Fairfield Now - Spring 2008
January LaVoy: A Hard Act to Follow
By Meredith Guinness
January LaVoy has been busy since graduating from Fairfield in 1997 - as a waitress (twice), an heiress, the wife of a card-loving brute, and Tom Cruise's Brazilian neighbor.
Did we mention she's making good use of her theatre degree?
"When I say I was a theatre major, that was it," said LaVoy, who went by her given last name, Merola, at Fairfield. "I think that's kind of unusual in that most theatre students have another major or at least a minor. I used to fall in love with all sorts of different classes I'd take at Fairfield, but I was always of the mindset that if I didn't give myself anything to 'fall back on,' then I wouldn't be able to fall back. I'd have to just keep plugging forward with the acting career. And here I am."
But even LaVoy admits that where 'here' is a can be a little hard to pin down these days. Currently enjoying a run as Noelle Ortiz, the sweet-natured waitress on the ABC soap One Life to Live, she headed west in February to participate in the Denver New Play Summit, a high-profile festival that helps develop plays for Broadway and beyond. In between, she's done a lot of radio work, including ads for Home Depot, Alberto Culver hair products, and even a radio spot for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. You also may have heard her as the television commercial voice of Vaseline Intensive Care Cocoa Butter Lotion.
She's so busy, in fact, that the bio on her website - www.januarylavoy.com - reveals she still hasn't had time to attain one goal - to own a puppy. "I can never make any concrete plans," she said. "But I wouldn't have it any other way."
Catching the acting bug
LaVoy caught the acting bug early, debuting at age three as Roo in a children's production of Winnie the Pooh at Bridgeport's Polka Dot Playhouse. Her grandmother, Mary Lou Capristo, was very involved in theatre and the playhouse, often hosting the play-reading committee at her home or taking her granddaughter to New York City for a show.
"Acting was all I ever wanted to do," said LaVoy, who grew up in Trumbull, Conn., and now lives only a train ride away from Broadway in Hoboken, N.J.
She credits the tenacity of Dr. John Orman, professor of politics in the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), for steering her to theatre studies in earnest at Fairfield. Dr. Orman and his wife are family friends, and he had been talking up the University to LaVoy for years. "John arranged for me to spend a day at Fairfield, sitting in on classes, meeting with Dr. (Marti) LoMonaco to discuss the theatre program, even having tea with (then President) Father (Aloysius) Kelley at Bellarmine!"
Learning more about Fairfield's vital theatre program - "a hidden treasure" - was key to her decision. Instead of allowing students to concentrate on just acting, directing, or design, the Fairfield program designed by Dr. LoMonaco, professor of theatre in CAS, requires every student to learn all aspects of the theatre. "In order to graduate as a theatre major, you are required to paint sets, sew costumes, design a light plot, move scenery, sell tickets... ," LaVoy said. "The miracle of the idea is that Fairfield, which may not turn up on any magazine list of top 10 theatre programs, is turning out some of the most well-rounded theatre practitioners in the country."
January LaVoy (left) as Stella and Candy Brown Houston as Eunice in a Denver production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Dr. LoMonaco said working with LaVoy was gratifying. "January is an extraordinary talent," she said. "You could see the seeds of her growing talent when she was here on campus. She is really very, very good at this point, as good as anyone out there."
Some of the Fairfield productions rank among LaVoy's favorite roles to date and she maintains strong ties to the University. She came back to Fairfield in 2006 for a Theatre Fairfield alumni production of Angels in America, and then again in 2007 to mourn the death of Dr. Ben Halm, a theatre professor whose work had a profound effect on her. Dr. Halm was from Ghana and his play Ota Benga: Elegy for the Elephant, opened her eyes to "sensibilities that were so different from a bunch of American college students. Doing Ota Benga was the first time in my artistic life that I remember being aware that part of my job as an actor is to be a conduit for the intentions of the playwright," she said. "In other words, it's not all about me!"
LaVoy landed her first professional roles in stock productions and with a small touring company just weeks after leaving Fairfield. She relocated to New York City, but soon decided to pursue more training and, in 1999, was one of just three women accepted for the MFA program at the prestigious National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. While there, she starred in plays through the Conservatory and its affiliate, the Denver Center Theatre Co., later earning the 2004 Denver Post Ovation Award, as Best Actress, for her portrayal of Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Her nuanced performance is evidenced in her reviews: The Denver Post called her "sweet," while the Rocky Mountain News dubbed her "steel-willed."
LaVoy's stage work has been winning raves since she first appeared in such varied pieces as Vaclav Havel's Largo Desolato and the boisterous Noises Off at Fairfield's Wien Experimental Theatre. Among her most acclaimed and, she says, most challenging parts is that of Risa, the memorable, alienated waitress in August Wilson's searing Two Trains Running with New York's Signature Theatre Company. The production, which won the 2007 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival, showcased LaVoy's talents. "January LaVoy as Risa is sublime, right down to the tiniest, mute details," wrote a reviewer for bloomberg.com. "Her (character's) compassion and dignity are never obscured....
You want to cheer," said Variety.
A packed acting resume
Though she's appeared in more than 30 stage productions, LaVoy is also interested in television, radio, and film. In addition to her role on One Life to Live, she's worked on all three Law & Order series, including a convincing stint as a medical examiner explaining gruesome fatal wounds to the star detectives. In 2005, she had her first big screen break, playing Tom Cruise's neighbor in the blockbuster War of the Worlds. Though her part was small - "mostly just standing around looking perplexed" - she said she learned a lot just being on the set and chatting with the "confident and very professional" Cruise and the award-winning director, Steven Spielberg. "He runs a tight ship," she said with a laugh. "And he doesn't suffer fools at all."
With so much varied experience, LaVoy is much in demand, which is very comforting to her parents, Alex Merola and Kim Capristo. Having moved to Maine, they enjoy catching up with their daughter a few times a week via TV on One Life to Live. LaVoy is also grateful that her grandmother, who passed away in 2002, was alive to see her on All My Children.
"She saw me on her soap, her favorite," LaVoy said wistfully. "But she's still here. It's just that now she's got front row seats to everything."