Andy Lowe: Interview With A Theatre Director – Part Two
Andy Lowe is an award-winning playwright, director, producer and performer who has held multiple roles in his career. He is the co-founder of the San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre, and is a board member and participant for various Asian American community organizations including the San Diego Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans and SD Alliance for APIAs.
Through his own “Chinese Pirate Productions,” he has directed and/or produced John Doe: The Musical by Robert Moutal, The Musical Paul Gauguin by K.L. Brisby, Woman in the Mirror by Devra Gregory, Golden Child by David Henry Hwang, Gam3rs the Play and a nationally acclaimed stage adaptation of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which he directed, produced and adapted with musical director Brian Hammond.
Andy left San Diego for Los Angeles in 2013, and serves as Director of Casting & Production for the East West Players, the longest running theatre of color, and largest professional producer of Asian American work in the nation.
As an online personality, Andy has also been recruited by Pop culture streaming network “The Geekish Network” where he hosts two weekly Podcast shows; Pan-Geekery, and Pod Squadron Podcast.
As part of our series celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, we are shining the spotlight on our AAPI friends working across the Arts and entertainment industries.
In part one of two, Andy talked to us about his early career and what inspired him to setup his production company, Chinese Pirate Productions. In part two, Andy tells us about his more recent work, joining East West Players, and how the industry has changed.
Hi Andy, thanks again for talking to us at TheatreArtLife! You’ve had such a dynamic and fascinating career, what have been some of your favourite moments or highlights so far?
It was recently pointed out to me by my friend Jane Lui (Original cast of Cambodian Rock Band) that its going to be the 10th anniversary of our stage adaptation of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. I had cast her in the role of Penny as an homage to one of the authors Maurissa Tancharoen who had built the character for herself before they chose to cast Felicia Day (Maurissa later wrote a joke song about it called “nobody’s Asian in the Movies”).
It was the first full production I took on after I lost both my dad and my uncle to cancer. I was carrying a lot of pain and loss at the time, and I wasn’t even sure if I would stay in the business. But it was also a culmination of favors from friends and colleagues I had made freelancing around San Diego for years. A vote of confidence from a lot of people who owed me nothing and that meant a lot.
The Set Designer David Weiner pulled scenic stock from the bone yard of the La Jolla Playhouse, Lighting Designer Chris Rynne borrowed gear from the Old Globe, as did sound designer Paul Peterson. So many favors pooled from so many different sides of my life. After all was said and done, we slapped together this huge maybe $200k musical I had mounted with about $40k, a lot of built up good will and favors.
This was also before anything had been published, I hand transcribed and adapted the script, incorporating additional scenes from a comic book adaptation written by Zack Whedon, the music was also arranged and transcribed by ear by my incredible music director Brian Hammond.
I had recruited Jane Lui who had never done any acting before, but I had been a fan of hers for years following her from coffee house concert to coffee house concert. The cast was a mix of actors I had worked with before around San Diego, and UCSD students. We had a live band, shadow puppets, choreography and shadow play, mixed with projections design, a real full sized van we cut in half and rolled out on stage, a full realization of my throwback comic book inspired aesthetic realized, and on top of that, an international audience.
Because we coincided the run with San Diego Comic Con, we had people from around the country and as far off as Australia and the UK coming to see this show just delighted at what we built and how we were able to deliver on the promise of the Doctor Horrible film without Nathan Fillion, or NPH. And people took notice. I think we even got our picture in American Theatre Magazine, which might also be why we were one of the last productions of Dr. Horrible who were given official licensing rights to do it.
We had a few celebrities who came in and congratulated us, Richard Hatch in particular was so supportive, and we were also honored to have a few of the authors of the original film come to see the production and give their approval. That was just really gratifying!
But also after a lot of struggle, and the emptiness of loss, ultimately a lot of folks put their confidence in me and my vision, and we did this crazy thing together, and it worked. It all worked.
I’ll also mention at East West Players, our production of Next To Normal here was this exceptional all AAPI cast of DeeDee Magno, Cliffton Hall, Isa Briones, Justin Yu, Scott Takeda & Randy Guiaya, performing this traditionally all white Broadway musical, and recognizing our show absolutely was strong enough to be an official Broadway revival.
In contrast I thought about so many truly mediocre musicals I had worked on at the La Jolla Playhouse or the Old Globe that HAD moved on to Broadway, and of course how unlikely it was for this cast to be considered for these roles in another producer’s production.
It was just kind of a shame that our EWP production could not be seen by a New York commercial backer and sent to NY, purely because of our choice to cast all AAPI would be considered too unconventional to be commercially sound.
And conversely, what has been the biggest obstacle or challenge you’ve overcome in your work?
Still to this day, I’ve only been hired as a Director once in my career, for some R&D work for Walt Disney Imagineering (which was a dream fulfilment by the way), but just about every single project I’ve directed I had to self-produce, or I was awarded a grant for a project; I’d have to find another company to be my fiscal receiver and then have them “pay” me.
But as a Director, its like trying to tell racing teams you know how to drive their Ferrari, and they have to trust you not to crash it, and if they have bias, or they don’t spend the time to watch what you can do with the ‘suped up’ Honda you ‘tircked out’ in your own garage, then you’re just gonna keep waiting for someone to take a risk on you.
After a while, you just can’t wait anymore for someone to invite you in.
I spent 20 years freelancing, building non-profits so I could direct, self-producing so I could direct, writing grants so I could direct. I had to invest and sometimes spend my own money and credit line in order to do my work. That’s a lot of ‘suped up Hondas’ to pay off.
So when the opening to become EWP’s Director of Production popped up, it was kind of a relief; a respite from constantly struggling, scheming and finding ways around the system to try to get to do my work. Joining EWP was like taking shelter finally. All those weekend trips to Little Tokyo, to get away from the extreme whiteness of San Diego’s theatre scene in the late 90s, and now I’m here serving on the LT Community Council representing EWP, discussing land development and strategies to fight back gentrification to protect these creative safe spaces I used to benefit from.
But also feeling the responsibility to help carry the 55 year old legacy of this organization. Unfortunately it means sticking to a logistical and administrative role, and having to step back from my own creative career, which sometimes is painful, but it just means that now my role is 100% advocate, mentor, and gate keeper for others, And I’m not just making stuff up as I go, or fighting on my own anymore. The weight of the legacy of those who came before us, Mako, James Hong, Soon Tek Oh, Beaullah Kwo, all of them and the community of Little Tokyo and of EWP’s 55 years is behind and with us. And that’s a good feeling. I guess I went from mercenary pirate to Privateer?
What advice would you give to your younger self if you could go back in time? What do you wish you knew then that you know now?
If I could go back in time..? I wouldn’t leave him behind then, I’d bring him to now where he’d have the access and opportunity to thrive. The field has changed so much since when I started. It’s funny because I’m now about hitting the age when I thought I could probably come back to acting, because I could play “Triad Leader” or “Old master doing Tai Chi in the park”.
But it’s different now! There are roles for dads, cell phone salesmen, judges and lawyers and even leads! There are also so much more AAPI Theatre Faculty in schools and departments; all of my colleagues my age who are teaching now, and Playwrights like Lauren Yee and Qui Nguyen who have attention from the national theatre scene right now. People are producing Qui Nguyen’s plays in High Schools.
There’s still so much more work to be done, but it really is amazing to see the foundation that exists now, that didn’t exist even 10 years ago!
So for advice, I’d say, take advantage of that! Find your creative muses, and mentors, and circle of collaborators, and carry each other with you as you rise.
And looking to the future, what can we look forward to next from you? Are you currently working on anything?
My attention is still pretty much held by my duties at East West Players, advocating, producing and developing, which can be consuming and makes it really hard to take on personal projects, so for now, I’m here with all the rest of us at EWP.
But I’ll say, it’s fantastic to see people succeeding. I remember seeing Constance Wu audition for our production of Steel Magnolias. She didn’t get cast, not because she wasn’t great, we just didn’t have enough roles for everyone. Like if we do a regular full season, we have at best 25 -30 roles a year to cast. It’s not a lot to go around, and we’re only a staff of about 7.
There are so many more deserving talented folks out there, I wish we had more opportunities to serve them, but its so good to see them moving on beyond us!
Like More recently Olivia Liang who now leads the cast of Kung Fu on CW, I remember she was delightful when she auditioned for Man of God! in 2019, and then of course like Isa Briones who we cast in Next To Normal is now an Android on Star Trek sharing scenes with Patrick Stewart, or two years ago I was working out fight choreography with Ji Young Yoo for Man of God!, and she’s blowing up – she has a feature coming up on Apple+, and it was just announced that she’s starring in a new Amazon series adaptation called ExPats with Nicole Kidman, Jane Lui who I remember reading the Dr. Horrible script with her 10 years ago, coaching her through the lines for Penny and a year ago she finished a year long stint on Cambodian Rockband that took her to South Coast Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Fest, and the Signature theatre in NY.
Man of God by Anna Moench @ East West Players | Directed by Jesca Prudencio | Fight Choreography by Andy Lowe | Performed by Ji-Young Yoo & Roy Vongtama
I don’t know if I’ll go back to freelance life, particularly after watching both my uncle and my dad succumb to cancer back in 2008, I think I’m more cognizant of my own sustainability than I was before, I cant do seven things at once like I did when I was in my 20’s and I don’t know that at where I am now I can roll the dice and bet the farm on another “suped up Honda” self produced show, hoping to get noticed or that a producer will be willing to take a chance on me.
So in terms of feeding my own creative path, I’m still trying to find other ways to feed myself artistically and thats hard. Working non-profit is a full time commitment and then-some already. But I can take some solace that from where I am now, in the role that I have, I can use this platform and empower others in even the smallest ways; a vote of confidence here, a referral there, a word of encouragement after their audition. I try to see any other AAPI plays or productions in town, and even go back down to San Diego for stuff.
I try to be for others what I wished I had had for myself.
And that has its own different rewards, watching Paul Yen get called out by autograph hounds, or Sylvia Kwan show up on Grey’s Anatomy, or see Joseph Morales and Marcus Choi performing as Alexander and George Washington in Hamilton…
Its like Yoda’s line: “We are what they grow beyond”.
Dr. Horrible in San Diego: Facebook