Act 1:
The curtain rises and we find our protagonist, sixth-grader Jason Loewith, sitting at a desk in his Connecticut home, studiously writing a play about a kangaroo instead of joining his playmates outdoors.

It would be one of the first of many plays Jason would write. In describing his childhood, Jason told us: “While the other kids were playing house, I was writing the script for them.” Fast forward about a decade and the new, eager Brown University graduate, armed with his bachelor’s degree in English/American Literature, leaves the chilly Northeast in 1990 and sets out for warm California with big dreams of earning a Ph.D. and teaching theater literature and dramaturgy at the university level.

Act 2: The scene is the beautiful, coastal UC Santa Barbara campus. UCSB Theater and Dramatic Art professors including Peter Lackner, Bert States, Simon Williams, Davies King, and Frank Condon make a huge impact on young Jason during his two years in grad school. They pushed him, they challenged him, they encouraged him, they mentored him. One of these antagonists … er … professors admonished Jason early on. The prof’s line went something like this: “The first thing you must do—and must do IMMEDIATELY—is learn to write better.” Fortunately, the young grad student reacted favorably to this conflict, and thanks to Adjunct Professor Frank Condon, Jason’s first job out of the UC Santa Barbara master’s program was assisting Director Condon with the play “God’s Country” at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Act 3: In the years since he earned his master’s degree in Dramatic Art/Directing from UCSB in 1992, Jason’s real-life theatrical odyssey has taken him to such cities as New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., in roles that include playwright, dramaturg, producer, and director.

Here are some of Jason’s starring roles: award-winning playwright, along with composer Joshua Schmidt, of “Adding Machine: A Musical.” Award-winning Artistic Director of Chicago’s Next Theatre Company. Director of new plays for Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, and Baltimore’s Everyman and CENTERSTAGE. Executive Director of the National New Play Network, the country’s alliance of theaters that champions the development, production, and continued life of new plays. Author of the book “The Director’s Voice, Volume 2.”

Today, Jason is Artistic Director of the 75-year-old Olney Theatre Center in Washington, D.C., overseeing a three-theater complex with a $5 million budget and about 50 employees.

Epilogue: It’s been more than two decades since Jason grabbed a burrito at Freebirds in Isla Vista, listened to the melodies of Storke Tower’s carillon, and presented his master’s thesis, a roaming campus performance he called “Peter and the Wolf: An Eco-Adventure Thriller.”

On Sunday, June 16, he took the stage on the Faculty Club Green not as a playwright or a director or a producer, but as a proud Gaucho grad alumnus and Graduate Division’s 2013 Commencement guest speaker. In March we had a chance to ask Loewith some questions—about his time on campus, his mentors, and his career trajectory in the arts, among other topics. Read on. …

jason loewith

Please give us a little background information about yourself.

I grew up in Connecticut, about an hour outside of New York City, the youngest of
three kids. My mother died when I was 12 but my dad remarried soon thereafter,
at which point I inherited two stepsisters close to my own age. We all remain close,
and I’ve got nine or 10 or 11 nieces and nephews – I’ve long ago lost count.

You went to Brown University for your undergraduate education. How was it that you came to UCSB for graduate school?

I asked my mentor, David Savran, where I should go to grad school – my plan
was to get a Ph.D. and teach theater literature and dramaturgy at the university level.
David told me there were two master teachers who would open up new worlds for me:
Marvin Carlson at Cornell, and Bert States at UCSB. Given that I’d spent 21 years in the chilly Northeast, UCSB immediately caught my attention. And I was looking for a radical change in my life as I was just coming out – so the farthest I could get from my past seemed like the best idea.

What kind of a student were you when you were at UCSB?

I was eager; I was young; I was probably the greenest of my colleagues – most had spent time doing practical work in the field before coming to UCSB, so I felt often like the baby in terms of my knowledge and experience. So there was a very steep learning curve. I’ll never forget the first paper I wrote, for Simon Williams (who still teaches there). I was awfully proud of it, and turned it in with full confidence it would be well-received. Not so. Simon’s comments on the back of the paper began: “The first thing you must do – and must do IMMEDIATELY – is learn to write better.” Or something to that effect. I think I won him over by the time I left.

Please tell us a little bit about your UCSB master’s thesis.

Well, I fell under the influence of Peter Lackner, a German native who had absorbed the SoCal ethos so completely that his work – and mine – became the incongruous meshing of German intellectualism with stoner culture. So for my thesis, I convinced him to let me write, direct, and produce an environmentally themed, site-specific, mask-and-dance-infused adaptation of “Peter and the Wolf.” I called it “Peter and the Wolf: An Eco-Adventure Thriller,” and the performance traveled all over campus. The cue for the audience to move came from the carillon in Storke Tower – the stage manager used a walkie-talkie to communicate with the organist in the Tower, at which point a different motif from the Prokofiev would be played, and the audience would move from place to place.

 loewith and cast

Is there anything you didn’t know then that you wish you had known before going to grad school?

For sure. I wish I’d known how to write simply and directly! I also wish I’d known how different the experience would be from undergrad – I spent much of my first year adjusting to the demands of a graduate education.

When and how did your interest in theater/arts begin?

George C. Wolfe, the Tony-winning director (“Bring in Da Noise/Bring in Da Funk,” “Caroline, or Change,” etc.) told me, “Other kids played house; I directed house.” I’d modify that to say that while the other kids were playing house, I was writing the script for them. The first play I remember writing was in 6th grade – it had something to do with a kangaroo, I think – but I’m sure there were others before that. Ultimately, what led me to theater – truly the most collaborative of art forms – was the way putting on a show forged a creative team. I have always wanted to be part of that, to be a voice leading the way.

What was your first job out of graduate school and how did you get it?

One of the adjunct professors at UCSB, Frank Condon, was asked to direct a marvelous play, "God’s Country" by Steven Dietz, at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. He asked me to assist him, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. When I asked him how much it paid, he just laughed at me. I took the “job” anyway, and while we were getting the show up, the theater’s production manager had a nervous breakdown and quit. They offered me the huge sum of $17,000 per year to take on this monster job, and I jumped, again. I was there for three years, learning things like you don’t put silk in the washing machine, and if you do, putting it in the dryer doesn’t help matters.

Please describe your current job and what it entails. What do you like most about your job and what do you like least?

Well, I’ve just taken the helm of Olney Theatre Center, a three-theater complex outside Washington, D.C., that serves about 150,000 patrons and students each year. As the Artistic Director, my job is to select the plays we produce, scout and hire the best directors, designers and actors for those productions, and ensure the team working for me gets them produced professionally. I’ve also got the opportunity to build a strong education program surrounding the National Players – a 65-year-old educational touring company in residence at Olney. It’s the oldest such program in the country (the theater itself is 75 years old!). I think I love every part of my job. But I’ve only been there for a couple of months, so ask me later!
One cool thing: Life comes full circle. The first play I’m directing at Olney is “Rancho Mirage,” the newest play by Steven Dietz (the guy who wrote “God’s Country”). Our production will be the play’s world premiere, and that’s really humbling and thrilling and terrifying.

In what ways did UCSB prepare you for your career?

I learned a lot of humility in undergrad – I was surrounded by so many individuals with amazing gifts and talents, and wasn’t sure that I had a gift to give the world, or my community, or even myself. At UCSB, I certainly got another big dose of humility in my first year (and in Simon’s class) … but soon thereafter, I learned the converse: confidence in myself and my voice and my knowledge and my ability to become expert at something. Maybe not the expert, but expert, do you know what I mean? In my second year I wrote a major paper for Davies King (who I can’t wait to see) about the Broadway musical "A Chorus Line." This is before the Internet (if you can imagine such a time), so you had to go to libraries and search for journal articles and newspaper clippings, and for this research (based on so relatively recent a phenomenon – it was still running on Broadway at the time, I think) I actually had to do interviews and travel to do some of the research. And by the time I was done, with my 40 or 45 pages bound together, Davies said to me, “You know, Jason, you probably know more about 'A Chorus Line' now than all but a handful of people in the world.” And that threw me. That amazed me. Here I was, with my silly research and opinions, an expert in the field, providing new scholarship on a major piece of theatrical history.

Do you have any suggestions for the UCSB educational system (or universities in general) on how to better prepare our grad students for careers?

Every field is different, so I wouldn’t want to generalize. But I’ve now taught adjunct at a number of colleges and universities, and the departments where practicing professionals teach alongside academics seem to produce the most well-rounded and best-prepared students. That’s in my experience. You can tell I learned a ton from UCSB. But had Frank Condon, a practicing freelance director, not taught a class there, I would absolutely be doing something completely different than what I am. When I had the opportunity to become the Odyssey’s production manager, I called up Simon – I had been accepted into the Ph.D. program – and asked his advice, and he was wonderful: He told me I had the heart of a producer, and I’d forever regret not trying to be just that. I think he was right.

Do you have any job search and/or job interview tips you’d like to share with our grad students? Anything you think will help a grad student stand out as a job seeker with potential employers?

Pursue the work you’re passionate about. In my field, I tell early-career directors and playwrights and actors and designers to go to every theater in town and decide which is doing the work they’re most engaged by. And then pursue every opportunity at that theater: volunteer as an usher, apply to be their assistant stage manager, whatever.

Who has been and/or is a hero, mentor, role model, or inspiration to you?
jason loewith

So many people. I list a lot of them in the Foreword to “The Director’s Voice, Volume 2” (which I edited, and which just came out in December). The folks I’ve mentioned here are and were all mentors: Peter, Bert, Simon, Davies, Frank – they were huge touchstones and continue to be in different ways. Then the Artistic Directors I’ve learned from: Ron Sossi, Charlie Newell, David Esbjornson, Barry Edelstein. I’ve gotten close to dramaturgs who have changed the way I think about the world and my place in it: Celise Kalke, Chelsea Keenan, Bonnie Grisan … there are collaborators of mine (actors, playwrights, directors, designers, stage managers) who will always be heroes and inspirations to me. I carry as many of them as I can into each rehearsal room I enter.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment or something you are the most proud of?

Folks will always point to “Adding Machine: A Musical” as a huge accomplishment – and it was. That was a passion project I’d nursed for a decade and I was lucky to get the right collaborators in the room at the right time. I will never forget the feeling of pride and accomplishment I felt when we opened off-Broadway, and the press agent ran into the opening night party just past midnight and read the New York Times review to the crowd.
But truthfully, I’m prouder to have played a major role in growing the two institutions I’ve led: Next Theatre Company in Evanston, Ill., and the National New Play Network, based in Washington, D.C. Both were troubled and dysfunctional organizations when I came to them, and when I left they were big, healthy, impactful cultural landmarks in their respective communities.

What’s on your bucket list of things to do that you haven’t done?

Take a vacation without an Internet connection.

What is something that very few people know about you or that would surprise people about you?

Given that I’ve made my reputation with kinda cutting-edge new plays, folks are always surprised to hear that I really, really, really want to direct Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical, “Carousel.”

What do you do for fun and/or relaxation?

Please rephrase the question, I don’t understand it.

This article first appeared in the UCSB Gradpost.

To read Loewith's speech, click here.