Coming Home

By Julie Riggott

Being part of the first production in the School of Dramatic Arts’ new home was a full-circle moment for Thornton’s Oliviana Marie.

From the moment she learned that United University Church was being transformed into the new home for the USC School of Dramatic Arts, Thornton Composition major Oliviana Marie (B.M. ’25) dreamed of being involved with the opening production. 

Photo of a family attending a baptism ceremony inside a church for Oliviana Marie.
December 27, 2003: Oliviana Marie (center) surrounded by family & friends at her baptism ceremony at United University Church (UUC). (Photo courtesy of the Halus-Griep family)

That’s because, for Oliviana, UUC feels like home. She grew up in the More Light Presbyterian and Methodist church — as a person and a musician. Her dad, composer/accompanist Thomas Griep, is a Thornton alumnus and former music director at UUC. She was baptized there, sang in the choir with her mom every week, performed piano and trumpet during services, and even had her 6th birthday party in the courtyard. When she followed in her dad’s footsteps and came to USC Thornton, Oliviana had her first composition lesson in UUC, in what is now the Sanctuary Theatre of the new Dramatic Arts Building. 

“That beautiful building holds so many happy memories for me,” she said, “and it felt like coming home when I had my composition lessons there.”

On March 28, after two years of renovations, the 1930s-era church officially became the first home of the nearly 80-year-old School of Dramatic Arts, complete with two theaters, recording studios and other state-of-the-art facilities. And Oliviana saw her dream realized when the play she composed music, played trumpet and piano, and acted — opened Friday, April 12, in the mainstage Sanctuary Theatre.

“It truly was a full-circle moment,” she said.

This isn’t Oliviana’s first collaboration with the School of Dramatic Arts. She was composer and music director for its production of Oliver Mayer’s Conjunto last semester. 

“One of the talented actors in that production, Sammie Zenoz, was assistant directing the play and he recommended me to director Edgar Landa to compose additional music and play in the band,” she said. “We formed the Landa Banda with talented SDA students Gabriel Finn, Cameron Knauf, Sentin Lo, Mia Sun and Aria Upton, and I had an incredible time.”

Photo of a jazz band featuring composer Oliviana Marie playing on stage during the production of an indoor play.
Oliviana Marie (center, seated at the keyboard) plays with the Landa Banda, featuring USC School of Dramatic Arts students Gabriel Finn, Cameron Knauf, Sentin Lo, Mia Sun and Aria Upton. (Photo by Craig Schwartz/USC School of Dramatic Arts)

Composing for musical theater became a passion for Oliviana in high school. Her first musical, The Middle of Nowhere, was mentored by Stephen Schwartz, Stormy Sacks and Randy Brenner and performed at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. She has written the music, lyrics and book to four award-winning musicals; her latest, CORONA’S CABARET: An Act of Destruction, won the Foundation for New American Musical’s ShowSearch this spring.

Given her wide-ranging interests, including composition, musical theater, songwriting, dance, stage and screen acting, and jazz trumpet and piano, Oliviana found an artistic home at USC Thornton.

“I chose to attend USC Thornton because I am passionate about multiple disciplines and the school offers everything,” she said. “I’ve been trying my best to take advantage of every opportunity while I’m here.”

For instance, while majoring in Composition, she is pursuing a Music Production minor. Her diverse coursework has included jazz improv, screen scoring and non-linear MIDI sequencing. She also studied contemporary pop songwriting privately with Christopher Sampson, who was her mentor in YoungArts and Grammy Camp during high school.

Oliviana Marie has written the music, lyrics and book to four award-winning musicals. CORONA’S CABARET: An Act of Destruction won the Foundation for New American Musical’s ShowSearch in spring 2024. (YouTube embed courtesy of @Oliviana)  

While taking advantage of various opportunities within Thornton, like playing trumpet in a jazz combo led by senior lecturer in Jazz Studies David Arnay, Oliviana has collaborated artistically across USC schools. She has composed music for School of Cinematic Arts student films, and she served as the music coordinator on the board of USC’s student-run Musical Theatre Repertory (MTR), working on three productions.

One of her favorite experiences was last year’s Choreographers & Composers Showcase, where Thornton Composition students were paired with Kaufman dance majors to create a piece together. 

“My collaborators, Leon Powell and Esi Samuels, were amazingly talented and creative. When they found out that I had grown up dancing, they wanted me to dance in the piece with them, and I agreed to, on one condition, that they would play the piano too! So, I taught them how to play ‘Chopsticks,’ they taught me choreography, and I got to play piano and trumpet live in the showcase as well. It was an amazing experience.” 

She is also proud of being one of the founding members of the Thornton Composers Ensemble, which she started with Composition colleagues Ella Kaale, Charlie Richardson, Chloe Villamayor and Namratha Kasalanati.

“Our mission is to increase the volume of performance opportunities for students at USC to share their original music,” she said.

Oliviana has studied composition with Ted Hearne and Christopher Trapani, in addition to Sampson, at Thornton. And this year she is being mentored by Composition Chair Donald Crockett

“He’s an accomplished composer and conductor who encourages me to stay true to my musical instincts, while still pushing me out of my comfort zone.”

Oliviana Marie’s original score to Rose, an animated short film by USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Joe Jacobs, premiered at filmUSiC, an event created by Thornton Composition major and alumni Anya Lagman (’23) and Cello Performance major Quenton Blache (’23). The concert paired animated films from Cinematic Arts to orchestral scores written by Thornton students, all set to picture and conducted for a live audience. (YouTube embed courtesy of @Oliviana)  

While enjoying the supportive environment in the Composition program, Oliviana also appreciates how diverse the music is. 

“I’m inspired by each and every one of my teachers and fellow classmates, and I think our department is unique in the sense that a composer could bring in an orchestral suite, a musical theatre ballad or a rap song and each piece of music would be equally respected and critiqued.”

Oliviana’s musical influences range from songwriters of the Great American Songbook Era to legends of musical theater to contemporary classical and film score composers like Frank Ticheli and Laura Karpman and pop, jazz and R&B songwriters. Her compositions have been earning her awards throughout her college career, including two in the 2023 American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) Student Competition. In 2022, she was an award winner at the Marvin Hamlisch International Music Awards in the emerging contemporary R&B category and a nominee in the emerging jazz composition category. That’s just to name a few. 

She said that Thornton has helped her become a better composer and musician in innumerable ways. 

“I not only have a stronger compositional foundation, with more advanced knowledge of music theory, aural skills, orchestration, improvisation, counterpoint and conducting, but I’ve also gained the ability to think on my feet, and not be afraid to adapt to new or challenging situations. Attending this school has truly changed my life!”

Composer and conductor Oliviana Marie on the sound stage of an orchestral screen scoring session at a film studio.
Oliviana Marie participates in the Los Angeles Film Conducting Intensive on the Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo courtesy of Oliviana Marie)

Oliviana shares her passion for the school as a Thornton Student Ambassador, a group of students who volunteer to represent the school for prospective students.

“Being a Thornton Student Ambassador has been a great chance to share my love of USC with others,” she said, “and my dad is really proud that I’m a Trojan. He’s always supported me and is there to give me feedback on my latest compositions. My mom also teaches voice at UCLA, so we’re a home that loves both schools!”

From a young age, Oliviana and her parents made music together. 

“I found that one of the most effective and interesting ways to express myself was through writing songs,” she said. 

Her extended musical family has also had a major influence in her life.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by immensely talented individuals while growing up, and they’ve definitely become some of my biggest influences. My godfather, Lew Spence, was an incredible songwriter who wrote for legends such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Barbra Streisand and Fred Astaire. I’m always inspired by his music.”

Her godmother, Cher, attended her baptism at UUC and is one of the inspirations, along with Esperanza Spalding, Alicia Keys and Carole King, for a band she formed at USC to express her love for pop, jazz and R&B. 

Oliviana said that her experience at USC has strengthened her love of collaboration and desire to pursue multidisciplinary work — and alumni have been a part of that.

“It’s always so inspiring when Thornton alumni speak about their experiences because it reminds me that there are so many different paths for an artist and they’re all worth exploring.”

So, while celebrating the success at Sanctuary Theatre, she is also excited about her next project. She is getting ready to produce and direct her first film, based on ‘CORONA’S CABARET: An Act of Destruction,’ and is seeking collaborators.

“I’m really excited to see what the future holds!” she said.

Featured photo by Kelsey Edwards

TAGS: Composition, Jazz Studies,

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