Anyone who saw Washington Ensemble Theatre’s exquisite production of The Mistakes Madeline Made last February knows Ray Tagavilla—even if they don’t remember his name. The 31-year-old actor played Wilbur, the weird, verbal-tic-laden office worker who falls for the troubled Edna. In the hands of a less skilled actor, the character would have sunk to irritating caricature, but Tagavilla brought a stunning humanity to the role, infusing Wilbur with nuanced, underlying woundedness that made his bizarre quirks endearing.
“It was the perfect storm of script, role, cast and company,” Tagavilla says of the experience, which he names as his favorite performance to date—and he already boasts a long list of credits in Seattle’s fringe theater arena, including stints with Seattle Shakespeare Company, Annex Theater, Theater Schmeater and ArtsWest. Reviewers consistently call out his performances as stellar. But Tagavilla hasn’t made the leap to mainstream theater companies for one important reason: They rehearse during business hours, and he works as a site supervisor for a security firm 9 to 5. “I’m crawling toward getting rid of my regular job and doing theater full-time,” he says. But regular paychecks are hard to leave behind.
Tagavilla and his family moved to the Seattle area from the Philippines in 1985 when he was 7. He had never before seen carpet or his own breath in the cold. He remembers wanting to learn English quickly, so he watched a lot of television—which he believes influenced his desire to become an actor. As a senior in high school (at Burien’s J.F.K.), he was convinced by a friend to try out for the school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though he had never tried acting before, he landed the role of Demetrius and was hooked. But being from a “traditional Asian family,” he declared himself a business major upon entering University of Washington. By the time he was a junior, however, he had switched his major to drama.
Explaining how he tackles his characters, Tagavilla notes that for dramatic roles he tends to work “inside out,” meaning gaining an understanding of “how this character moves from one place to another, internally.” Conversely, for comedic roles, he works outside in: “I try to find the physicalities that make him unique.” The latter approach was successful both in Madeline and in Tagavilla’s most recent play (last May), Balagan Theater’s production of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. In it he played Sagot, Picasso’s pompous art dealer, and grabbed the audience’s attention the moment he walked on stage, bringing both humor and a riveting physical groundedness.
While nuanced minor characters may be his forte, the next time you see Tagavilla, it might be in his first producer role. This summer he commenced work on a production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind with Theater Schmeater’s former artistic director Rob West (though he is careful to point out, “We currently have no money, no theater space and no cast”). The play has been a favorite of Tagavilla’s since college, when he performed in it as his senior-year “swan song.” As for his long-term plans, Tagavilla says he imagines heading to New York City at some point to pursue acting. For now, he’s refraining from any delusions of grandeur. “I just want to be the kind of actor people stop on the street and say, ‘I know I’ve seen you somewhere,’” Tagavilla says, adding jokingly, “I want to be vaguely recognizable.” For audiences of Madeline and Picasso, at least, mission accomplished.