Originally from California, Jenson Titus Lavallee is now a Fishtown-based actor starring as “Babur” in Theatre Exile’s latest production of “Guards at the Taj.” We chatted with the Pig Iron School alum about his leading role, Philly’s LGBTQ performance scene, and being out in the theater world.
Your acting career has taken you coast to coast. How does Philly’s LGBTQ performance scene compare to those in other regions?
I mean, there’s just no place like the northeast for performance. There are wonderful little pockets here and there in the country, but the community here is so dense and rich. I lived on the West Coast when I was younger, but I do remember the theater scene being pretty basic. California has some great stuff going on, but the focus is really on TV/film there. I’d say the most interesting place I’ve been outside of the northeast is Atlanta. They’ve got some freaky shit going on there. Good freaky. It’s still mostly commercial work, but there are some phenomenal performance artists and arts organizations down there.
Philly, even compared to New York, is truly a mecca for making your own work. There’s just nowhere in the states right now that has this many young artists making such strong, ballsy, and powerful work. Thanks to places like Pig Iron and Headlong, there are opportunities for younger artists to work with and be mentored by successful and worldly artists. I’m so grateful for artists like Dito Van Reigersberg, Nichole Canuso, Quinn Bauriedel, and Emmanuelle Delpech (to name just a few) who are really investing in younger artists. In other environments, it’s easy to feel this “gap” between older, more established performers and the younger ones who are finding their footing, but in Philly people are always willing to lend a hand if you’re willing to work hard and learn. I love this community and I am constantly having to amp up my game because everyone around me is making all this amazing work and I’m like “Shit, I need to work harder. These fuckers are amazing.”
In Guards at the Taj, you play Babur, one of the two guards whose presence guides the entire play. What interested you most about this play and your role?
I have always had a deep love for Rajiv Joseph. I think he’s an incredible playwright and is so masterful at weaving magic into realism. The relationship between Babur and Humayun reminds me a lot of my relationship with my partner. We frustrate each other very much, but love and grow from those things that truly get under our skin about one another. There’s the sense of duty in Humayun, which I can relate to, but there’s also the idea of following a much more organic set of rules that Babur abides by. This play really deals with where those two things begin to conflict and how we deal with turmoil in a society that’s feeding us one thing, but deep down we know we should be fighting against it. It’s often how I’ve been feeling lately. It seems that every day we wake up to news of another devastating incident, but we’re not sure of how to combat the horrors. I feel very much like Babur feels. He seems to have the answers, but they’re seen as “radical” by Humayun. Is radicalism for the sake of peace and beauty even more disruptive than conformity to something we know isn’t right? I mean, it’s intense, really. I’ll be very excited to explore this play and what Babur and Humayuns relationship looks like by the end of it.
In playing this role, how did your multitude of identities intersect?
Well, let’s see … You’ve got Babur (the character I’m playing), who is an escapist. He’s lived a rough life, and so he’s developed some defense mechanisms. I can really relate to his little mechanisms. He never wants to take anything too seriously, he lives on the edge of his boundaries, he’s rebellious, he’s messy, and he always wants to crack a joke to break the tension. This is basically who I am — haha. But! There’s also Humayun (Anthony Adair), who likes institutional success, cares about what others think of him, and is able to make tough decisions when the time comes. I absolutely see and relate to where he’s coming from. That’s what makes this play so interesting and challenging. It’s hard for us, the actors, and us, the characters, to come to an agreement on who’s playing with fire … the right way. I’m assuming it’s also pretty difficult for the audience to decide how they feel afterwards because it pulls on their contradicting identities as well. They relate to the awe-struck Babur and the fear-struck Humayun.
There was a recent point in my life where I had to give up the notion that everything is possible and lean heavily on the idea that what I put the most time and energy into is possible. I have dreams of doing this or that, farfetched dreams, perhaps (Babur), but then I think “Okay, well, how do we make that happen? Where does the money come from for that? How can I do that and still work a day job?” etc. and that’s definitely Humayun stepping in and raining on the parade a bit. There is a reality. It’s taken me some time to come to terms with it, as I’m sure it does with most artists, but I think it’s a useful thing to come to terms. Both the dreamer and the pragmatist are necessary coexisting identities.
What is the Philly theater scene like for a gay actor?
It’s extremely welcoming. I’ve never been pigeon-holed into only playing a gay or effeminate man. I also make a lot of my own work, and the devising world in Philly is super-relaxed and very much encourages a gender- and sexual-orientation-fluid process. Only when it’s necessary do my sexual preferences come into play at work. Otherwise, it’s never been the focus in an audition room or in a rehearsal process. There’s this wonderful LGBTQ performance series called AGITATED! that combines burlesque, clown, bouffon, and many other performance styles. It runs every month and features different performers from all over Philly. You’ve also got The Bearded Ladies, Get Pegged Cabaret, Martha Graham Cracker. It’s like a gay boy’s dream coming to Philly! Everyone is very lovely and kind. They want you to succeed. I have yet to meet a single shady character. Hopefully that doesn’t change.
What’s the best advice you would give to a freshmen LGBTQ performer that you wished you had given yourself when starting out?
Okay, I’ll do a numbers thing:
1. My mentor, John Hardy, once told us: ‘Never complain. Complaining is admitting there’s a problem, but doing nothing to solve it.” Performers are problem-solvers. Don’t complain! Solve the problem like a sexy Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock.
2. HAVE FUN. Jesus, I used to torture myself. Always always always find the pleasure in your performance, but remember: It’s not about you. Your art is a service to the audience. Lose yourself in front of them. They love it.
3. As an LGBTQ performer you’re more attuned to all of interesting shit going on inside of that head/soul/body of yours. Make use all of the energies flowing through you and never be ashamed by any of them. If you want, you can play anyone from the butchest car mechanic from Kentucky all the way to the queeniest of the queens from Queenland.
4. Be kind. Celebrate other artists’ victories. Find what you love about everyone you’re working with, because you’ll have a much better time creating amongst people you love. There’s nothing better than finding a good collaborator. Be that good collaborator so that everyone will want to work with you.
Guards at the Taj plays through November 13th. For more information, visit the Theatre Exile’s website.