Scandal's Katie Lowes Talks Her Important New Play & Making Art That Counts

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Scandal's Katie Lowes knows what it's like to get political on the small screen, but she's a Gladiator for theater as well. The woman behind Quinn stars in director Adrienne Campbell-Holt's workshop of Jonathan Caren's new play, The House That Jake Built, to spark a different kind of political story — one where those in the "white hat" are a bit tougher to identify.

The show, put on by IAMA Theatre Company, centers on a "progressive" couple who hire an undocumented immigrant to build a deck on their home in the gentrified and newly-trendy neighborhood of Echo Park. Initially happy to be helping this man and his son obtain work, things take a turn when the man is injured while working at their house. Suddenly, the couple is faced with a moral issue that tests their liberal ideals. How far will one go to protect themselves?

The Los Angeles-based theater company has dedicated itself to performing works that speak to real problems across the globe, with stories primarily told through the lens of Angelenos. Lowes and Campbell-Holt spoke with Refinery29 about their latest creative endeavor:
What is the mission of IAMA Theatre Company? How did the company come to be?

Katie Lowes: "A bunch of us are theater nerds that grew up on the east coast, and all moved out to Los Angeles, and to pay our rent we were all working at the same restaurant, and really struggling artistically... We looked at each other and thought 'Well, what should we do?' And all we knew from our college days was how to make gorilla style, $50 theater... and now, 10 years later, we're running a pretty successful business. We are so determined to mirror our Los Angeles community and make gorgeous plays in Los Angeles, and really make some social change. Adrienne has been a huge part of that, this play is very topical. We are dedicated to new play development, so our plays have to be west coast premieres, or Los Angeles premieres, but ideally world premieres.

What attracted you to
The House That Jake Built?

KL: "The House That Jake Built is written by a wonderful IAMA member named Jon Caren, and we did one of his plays a few years called The Recommendation, starring my husband [Adam Shapiro.] It won the Ovation award, which in Los Angeles is our biggest theater accolade. We just really fell in love with [Caren] as a person, and he sent us this play in a rough draft a few years ago. [The House That Jake Built] is a very timely play... Because IAMA is all about developing new work, we came to this idea that we should spend time workshopping this play that had so many wonderful golden nuggets two years ago, and if we gave Caren time and space and company members... for about three weeks to rehearse it, he can then work on the play.

"It's called a workshop production, and we're on script because the play has changed so much throughout the rehearsal process, and we're very open to that, and Adrienne has been an incredible leader in that... After each show, we'll be having a talk back with the audience and a moderator every week — this Saturday, we have Cristela Alonzo, an incredible standup comic — to really get the audience involved in the social topics and get to the bottom of what this play is, so [Caren] can take it from a play that's already great and make it even [better]."

Was it important to have your lead characters be people who already consider themselves progressive?

Adrienne Campbell-Holt: "Well, I think we're drawn to certain characters and scenarios that are familiar and identifiable to ourselves, so we can dive deep into what our self-conception is, and challenge some of our conceptions. There are the questions of private versus public self. Those are topical issues that can be so delicate to [discuss]. We wanted to make sure there were no broad strokes or primary color treatments of something that's really nuanced and complicated. That's one of the incredible strengths of theater — it's like the art form of empathy. [We're] bringing to light some of the real social issues that are going on and that we hear about in the news in sort of a detached way, because [in the news it's] statistics instead of human stories.

"[Caren] lives in Echo Park, and there are elements [in the play] that he has experienced himself, but he can only experience them from his own point of view. Some of the actors who were playing the characters were able to offer insight and give context to different cultural experiences that were different from Caren."

"Katie, and actress Stefanie Black and myself were really sensitive about giving greater depth to the females in the play, and making sure everyone is given an authentic, multi-layered exploration, and that's nothing from one person's point of view."

The company primarily works on issues that have impact on Angelenos. Can you talk about how that came into play here?

KL: "L.A. has a huge Mexican community, and two of the play's characters are Mexican, and with everything going on with immigration today, it's a huge, huge hot topic... I play a very liberal character, [she] lives in Echo Park, works at the county hospital, and most likely would never even imagine considering deporting somebody. What happens when something happens in your own backyard, and all of a sudden you're trying to protect yourself? And I'm not saying I agree with what my character does, but what's so great about Caren's writing is that his characters, if you put yourself in their shoes, you start to see why they're doing what they're doing. He just paints all different sides of this dilemma."

AC: "With gentrification being such a common phenomenon in cities, he really looks at the cost of gentrification... We think that because these are progressive people, they're not the 'bad guys,' but it's really complicated."

Are there any other specific issues you hope to tackle at IAMA?

KL: "Oh, yeah... I'm so into women's rights at this moment, so we're definitely scouring for plays about abortion issues, women's rights, human rights... Our next play really deals with the legality of marijuana, which is a super hot topic in California. We try to have our theater be entertaining, and be a fun ride, and also stir up conversation. I know Jon wants to do that with his play, Adrienne wants to do that with her direction, we [actors] want to do that with our performances... We want to make the Los Angeles community a big part of that conversation."

AC: "We've been inviting different community groups about [coming to see the show] and engage in dialogue and that's so meaningful because it's not just about putting something out there, it's about really keeping that conversation going."

You can purchase tickets for The House That Jake Built on IAMA Theatre Company's website.

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