Trumbull native January LaVoy triumphs in New York drama
January LaVoy wonders if she chose acting or if it chose her.
But when your grandmother was president of a Connecticut community theater and you can’t remember a time when you weren’t hanging out with actors and directors, what other career path are you going to pursue?
“It really is all my grandmother’s fault,” LaVoy says of the late Mary Lou Capristo, who was always involved with Bridgeport’s Polka Dot Playhouse, including a stint as president.
“Even as a baby I’d be sitting on the floor surrounded by all of these people in scarves reading Neil Simon and Christopher Durang. ... They put me on stage at 3, and that was that — much to my parents’ chagrin,” the actor says, laughing, a few hours before a performance in the much raved-about Signature Theatre production of Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” in New York City.
LaVoy has appeared in some of the best plays produced in Manhattan over the past decade, had a blast creating the role of Noelle Ortiz-Stubbs on the long-running ABC daytime drama, “One Life to Live,” and is a prize-winning audiobook reader, so she is very happy with her career in show business, but is the first to admit she never really considered anything else.
In addition to those early days at Polka Dot, the Trumbull native attributes much of her success to her undergraduate studies at Fairfield University in an academic setting, rather than in one of the theater schools.
“I wish I could seem super smart about going the academic route, but it was by luck I ended up there. There was an element of protectiveness at Fairfield that I can only see in retrospect,” LaVoy says.
Martha LoMonaco, of the theater department, made it a mandate that each student had to spend some time working in every stage production job. “We had to make costumes, build sets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thanked by a crew member just because I’ve done those jobs, and I know that it’s not magic that results in costumes being delivered and steamed every night,” the performer adds.
LaVoy’s early choice of career has been bolstered over the years by seeing the unique power of theater to make a direct connection with people in this age of so-called “virtual reality.” In the two-character Eno play, which finished a sold-out limited run earlier this month, LaVoy played a caregiver for a terminally ill man (played by Michael Emerson). She received great reviews, but what really mattered to the performer were the emotions the piece stirred in theatergoers.
“Some people are so moved. I’ve had emails telling me (the play was like) the story of their loved one. But there have been other people who are still grieving and don’t want to sit with that,” she says.
The actor remembers being in grad school on 9/11, and being appalled to be asked to rehearse “Cyrano de Bergerac” that night.
“We were shocked and furious, but the director told us he understood how this could seem like the smallest, most frivolous thing in the world. But we were opening in three weeks and he said, ‘In three weeks, people will need a story about heroism and love. Trust me, they’re going to need us.’ I realized theater is a gift, and that’s why it isn’t going away,” she recalls.
“Wakey, Wakey” has special meaning for LaVoy because Eno wrote it in response to the death of Signature Theatre founder James Houghton. The playwright has had other work sponsored by the New York City theater company and LaVoy has loved working there on plays such as August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”
“We did the first read-through of the first draft six weeks after Jim died. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would be able to do it,” she says. “Will asked me, so I wanted to say yes, but I didn’t know if I was strong enough to do the caregiver role eight times a week.”
LaVoy did the reading and then started rehearsing the full production.
“Multiple times a week I was in tears at rehearsal. I’m not Jewish, but it felt like an extended shiva. I was able to scratch off the scab and see my grief from a lot of different angles — so sad, so angry, so grateful,” she says of finding a way to cope with the loss of Houghton through her work.
“I accepted my character’s role as caregiver. When the audience came in, I realized there were more people to be taken care of — not knowing what they might be grieving. It has been a big lesson — to focus outside myself to see the needs of others,” she says.
While co-starring in the show, LaVoy continued with her very successful work as an audiobook reader. She has multiple Audies to her credit — that’s the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar — including winning one last year for her work on Libba Bray’s “Lair of Dreams.”
The actor loves the variety of characters she can inhabit and the wide-ranging stories she can tell in a recording booth. “It’s incredibly gratifying. If you had told me when I was 10 or 12 that I would be paid to read books, I would have thought you were making fun of me,” she says.
LaVoy just finished recording the book that the FX series “Feud” is based on and got a special kick out of reading a scene with Bette Davis and best-selling author Jacqueline Susann.
“I have Jacqueline Susann to thank for my name,” she adds, chuckling, of her mom’s affection for the character of January Wayne in “Once Is Not Enough.”