The first time Maria-Christina Oliveras was injured, she did what many actors do. She performed through it. This was last October, while Oliveras was rehearsing for the Hadestown national tour, where she played Persephone, the lady of the underground. When she pulled a hamstring during rehearsals, she thought nothing of it. “It was an innocuous hamstring injury—we thought it'd be fine,” she recalls thinking. After a few days with a cane, Oliveras seemingly recovered. She opened the tour in Houston October 6 with full movement and choreography. Then days later, while walking outside, Oliveras tripped and fell onto her back. And that tumble tore all three of her hamstrings.
Suddenly, Oliveras was in a nightmare situation for an actor—not only did she need to have emergency surgery, she needed to take six months off work. In the theatre, it’s common for actors to work through sickness or an injury; the show must go on after all. But this time, Oliveras’ body said enough; she could no longer will it into performing. Initially, she blamed herself, thinking, “I should not have been walking on that particular sidewalk.” She admits that as actors, “we don't ever want to be seen as a liability, for people to look at us as weak. For people to be like, ‘Oh, can she do it?’”
Embarrassed, Oliveras didn’t even tell anyone about her situation, not even her close friends or her cast mates in Hadestown. But then something amazing happened. Oliveras got cast in a Broadway show (more on that later). And in those six months of recovery, she learned to speak up for herself, to not be afraid to tell people about her needs and limitations, and, more crucially, she learned to be kinder to herself.
When Oliveras was first told she needed to take six months off, “I was devastated.” But then—and here she leans in, with awe in her voice—”the silver linings that came after it were above and beyond anything.” Like her character in Hadestown, Persephone, Oliveras has indeed been to hell and back—and she’s ready to tell her story, which she sums up as, “Shit happens and the only thing that we can do is how we react to them.”
Last year, when Oliveras’ doctor told her that she had done an incredibly rare thing by tearing all three of her right leg hamstrings…being the charming actor that she was, Oliveras could only respond with a joke, “Well, I’ve always been an overachiever.”
But inside, she was not so calm. Instead, she felt ashamed. She had been an actor for two decades with many notable credits (Amelie on Broadway, Kiss My Aztec with John Leguizamo). She should be better than this; she should be able to power through. The theatre is filled with stories of actors injuring themselves and still performing: When Kristin Chenoweth injured her neck in Wicked, she went back to work immediately and sang while wearing a bedazzled neck brace. In recent years, as COVID-19 has ravaged the theatre industry, there’s been more calls for producers to hire more understudies and covers, so that actors could feel empowered to call out when they’re sick. But on the day-to-day, the stigma around getting hurt persists.
“Being injured, that fucking, like, wrecked me on every level,” says Oliveras. She had to move home for a period, to her parents’ home in the Bronx, to recover. As a first-generation American, her mother was from the Philippines and her father was from Puerto Rico, the actor was always used to working and moving. But at home, “I was sedentary. To get Vitamin D, my mom would literally wheel me outside for 15 minutes.”
Two months into her recovery, an antsy Oliveras asked her agent to scope out any roles she could perform where she wouldn’t have to move extensively. It wasn’t that she felt pressured to work (the Hadestown team said she could come back to the show when she recovered). But she felt powerless, so she asked herself, “What is in my control? I guess I can shoot my agent an email!"
Her agent responded, saying that, coincidentally, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and casting director Karyn Casl had been asking about her. There was a role opening up in the Broadway run of Guirgis’ Pulitzer-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy. The play was about a Black cop called Pops (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) who was shot by a white cop and is left feeling bitter and betrayed. In the second act, a character comes in who provides Pops with a moment of emotional clarity. That character is called Church Lady. Liza Colón-Zayas, who had been playing that role, had to depart early to film season two of The Bear on Hulu. Would Oliveras be available to replace her as the Church Lady?
Oliveras was excited at the prospect of being able to work, and also being able to share the stage with Henderson, whom she idolized. But again, that shame and paranoia crept up. Should she tell the show that she was injured, that she would need accommodations? Or would they think she was too much trouble.
Plus, there was the pressure of the role. Not only was Oliveras sharing a scene with Henderson (“our greatest living American actor”), talking to him about regret and finding forgiveness through God, but the Church Lady also walks over to Pops, straddles him, and has sex with him right there in his kitchen. Sure, the character was only in two scenes, but it wasn't going to be an easy time. Oliveras didn’t know if she could or should physically do it. If she fell again or bent her body in the wrong direction—”You fuck up the tissues,” she remarks bluntly—the damage could be permanent.
With guidance from her best friend (fellow actor Crystal Dickinson, who cautioned, “You don't want to compromise your future for this one moment"), Oliveras trepidatiously told the Between Riverside and Crazy team about her injuries, saying that if they hired her, adjustments would need to be made. To her surprise, they were supportive. The Hayes Theater was accessible, a rarity for Broadway, which made it possible for Oliveras to bypass stairs on the way to the stage and to her dressing room. The show's intimacy coordinator, Crista Marie Jackson, made sure that she could adjust her movements onstage so that it wouldn't aggravate her injury. The stage management team made sure that Oliveras entered and exited the turntable stage safely.
For an extra measure of safety, Oliveras had her doctor watch rehearsals. He gave her the all clear—or as Oliveras put it, laughing, “You're not medically cleared to ride a turntable or walk stairs in Hadestown. But you can simulate sex with an older man in a wheelchair.”
On January 6, Oliveras started performances in Between Riverside and Crazy. And what became a way for her to feel useful while recovering from an injury became the learning experience of a lifetime. During our conversation, Oliveras said the phrase “silver linings” multiple times. Talking to her, and hearing how passionately she recounted the trials of the past year, it’s clear she wasn’t advocating for performing while injured. Instead, she marveled at how an occurrence that is normally considered a liability helped her grow as an actor.
A big silver lining: Every night on stage, Oliveras received an acting master class from Henderson, who taught her to go back to basics—to focus not on how she was being perceived or what was happening externally, but instead to live in the present moment. Oliveras quotes Henderson multiple times in the interview, particularly one line: “We’re not trying to get it right, we’re trying to get it true.”
As Oliveras further elaborates: “In this situation, I was not thinking about any of that industry bullshit, like jobs or how is this gonna further my career. Because I was so focused on the work and the process, and serving the piece from where I was, injury and all,” she admits. “McKinley lives in truth and also in stillness."
During the run of Between Riverside and Crazy, Oliveras made a productive recovery, even going up and down stairs by the time the show closed in February. Then over a month later in April, Oliveras was back in the Hadestown tour, with full use of her legs. But Oliveras was not the same performer, not the same Persephone, as before.
“I have a deeper appreciation for my body as a performer. Our instrument is this,” she gestures to her body as she says this. “We’ve got to take care of it no matter what…As actors, we are so scared because we operate within scarcity and that we should be grateful for work. There's always someone waiting to step in for you. Operating within that mindset devalues us. It compromises us.” And she has a message for any actor who has ever felt shame around getting injured or admitting they have weaknesses—advocate for yourself: “Honor where you are, and say, ‘I can't do this right now.’ Make that choice consciously and intentionally versus being at the will of the system, which sometimes does not look out for the actor's body.”
Now as she finishes up the Hadestown tour October 1, Oliveras is taking the time to reflect on the past year—thanking her body for getting her through it and thanking the universe for the lesson: “The universe gives you what you need, but not necessarily when you expect it.”