American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
Box Office: 608-588-2361
APT recently announced that actor Gavin Lawrence will be joining the core acting company beginning in 2019. Here's our recent Q&A with Gavin, with a foreword from Artistic Director, Brenda DeVita.
"We're thrilled that Gavin has chosen to join our core company," Brenda said. "He's a brilliant actor, an incredible human being and a strong voice for our future here at APT. As the first African American core company member, his leadership and integrity and belief in what we do here, along with his ability to help us expand the notion of who we are is so important for our future, for the company and for our audience. We are grateful that he is passionate enough about the theater - the quality of the work we do and the kind of work we do - to take this journey with us. I am so excited, and I can't wait to see where he takes us."
APT: Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?
Gavin: I was born in Georgetown, Guyana and lived there until I was seven. Then I moved to Washington, DC, which is basically where I grew up, although I did finish my last two years of high school in North Bergen, NJ. After high school, I attended Howard University, getting a BFA in Drama. After college I bounced back and forth between NYC and DC until moving to Minneapolis in the early 90s where I was able to really develop my skills as an actor, writer, director and composer. When I’m not working, I like to run - I’ve completed three marathons and one half marathon. I try to spend time with my kids when I can, and I love to travel. I love lighthouses and am on a quest to see as many as I can.
APT: What led you to pursue a career in theater?
Gavin: As far back as I can remember I somehow felt like there was something in me that I wanted to show or understand, but wasn’t allowed to. It may have just been my imagination. I was quite shy and self-conscious. Somehow I found a freedom and some kind of self-worth when I would perform, even though I was so nervous that sometimes I wouldn’t even remember what had just happened onstage. Seriously. I’ve heard other actors say that there’s a safety in “hiding” in someone else’s skin. I would say that there’s also the thrill of exploring such a wide array of feelings and emotions within the confines of a character and story on stage that can be quite healing.
There was one seminal moment when I was about eight or nine. I was allowed to stay up on a Sunday Night (a school night) to watch a PBS presentation the of play, Ceremonies In Dark Old Men, by Lonne Elder III. It was produced by the Negro Ensemble Company where so many of our greatest actors developed their craft. Glynn Turman played the older brother, Theo. It was an amazing and heartbreaking play, and there was something about his performance - something about this flawed and human and loving person that jumped through the black and white TV screen and literally filled a hole inside me that I didn’t even know was there. I’ve tried to articulate it over the years, and the best way I can explain it is to say that I realized, for the first time during what had been a troubled childhood, that I wasn’t alone. I think we all, on some level, need that reassurance. Or, in my case, that discovery. And so
I’ve stayed connected to that moment - that act of filling a hole or healing a wound. Being onstage does that for me, and I hope and pray that what I bring to the stage might do that for someone else as well - that I might be able to reflect something back to someone who needs to fill that hole or put some salve on that wound or reassure that heart.
APT: What were your first impressions of APT?
Gavin: I came to see my friend and brother Chiké Johnson in Othello. It was dark. I got lost. My GPS had no signal. I remember thinking, ‘Uh...where am I?’ But I made it to the theatre where the parking lot was PACKED, walked up the hill and it was as if I had landed in another world. Throngs of people who were passionate about theatre. Bats. Seeing my breath. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a thing!’
With my first season as an actor here, my impressions were all about the quality of the work – the artistry. Actors who were on top of their game. Some of the best in the country (and I’m not even playing). I can be pretty critical as I feel there is quite a bit of mediocrity in the American theatre these days. That’s not what I saw when I got here. Ultimately the kind of unconditional support that the artists receive here is unprecedented in my years as a theatre artist.
APT: What do you like most about working in Spring Green? What do you find most challenging?
Gavin: There’s a part of my spirit that really smiles in Spring Green. Most of the folks are quite welcoming and friendly. I love the small town feel that is unique to Spring Green. I say that because I’ve been to other small towns in this country where I don’t feel that. There’s something quite magical about this place. I always feel so blessed and fortunate when I walk out of the up-the-Hill dressing room after a show and see the night sky. I don’t know if I could do it all the time because I’m also a city guy, but the time I spend in Spring Green is a really balm for my spirit.
What’s most challenging is the lack of diversity and all that comes with that. I would love to see more people who look like me and my kids. I would love to have access to more variety in food, music, language and rhythm that comes with more diverse communities. At times it can feel like I’m under a microscope in Spring Green and that can be quite exhausting. It takes a toll. I’m not unique in this experience. Whether it’s the theatre, corporate America, or most college campuses that are not HBCUs, most folks who look like me have had to experience this feeling of being an outsider from time to time, and here in Spring Green where the work I’m doing requires me to be open, to be vulnerable, and to bare my soul at times, it can be overwhelming when I don’t see my experience reflected back to me.
APT: What made you decide to accept the offer to join APT’s core company?
Gavin: Wow, where do I start? I could go on and on. But I’ll start with the work - the quality of the work. APT is in a class by itself. I feel like I still have a lot to learn as an artist and as a man. The challenge of doing this work well means growth, and I feel like I’m growing as I work with artist who are masters at their craft. The next thing is the artistic leadership. The women who run this company have the kind of vision, talent, acumen, courage, and integrity that I want to be a part of. I’ve said it time and time again – what so many other theatres around the country say that they are doing, APT is actually doing. It’s not just talk, and that’s so refreshing at a time when so many artistic and managing directors are spouting all the politically correct rhetoric but doing nothing within their organizations to actualize these sugary promises. Ultimately however, it was the reminder from a very wise woman who told me that it’s important to not make this decision based on fear and doubt, but rather on faith and love. I say that because, to be quite honest, I was concerned and worried about what accepting this offer could take me away from instead of what I could lead me to, and what she said made me realize that I was fearing the unknown instead of embracing it and all its possibilities. I felt like I would be turning my back on the blessing of a lifetime.
APT: You’ve been described as a very contemplative decision-maker. Do you agree with that? Why or why not?
Gavin: I think it depends on the thing that’s being decided on. Certain things I don’t have to think a lot about because I know right away, but most of those things don’t require a commitment that will impact my future in a major way. I’m at a different place in my life than I was 10 years ago when I was offered something comparable to this opportunity. In that case, I let my uncertainty and doubt take the lead. I thought it through for quite some time but ultimately declined the offer. So when Brenda offered me a place in the core company I immediately went to that contemplative place. I thought about it and weighed all the pros and cons; I sought advice from people who care about me and my happiness. I tried to push fear and doubt aside. I waited. I woke up one morning, got out of bed and literally heard a word come out of my mouth - ‘yes.’
APT: Brenda says you, as an actor and a person, can help expand the notion of who this theater is. Do you agree? How do you feel about taking that on?
Gavin: I hope I can. First of all, let me say that I acknowledge that I’ll be the first African American (from the Caribbean) to join the core company. I embrace that and don’t take it lightly. I’m standing on the shoulders of my ancestors and countless others who struggled, sacrificed, and died so that I and others like me might have a better life than they had (and I don’t think I’m being over dramatic to put it this way), so I acknowledge and embrace that history and all that comes with it. It therefore is an honor and a responsibility to do my part in expanding all that APT is and can be in the future as we look to be more inclusive and forward-thinking - not just in the plays we present but also the people who are part of making it happen. So I’m excited to take that on - to be a part of a company that is working to respectfully present stories that speak to an evolving America. There’s room for all of us at the table.
APT: In your opinion, why is it so important to get new perspectives in the stories we tell, and to diversify the company?
Gavin: Because this country is evolving. This country is becoming more diverse and will soon represent a mix of cultures that mirror the world in which we live. There are some who fear this and are doing all they can to prevent it, but it’s happening. The thing to remember is that this isn’t about the exclusion of some, but rather the inclusion of all. Isn’t that the America that we profess to believe in and are willing to defend? I believe that art, at the least, should reflect the society in which it is created and presented. With the growing diversity in our country, audiences will more than likely begin to reflect that diversity and should see themselves reflected onstage.
APT: How would you like to see APT, and theater in general, evolve?
Gavin: There’s so much more that we need to do in American theatre to create an art form that truly represents and speaks to the people. I’d like to see more diversity in artistic leadership across the country. This art form that we call theatre has the potential to lead us away from this fear of the other - of each other. It’s disheartening when it actually reinforces the kind of narrow thinking and paranoia that many in this country have fallen victim to. I think the American theatre without a doubt continues to reflect the same fear that America has of black men. When I look at all the regional theatres and even smaller theatres around the country, and when I look for black male artistic directors, I’m hard-pressed to find more than a few who look like me. I think that’s appalling.
At APT, specifically, I’d like to see more people of color working on the production end - props, set, lights, sound, costumes, etc. I’d also like to see more awareness in the literary department of plays by writers of color. There’s this idea in the theatre that somehow “classical” means “white.” I strongly disagree. Heightened, muscular language and poetry can be found in the works of many playwrights of color. We just have to reach out and find them. I truly believe that if a play is well-written, if it deals with large ideas that can speak to the human condition, that an audience will be moved, entertained, and enlightened no matter the ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation of the playwright. And last, but not least, I’d love for APT to find a voice and speech person of color. I know there aren’t many people of color in those positions beyond the few that I’m aware of. Still, I think theatres across the country, especially those that are connected to colleges and universities, need to push those institutions to make a concerted effort to promote that area of learning not just for actors but also for people who might actually be interested in voice, speech and dialect as a field. I just don’t see this happening in theatre conservatories across the country. It’s almost as if voice, speech, and dialect take a back seat to everything else; as if those things aren’t interesting or sexy to students. I really wish training programs, and even high school teachers, would find ways to interest students in the joy of language, because what’s not sexy is sitting through a performance as an audience member and not hearing an actor clearly or having to struggle to understand what is being said. And for me as the actor, I again would just like to have some people who look like me, who might understand my rhythms and melodies from their own experience, help me to be clearer while not losing the authenticity of the language.
APT: Is there anything you’d like to add or expand upon?
Gavin: At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to leave this earth better than we found it. My role as a father of two amazing young adults informs everything I do, and is the greatest role I will ever get to play.