A! Magazine for the Arts

Jason Lavalle in Russia.

Jason Lavalle in Russia.

Arts for Youth Spotlight: Jenson Lavallee

April 30, 2013

Jenson Lavallee first set foot on a stage in middle school, but when he came to King University his dream wasn't to study theatre. He was a pre-med major on a volleyball scholarship. But, oh how his dream has changed.

"I started doing theatre in middle school, where my first musical was the ever-famous hippie musical, "Hair.' Luckily, the director cut out the nudity ... and a lot of other things. We called it "Hair[cut].' Yeah, it's not very funny. I did theatre as a hobby in high school and my first two years at King. It wasn't until I took a chance and auditioned for Barter Theatre at the end of my sophomore year that I started thinking of theatre as a career choice. At the time I was a pre-med major just doing theatre because I really enjoyed it. The summer internship at Barter Theatre really opened my eyes. I considered that to be the point I truly got started." Jenson appeared in "The Three Little Pigs," "The Princess and the Pea" and "The Reluctant Dragon" at Barter Theatre.

Before he went to the fateful audition at Barter Theatre, "I auditioned for all of the shows at King and have been lucky enough to be in all but one. I used to play men's volleyball at King and gave up my volleyball dream and scholarship to pursue theatre. Now, I have time to bring more to the department. I sometimes help Elizabeth Dollar, the head of the theatre department, with her Acting 1 class. I also round up a bunch of awesome people and do improv three nights a week. I am also organizing trips for our theatre majors to go see shows at the Barter Theatre and North Carolina Stage Company."

Going on trips to see shows isn't the only travel Jenson has done to pursue his theatre dreams; he just returned from spending a semester studying in Russia. His fascination with Russia began at Barter Theatre because his director spoke about Russia. Then he saw a poster on campus about studying theatre in Russia. He says that trip was life-changing.

"It changed my approach in two ways: forcing me to create and own my work and reinforcing my imagination. Russia was about really, really, really, really hard work. It was night and day kind of stuff. There was never any free time. Every moment out of the classroom was either spent brainstorming or creating what we brought to class. We were responsible for pushing ourselves, not the other way around.

"Also, Russia taught me that to be an actor, you must be your own director. Of course, the actual director is in charge, but it's an actor's job to bring it all to the table."

The Russian influence continues, since Jenson says his approach is Stanislavski-based. "The first thing I do is make sure that I love my character and can justify, 100 percent, everything he does. I make sure to fill in the blanks. For example, if the script doesn't include a back-story then I make one up. Improv is a huge part of my process. That is where I make most of my discoveries. It's really just about analyzing the text, interpreting it through your own eyes and then putting in the hours. The quality time you put in with your character is what gets you a job well done."

Jenson says he does "a lot of improv, by myself, in my room or with my dog. If someone walked in on me then, my sanity would immediately be compromised." He even says improv is his only hobby, "That's about it besides theatre. I need to get out more."

When he does get out, albeit it to the theatre, he says what he loves most about it is "the fact that there are no boundaries. There are still billions of things that haven't been discovered, and things change so rapidly as an artist. There's never a dull moment, unless you're in tech week. It can drag along pretty slowly then. Oh, and it has the power to fill an audience member with immense happiness and hope that may be just the thing they needed to wake up the next day. You never know how you're affecting someone."

Jenson says that there are three people who dramatically changed his life.

"Without John Hardy at Barter Theatre, I'd still be basking in my own glory and defiling the stage. He taught me how to seek and find truth in my acting. Katy Brown, the artistic director at Barter Theatre, is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met. She sat us down for rehearsal one evening and told us: "Every time I look to direct a show, I ask myself: "Why am I doing this? Why don't I join the Peace Corps? Why don't I volunteer my time for organizations that need it?' I hope that every artist asks themselves those same questions.

"Elizabeth Dollar, head of the theatre department at King University, has played an extremely large role in my path as a young actor. She has refused to give up on me despite the numerous times I have given up on myself.

"Our professor in Russia would always say: "Theatre isn't a mirror, it's a magnifying glass.' It's a chance to examine the important things that we overlook or simply cannot see without help/reflection. It's something you can't explain. I'm not a poet, so you'd just have to watch my work."

He hopes to open his own theatre or become the artistic director of a repertory theatre. And he says he "just realized I am the only one in my huge family who is in theatre."

Jenson is a senior at King University. His parents are Francine Bell and Joseph Lavallee, who live in Las Vegas, Nev. Jenson can be seen when the King University Players perform Rajiv Josephs' "Animals Out of Paper," May 30 and June 1 at 8 p.m., in space above CityMug in downtown Bristol, Va.