VICENZA, Italy — When Olivia Rivera arrived at U.S. Army Garrison Italy, the performer was unsure if she could find her community.
Yet, just two years later – wearing a nun’s habit with a glowing award in hand – this military spouse found her niche thanks to a stint at the garrison’s Soldiers' Theatre.
Her performance as Sister Mary Roberts in “Sister Act” led to regional recognition at the 62nd annual Army Europe Entertainment Tournament of Plays, also known as the TOPPERs, in Wiesbaden, Germany. Her success highlights how military spouses contribute to the community. May 12 is Military Spouses Day.
“I found my people and a strong community,” Rivera said. “We get each other’s theater nuances and jokes. I’m really lucky.”
Rivera spent most of her life under the theater lights. She even joined a circus following her time as a theater major at the University of Arizona. Growing up a military child, Rivera moved frequently yet her innate resiliency did not prepare her for the challenges that military spouses faced during COVID-19.
Amid the pandemic, she moved overseas with her husband, a noncommissioned officer with the 307th Military Intelligence Battalion. COVID-19 and a new duty station brought stress. Rivera began working long hours at the Child & Youth Services, making it difficult for Rivera to connect with people outside of work.
“I knew with my long hours, I didn't want to participate in theater until I was super in love with a production,” Rivera said. “I was also nervous to audition because it seemed like a tight nit group, so I didn't want to ruffle any feathers.”
It was the first time Soldiers' Theatre performed “Sister Act.” Rivera found a second family among the Vicenza thespians. Long workdays and late-night rehearsals paid off. She won the “Outstanding Supporting Performance of a Female Role in a Musical” at the Toppers this April.
Rivera, like some military spouses worldwide, found ways to overcome many challenges. That includes a tough one — isolation. She now teaches circus acrobatics classes at the theater, helping other family members to integrate.
Another military spouse, Jessica Henninger, was recently awarded the Volunteer of the Year for the Vicenza Military Community for her efforts acting at Soldiers' Theatre and her efforts behind-the-scenes costuming shows like Sister Act. Jerry Brees, the theater’s entertainment director said Henninger’s is positive, friendly, outgoing and welcoming to new participants.
“Her optimism, energy, and support have helped influence and guide our diverse community of Soldiers, their families, civilians, youth, and Italian nationals in a multitude of ways,” Brees said. “She has contributed hundreds of hours to Soldiers' Theatre this year and has substantially enabled the program to prosper and grow.”
Rivera said Henninger’s workhorse efforts deserve accolades.
“She was working literal miracles when she has small children at home,” Rivera said of Henninger. “It’s kind of a testament to the resiliency of the military.”