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OSF actor grew up with music all around

When Jonathan Luke Stevens was growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, his family wasn’t the kind that celebrated a holiday weekend by gathering around a Monopoly or Parcheesi board for cutthroat tournaments. Instead, they would push the furniture aside, blast dance music on the record player, and jitterbug for hours.

“I’m the antithesis to the song lyrics, ‘Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock ‘n’ roll,’” said Stevens.

He grew up in a musical family and in a state where live music and dancing was a way of life.

“The dancing mostly came from my mother,” he said, “but the music came from my dad. My father played guitar in many bands throughout my childhood. I remember sitting quietly on the speakers as they rehearsed. I quickly took an interest in drums, and by the time I was 8, my father had bought me my first drum set.”

Another influence was an uncle who worked as an actor in nearby New Orleans.

“On special occasions we would visit him. That was when I found out about theater. I remember being immediately enamored, watching him perform. I wanted to be just like him,” Stevens said.

Baton Rouge is the capital of the state and “a happenin’ town.”

“There was always lots to do,” he said. “It’s the home of LSU and a huge college town. Steeped in Cajun French culture, much of life down there revolves around having a good time. ‘Laissez les bon temps rouler,’ as they say — or, in English, let the good times roll.”

Stevens, 29, was in his sixth season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when it abruptly shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

The year before, he had a featured role in OSF’s “Hairspray” as Link Larkin, the spunky, charming, sweet and kind-hearted friend and love interest of Tracy Turnblad.

He remembers the excitement of two “first time” acting experiences — one unpaid, the other paid.

“The first time I performed onstage was during a summer camp at the Baton Rouge Little Theatre,” he said. “I played Jimmy in ‘110 in the Shade.’ I was 11 years old. It was unpaid, of course.”

His first paid gig was during the summer after he was graduated from high school. He was cast in a New Orleans’ production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” before going off to college that fall.

“The money wasn’t incredible, but I was just happy to say I was a real working actor,” he said.

During his junior high and high school years, he volunteered at the Baton Rouge community theater, putting in a lot of time, especially in the summer months.

“I just wanted to be in the building,” he said. “Every morning I would have my mother drop me off on her way to work and pick me up when she got off.”

He spent the day helping build sets, taking down sets, sorting through props and doing odd jobs. He eventually worked the box office phones. He places a high value on that early experience.

“I gained a great knowledge of the backstage and inner workings of a theater. It was a great place to discover and learn,” he said.

Bringing people joy gives him the most satisfaction as an actor.

“I just love the feeling of playing ‘imagination’ with fellow actors and the audience. What will we discover together this evening?”

He enjoys acting in musicals and believes keeping plot and story at the forefront is paramount. It doesn’t serve the story to have a character burst into song for no reason, he said.

“In musical theater, characters break into song because the stakes are astronomically high. There must be an intense need. I think musical theater is one of the greatest American art forms when executed properly,” Stevens said.

One of his favorite roles was as Ado Andy in the OSF gender-swapped version of “Oklahoma” in 2018. “It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on stage,” he said. Other favorite OSF plays in which he had roles were 2017’s “UniSon” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

Stevens earned his BFA in theater at Boston University.

“It was the most amazing time,” he said. “It was a true conservatory We were in class from early morning until late at night. It was vigorous and rewarding.”

He came to OSF in 2015, just after graduation.

“They were looking for ensemble members for ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Head Over Heels.’”

He still recalls the giddiness he felt backstage on opening night for “Guys and Dolls,” pinching himself as the curtain rose.

“I remember looking out into the Bowmer Theatre with a packed house. I remember feeling the love from the incredible OSF audiences. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world.”

Stevens still plays the drums. He also picked up guitar in college when he couldn’t have a drum set in his tiny Boston apartment. “I always found a way to surround myself with music,” he said.

When the pandemic hit, Stevens found work at a local winery. He doesn’t work at the winery anymore because he found ways to practice his craft and contribute to the arts.

He transitioned back into the performing arts through teaching. Last fall he directed a virtual production of “Clue” at Ashland High School and since then has been working with AHS theater producer and teacher Betsy Bishop, doing workshops and coaching young actors.

“I’m learning right along with the kids. It’s been inspirational,” he said.

He’s partnered with Play On! Shakespeare, developing educational content for TikTok. He recently started working with Danceworks Ashland, teaching musical theater jazz to youth 14-17. And he offers one-on-one virtual coaching in acting, dance and musical theater. Interested persons can contact him at Jonathan.stevens@icloud.com.

Even as the pandemic seems to be winding down with the rollout of the vaccines, it’s difficult for him to imagine life post-COVID.

“The performing arts have been hit hard, and I know we still have a long road ahead of us, but I’m hopeful,” he said. “I can’t wait to be in the theater again with an audience.”

You and most of the rest of us, Jonathan.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Jonathan Luke Stevens performs in "The Book of Will" at OSF in 2018. With theaters dark, Stevens has been teaching and directing. Jenny Graham photo