Gavin Whitt: Finding Your Voice Through Art

It’s time to get Fringey! Starting Sept. 8 and running through Oct. 2, the city will come alive with more than 1,000 innovative, thoughtful, funny, and totally outrageous performances occurring all over the city. Performances by the super sexy, and mischievous Gunnar Montana, are always a must for me, and this year he brings back his high energy in “Bath House.” I’m also partial to dance performances, so Brian Sanders’ Junk is another show I try to catch each year. But there truly is something for everyone at the Fringe. A glance at the program revealed a show with clothing optional for the audience, several interactive events involving food such as “good luck,” an “immersive performance and act of radical hospitality in the form of a 5-course, sit-down, seed to farm to table meal to be shared with strangers and loved ones.” There are performances in graveyards, warehouses, on the street, and virtually, all at different price points. There are also a number of free shows if you’re feeling a little cash strapped right now. For our community, check out Maggie Cee’s, “Ladies at a Gay Girls Bar”, Karen Smith with Magic Fingaz’s production of “Pocketbook Diaries,” get your groove on with “high noon” a live music performance produced by Ninth Planet, and “LGBTQuiet”, a show that addresses ‘Don’t Say Gay’ and other issues, directed by this week’s Portrait, Gavin Whitt.

Hello Mr. Whitt! I love that name, though I’ll stop short at calling you witty, as much as I might want to! Tell me a little about yourself, do you hail from this area?

I do not. I am originally from South Carolina. I came to Philadelphia in 2003 to attend Temple University where I got my degree in theater. 

What was life like growing up in South Carolina?

I grew up in a very small, rural, and I guess you would say conservative town. It was the kind of place where you would go to the Walmart in the next big town over for fun because there wasn’t a lot to do in your town. But it was very community oriented, the kind of place where everyone knows you, everyone knows your mom, your dad, your siblings, your cousins… It was kind of like the TV show “Cheers,” everyone knew your name. It wasn’t a bad place to grow up, for me it was just boring. When I look back now and think about it, I will say that I miss the community of it. I miss that level of familiarity with the people that you don’t get in a big city. I get nostalgic for that at moments. It was also a very sports oriented town. In high school we were known for having good football and basketball teams. The whole area revolved around sports, and boys or girls, everyone played something. If you didn’t, you were a bit of an outcast. 

Did you participate?

Yes, running was my sport of choice. I ran track and field all through middle school, high school and my first year of college at Temple. I still run today for pleasure so it’s still in my system. 

What did your parents do?

My mom was a nursing assistant, and my dad was in the military. They weren’t together, so I grew up in a single parent household. My dad was off in the Navy doing his thing while my mom raised me and my three sisters. 

Three sisters and mom, that’s a lot of estrogen! 

[Laughing] It sure was! 

What was the most “girly” thing your sisters did to you?

Actually there was none of that, I was the baby of the family, but my older sister was very tomboyish, so she never tried to dress me up or make me play with dolls because she wasn’t into that stuff. She was into playing basketball with the boys and football with the neighborhood kids. And there’s a 12 year gap between me and my younger sisters so I didn’t play with them either. 

[Laughing] I hate to break it to you but you’re not the baby of the family if you have two younger siblings. 

Ha! But I was the baby boy for 12 years! I know it’s weird but I still claim it! And I get a special place, my mother says that I’m her favorite… son. Wink, wink, nod, nod. 

What’s something you enjoy doing with the family?

Holidays are always big, on both my dad and my mom’s sides. They each have 5 siblings, so we have large extended families on both sides. When we get together there’s a lot of music. My dad’s a guitarist who was taught by his father, and my mom and her sisters had a singing group when they were growing up, so any get-togethers are filled with music, fun and family. Sometimes it felt more like a variety show than a holiday! But I still look forward to going home for those celebrations at Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

What about you? Were you “extra” as a kid?

Yessss, [chuckling] I was very extra as a kid. Someone who loved to entertain and have attention on me, so I would do whatever I could to make people laugh or feel good. I was particularly good at mimicking people which made people laugh but also got me in trouble, my mother would be like, “You can’t do that, even if it was funny!” 

When did you start taking it more seriously?

Well, what’s funny is that as a kid I always thought that I would be an attorney. At 5 years old I was bragging to people, “I’m gonna be a lawyer!” Then, I remember this clearly, in 4th grade we did a play on the constitution. I got to play Alexander Hamilton, and that was years ago! But after the show, I immediately told my mom, “I want to be an actor.” So from there on I got involved in community theater, drama club in high school, and I knew that this was the thing I was going to do. That led me to Temple and I’ve been doing it ever since! 

What projects have you enjoyed the most?

The ones that I’ve written and produced myself. I always wanted to do more than just act in other people’s shows. I graduated from Temple in 2007 and went to grad school in England in 2012. I attended East 15 Acting School, and it was there that my teacher and mentor said, “You have so much more to offer, you have to expand yourself to do more than just reciting words.” He said it would also expand my longevity in the field, so after grad school I did my first solo performance in 2015 called “The Orange Hair.” I wrote it, starred in it, and produced it, and it went over very well, so I was like, “Okay, I can do this!” and I’ve done several solo shows since. 

That’s fantastic, let’s talk about the show you’re doing for Fringe?

It’s called “LGBTQuiet.” I work for an organization called Yes! And…Collaborative Arts which is a non-profit organization that does art education for kids who are underserved in the Philadelphia region. Our mission is to help kids find their voice through art. I am the program manager and this is a show that the kids have written in collaboration with me and two other facilitators. But all the words and thoughts and ideas are theirs, inspired by the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. It follows teenagers at a fictional high school who are having to deal with the administration who… oooh, I don’t want to give too much away, but they’ve taken administrative action against a staff member and it has a rippling effect throughout the student body, and let’s just say, some things happen. 

The show deals with gender identity, trans inclusion, racism, and sexism. It’s told from the teenage perspective so it’s a little rough around the edges and possibly not as PC as many adults are used to but I’m proud because it’s the students voicing their opinions about the things that matter to them. I’d say about 50% of the cast are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Cool. We have two films this weekend with The Women’s Film Festival with tie-ins that would go with what you’re doing. We have a film about the director Debra Chasnoff and her battle with cancer. She directed the groundbreaking film, “It’s Elementary” which was about seven elementary schools that decided to address LGBTQ topics in an age appropriate manner and how they did it. It’s a beautiful film that will bring tears to your eyes to see how open kids are when you give them the chance. And we’re also screening a film called, “Fair Play” that was directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. She also did two amazing docs about gender roles, “Miss Representation” and “The Mask You Wear.” You should try to get all 3 of those films for your students to see. Or send them out to see our films this weekend! 

Sounds good!

So back to you, when did you first say gay?

It’s funny, it took me a while to become 100% self aware. When I first told my mom, I was about 29. She told me that she knew but was waiting for me to say something. I’d been out to close friends and other people in my life but not my immediate family. It was in my twenties that she started to pick up on the fact that I never brought any girls home. I’d had girlfriends in high school but when I was about 17, I started realizing that I felt different and what it meant. My mom was like, “He’s so handsome and he doesn’t have a girlfriend, what’s going on?” and it started to dawn on her but she never said anything until I spoke up. She was never the kind of parent to interfere with any of us to say, “When are you going to have kids, or why don’t you have a girlfriend?” She’s always been good about respecting us and never forcing her ideas of who or what we should be on us. 

I don’t know when I first said gay, but I had the first inkling with a teacher at my high school. Everyone else disliked him because he was so strict, but I was enamored with him! I don’t know why, though I think he was in his 20’s, so he wasn’t that much older, but I used to defend him, saying how much I liked him and what a good teacher he was. [Laughing] Looking back, I was totally crushing on him! 

Yeah, mine was Mrs. Toth in 2nd grade! 

Right? But I think because of where I lived and how we lived, I didn’t really grasp what I was feeling. Maybe as a protection mechanism, I didn’t even allow myself to think that it was possible because I instinctively knew that that would lead to being automatically ostracized and being labeled as “other.” So I didn’t have the awareness or bravery to think, “I could be gay.” Though there were signs, I was weird and different. I dyed my hair when I was 13 and wore fancy clothes. 

What was your best accoutrement?

I was a big fan of “Sister, Sister” and on the show one of the twins’ boyfriends wore a pair of hushpuppies that were suede, two-toned shoes with black on the sides and taupe on the top. They had to be the coolest things ever! I begged my mom to get me a pair and she actually found them and gave them to me for Christmas. All the other boys were wearing Jordan’s and Nike’s and I’m walking around in these two-toned loafers with my buttoned up dress shirts and my cardigan. I was the flyest thing ever! 

Was there much pushback when you came out?

Yeah, there are members of my extended family who don’t speak to me and don’t socialize with me and my partner. I’ve been called, you know, all the slurs in the book. Even as an adult going back home, I’ll hear things from people who know me, especially on social media. There are people from my small town who have found me and inboxed me saying really mean things. Or they’ll comment on things that I’ve posted and it’s like, “If you don’t like it, stop looking, unfriend me! If it’s not for you, move on.” And even in the theater world we face it. I’ve had people tell me to not be openly gay because it could affect my ability to get work. Not to talk about my partner or being gay, to just be very ambiguous about it all, or even not to wear certain things because they look too “gay.” That stuff still happens now. 

Good on you for standing your ground. Let’s get to some rapid fire questions. Last time you built a snowman?

Probably when I was 18. I hate the snow. 

Ever been in a parade?

Yes, I marched in the Poultry Festival parade with my high school chorus. 

A song that makes you sad or melancholy?

Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” 

What are you binge watching?

“Broadchurch” on PBS.

Favorite place to hang out in Philly?

Forbidden Drive in Wissahickon.

Have you ever asked anyone for their autograph?

Yes, Savion Glover, years ago when he came to Philly. 

I remember him, The Tap Dance Kid. Window or aisle seat?

Window! No aisle, blah. 

I’m the same way, I want to be able to see the world. 

Me too. 

If you could enter the world of a painting, what would you choose?

The painting that you see at the beginning of the show, “Good Times.” It’s called “The Sugar Shack.” It’s so lively and spirited! If I could step in and be a part of that whole moment, that would be the best!

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