For our next featured member, we’re shining the spotlight backstage for some behind-the-scenes insight. Meet Jon Wai-keung Lowe! Whether he’s herding kids into a production of Cats or introducing audiences to the world of Chinese theatre, Lowe keeps himself one of the busiest people in the Bay Area. A director, designer, filmmaker and theatre founder, he most recently worked on TBA Editors’ Pick Breaking the Code at Theatre Rhinoceros, and will helm Tanya Barfield's The Call for Theatre Rhino in the spring.
Tell us a little about your background in theatre and film.
| Jon Lowe.
I did a lot of different things in theatre before I became a director. I entered college as a writing major, but quickly realized that an uneventful, middle-class childhood wasn’t rife with source material. After school, I did rotations through props, scenic construction and painting, and design. (I did just enough stage management to respect and run away from it.) Directing came late, but it’s where I feel most stimulated and comfortable at the same time: coordinating different facets of production to embody a unified vision. As a director, I’m a nightmare for some designers because I’m very specific about what I want. The plus side is that I generally know if I’m asking for something insane.
I’m proud to have contributed to projects with big local companies; long-running groups like the Mime Troupe and New Pickle Circus; newer companies like Open Tab and Brickabrack, and design for twenty shows at Theatre Rhino, not including the remount of Breaking the Code, which plays through August at the Eureka. And thanks to Shotz and PlayGround, I’ve started writing again.
The Visible Theater has done three Fringe shows, a Bay One Acts show, and produced several short films. What about your other project, the Kunqu Initiative?
I’ve spent most of my life banging my head against traditional Chinese drama, trying to find a way in. In 2006, I saw Kenneth Pai’s production of Peony Pavilion, the jewel of Kun-style drama. Watching that show, my rudimentary Mandarin, my growing familiarity with Chinese instruments and the preshow seminars all came together for me. I finally got it. The Kunqu Initiative is an effort to consolidate the decades of research I’ve been doing so that other people can access the wealth of Chinese stories that are almost never performed in English. The Initiative is currently stymied by lack of a content management system, so if anyone wants to build my website, lemme know. Stipend: hugs and sammiches.
What’s something you really like about the theatre scene here in the Bay Area?
The walk-in exchange tradition. I’ve never heard of this happening in any other city, but it makes absolute sense that if there are unsold seats, other theatre practitioners should get in free. Theatres shouldn’t charge the people they’re underpaying. We should share our resources and learn from each other.
What advice would you have for artists looking to explore the behind the scenes side of theatre? And as a director/designer what might you say to those in front of the scenes?
Some of the absolute worst advice I was ever given was, “Don’t work for free” and “Don’t do community theatre.” Do work for friends. Do work at different levels, especially when you don’t have to. Experimenting and lending a hand will give you a richer spiritual life, despite the financials.
As a director/designer/producer, I ask actors to remember that tech week is when everyone else is trying to get up to the same speed that it took the actors three-plus weeks to achieve. Be a considerate collaborator. Bring treats.
What’s one of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
I once agreed to light a high school production of Cats just so I could watch people’s faces when I said, “I’m doing a high school production of Cats!” It turned out to be revelatory. I mean, the scenery looked like a cake left out in the rain, but the actors were all so happy to be there. No one worried about their legwarmers making their ass look big. This was around the time Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake came through town, and the critics were gaga over the soloist who turned 18 fouttés. In Cats, we had a kid who turned 25 fouttés on a point smaller than a salad plate. On the other end of the spectrum, our Bustopher Jones, in two dress runs and two performances, never quite found his key. Or any key. After opening, though, his little brother ran up and gave him the biggest, proudest hug in the history of ever. Priceless. I think that’s all any of us really want.
No rules. No restrictions. The ultimate Jon Wai-keung Lowe production: tell us about it.
I’m researching for my first full-length [play], Under Heaven. It uses a two-thousand-year-old Chinese legend about a treaty bride to examine issues surrounding international adoption and the repatriation of looted artwork. It’s going to make me the next Lauren Yee.
Anything else you want to share with the TBA readers?
My middle name is silent. It started as a way to make my name distinctive and memorable, but I can’t bear to hear any more non-Cantonese speakers butcher the pronunciation. It’s just embarrassing for all of us. Thank you.
Theatre Bay Area members: Creative. Committed. Community.