When I first met Joanna Lowe, it was on the Brentwood set of the horror film Corpsing, produced by 72nd Street Films, in the summer of 2011. I had just finished my freshman year of college that spring, and just then, late at night – or early in the morning, I can’t remember – I decided to panic about what I wanted to do with my life. Little did I know this would be the first of many such moments in my college career. Joanna, not yet covered in blue, scaly zombie make-up, took several minutes out of her scheduled actor preparation time, to talk me down. Her words were to the soothing effect of: “Hey man, I’m thirty-something, bursting at the edges, and I’m still trying to figure out how I can have it all. I don’t think it’s impossible. It’ll be ok.” Four years, later, we genuinely have the same conversation, except we’re in a Crazy Mocha, looking a bit more put together: her in her Gateway Clipper polo and me with my Golden Snitch earrings. Yet, if possible, she seems even more passionate.
Lowe holds a Bachelor’s degree from Geneva College, where she studied both Theatre and Creative Writing. She has devoured the Pittsburgh theatre scene ever since. Looking at students of theatre graduating today, she acknowledges the intense pressure they put on themselves, “That is the dumbest thing you can possibly do. Give yourself some grace. Otherwise, you won’t enjoy the things that do happen.”
The neat thing, I later realize in my conversation with Lowe, is that Pittsburgh herself is also an underdog, an under pressure arts student, coming into her own.
“I moved here over twenty years ago and I hated Pittsburgh. I was angry at my parents for dragging me to this dirty, awkward city and it was just where I lived for a time… except I was here to see her [Pittsburgh] transform from a post-steel identity, lost, confused, and brooding city into a thriving arts city where her communities were prepared to support her people and their endeavors.”
Thinking of her in full-on Frankenstein gear as she’s speaking is hilarious, because she’s animatedly tossing her long light hair with every story and her bright blue eyes drink in every question. She’s bursting with humor and good-natured confidence.
“I love Pittsburgh. It’s a city, but it’s intimate. Blue-collar rooted, so she’s tough and proud, but now education is one of our biggest industries in Pittsburgh. What that’s done is create a bizarre and beautiful attitude of ‘If I can imagine it, I can do it here in Pittsburgh.’ And there are enough organizations and institutions and patrons and artists to support that philosophy. Making money is always the challenge as an artist, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen or heard about a city with such rare community and optimism. Pittsburgh is tiny; and yet bursting at the seams with rare visions and original endeavors. That’s insane. And it’s incredible.”
It’s why Joanna says she’s chosen Pittsburgh as her home. It’s why she was able to realize so many of her artistic endeavors. She is a film and theatre actor, director, producer, acting teacher, voice-over coach, published poet, produced playwright and spoken word artist – and she is thriving. She begins shaping my perspective of her work by explaining her clandestine first spoken word. It happened the way she seems to take everything: diving headfirst.
Earlier that day, someone had made Lowe feel worthless – she corrects herself, “I had let someone make me feel worthless,” and we toast Eleanor Roosevelt with our dirty chai tea lattes, before she continues to explain that on a particularly bad day, she asked a friend for a favor. “A friend of mine, after I had gone through my divorce, had gotten me into coming out to the Acoustic Café nights at the Club Café, in Southside, saying, ‘Oh, it’ll be fun, it’s like music therapy.’ He had been getting me out there just to take a seat at the bar, sip at my beer, and enjoy the music. That one day, I don’t know why, I texted him and asked, ‘What if I read something?’ He answered in five seconds, ‘Yes!’
It wasn’t an ordinary night, of course. That Monday night was the Christmas party at Acoustic Café Open Mic night. Lowe was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the best singer and songwriters in Pittsburgh, she tells me. Though she had been performing since childhood, she felt such fear that she had to get “not sober” in order to muster the courage to speak.
“It was like jumping out of a plane. When you go skydiving, you have to turn off your brain. You have to ignore every signal, every thought, because it goes against every single instinct. Your entire body and brain goes: ‘No, this is illogical.’ You’re standing on a peg the half-size of a Snickers bar, holding on to the side of airplane, thinking, ‘I’m gonna die.’ I remember thinking, go big or go home. So, I grabbed the microphone and jumped out of the plane.”
At the end of her speech, there was a deafening silence. Which, to Lowe, seemed unending, until then, like a movie, the whole room erupted into cheers. Her face still wears the shock of that first audience’s response.
“People kept coming up to me afterward, saying, ‘I had no idea you did that!’” she laughed and looks at me with glee, “Neither did I! They said, ‘This is who you are now. This is what you do.’ I’ve tried to back away, to disappear, but musicians keep asking me, ‘Can I please play with you?’ It was the most insane accident. I accidentally tripped and fell down a mountain. And everybody said, ‘That’s awesome. Do it again!”
The process of writing, for Lowe, is messy. Inspiration comes from a guttural detail and expands. It can sometimes be a painful process. She’s a published poet, has written fiction, and dabbled in various forms…but seems to have finally found the most cathartic medium. Her spoken word style is confessional and her attitude, humbling.
“I don’t go out there to get salvation. I don’t go out there to get praised for my struggles. I just go out there to share. Anytime someone connects with me, in that way, I just go: thank God. Because if they connected to me, then I’m not alone, either.”
You can still often find Joanna Lowe and her stellar crew of musicians on Monday “Acoustic Café” nights at the Club Café in Southside, she has also performed at Pittsburgh Winery, Hambones, and the New Bohemian. Earlier this year, her words, set to music, were released as a C.D. under a label with Wild Kindness Records.
Lowe, and for good reason, is delighted with this surprise opportunity life has thrown at her – or that she jumped into. When you sign up for a career in the arts, I’m learning, you kind of have to be ready for anything. Joanna, fierce at fourteen, signed up early.
“I followed my big brother and sister onto the stage after watching them perform in high school. I started in seventh grade. It wasn’t an epiphany that I wanted to be an actor; it was obvious to me. After feeling what it was to be on stage, doing what felt perfectly natural to do, why would I ever do anything else?”
Lowe is candid with me, and I’m struck by how open and friendly she is, when I know that her roles are dramatic, gripping and to use her word: gut-wrenching. She pushes herself to the limits.
“If it doesn’t overjoy or break my heart, I’m kind of not interested. If something catches me, makes me uncomfortable, I’ve got to pick it apart,” she says.
I point out to her, conspiratorially that, “Most people run away. Or shut down. Or change the subject,”
She pauses, and thinks for half a second, and then answers me, thoughtful, but without cracking a self-deprecating grimace or anything: “Yeah. I…don’t have that.”
At this point in her upbringing, Joanna’s minister father probably did the Presbyterian Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic sign of the cross and thought: “Oh dear.” Joanna doesn’t think that yoga would work for her and the gerbil that lives inside of her head. She can’t shut it off. It’s running on a wheel, and it’s sometimes really exhausting and horrible and awful, but often times its very happy. His name is Esteban.
“[Eventually]…for me, it became about knowing my own health. My mental health, my emotional health. It’s only come from going through some of the worst traumas of my life in the last three years. Nothing will help you know yourself than having to get through that and having to pull yourself out of that and having to raise a child out of that. Suffering either makes you a better person or it will destroy you.”
She pauses to think about it for a second, then continues.
“It doesn’t have to make you a better person – it can – but it doesn’t automatically. You see bitter, broken people everywhere because they’ve gone through trauma and they’re resentful and they refuse. I’ve tried to take everything that I’ve gone through and make myself better. Gentler. More graceful, stronger. It’s simply having had to go through that that my art has been – revived, relived – that’s how this whole spoken word thing came out.”
In addition to her relatively new medium of performance as a spoken word artist, Joanna has tantalizing production visions in mind for Cup-A-Jo Productions later in the year; was just cast in Prime Stage Theatre’s production of The Crucible; and will revive her one woman show from this year’s Fringe Festival, called Woman In The Raw written by Jennifer Schaupp and directed by Sean O’Donnell. It studies one woman’s day, honestly and, often sarcastically, drifting between outlets of social media and witnessing her soliloquies in the raw – often as she’s busy doing something unflattering, like eating yogurt or sitting on the toilet. It has two performances next week September 18th and 19th at 8pm at The Maker Theater, and you better believe I’m bringing a whole troop of my best friends to be fan girls.
“Living intentionally sounds like such a simple concept. But it’s not. Those people who’ve been forty years at the full-time job, living the ‘American Dream’ because it gives them the car, house, 2.5 kids…and then they go ‘what have I done with my one life?’ They didn’t mean to, because they didn’t choose. I think people would be happier if they choose to do this and say, ‘This is why I do this.’ But no, people go to a job and complain on Monday and only celebrate on Fridays. How can you live that?”
Learning about artists like Joanna in the Pittsburgh area is inspiring, to say the least, and helps give newcomers to the scene, like me, a glimpse of what it means to be successful. Perhaps more importantly, how to simultaneously take pride in what you do and laugh like a hyena without being self-conscious. As an artist, living your life with balance is hard, and Joanna Lowe would be the first to tell you that it doesn’t get easier and that she still struggles.
“What is success? Do what makes your blood hot, and kick ass at doing it. Period. And if you have to do more to make a living, then make sure you choose things that support your artist lifestyle and don’t make you miserable. That last part is important – we’ve only got this one life, and you’ve got no business wasting your time doing something that makes you miserable. Success is all perspective. Once you get that right, most really will fall into place. Are you proud of the work you do? Is it fulfilling? Are you growing, being challenged? Do you enjoy the work you do? If the answer to these very simple questions is no, then it’s clear what you need to change. If the answer is yes, then you’re already a success.”
She’s also the first to tell you to do it anyway.