robinson got the job.
Oliver likes the control and creative freedom of being behind the scenes—but she admits it’s hard to shake the desire to perform. So, what if she got a call to play Rizzo? “Rizzo really is the best part of Grease,” she says. “I’d love to play her again, just not every single time.”