It’s a little after noon on a Friday. The barroom in Oak Creek’s Classic Lanes sits vacant and quiet, save for the talking-head sports pundits engaged in an inane dispute on the flat-screen TVs and the distant pang of gutter balls brought on by a small group of daytime bowlers.
Suddenly, the tranquility is broken by the rumble of an idling school bus parked outside the bowling alley’s front doors. The field trip has arrived.
KEEPING THEM IN STICHES Ryan Lowe and his merry band of puppets are making their mark on Milwaukee’s comedy scene.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
A group of 17 Greenfield High School special education students disembarks from the bus. They file through Classic Lanes’ double doors and head toward the utopia of hyper-colored balls, oiled wood and an afternoon out of the classroom. Some walk independently. Others need a helping hand. A few are in wheelchairs and get a push from the paraprofessionals who are chaperoning. Among the last of the paras, as they’re called, is Ryan Lowe, with a student in tow.
Outfitted in jeans and a loose sweater, the 38-year-old Lowe bears the crown of his Bic-shaven head as he crouches to tie rental shoes and enter names into the automatic scoring system. He readies a rolling apparatus for those unable to send balls pin-ward on their own. He converses with his cohorts and kids bottlenecked beside the ball return, waiting for their next roll. Frames elapse and the paras joke around with the kids, when Lowe spots a student sitting with her head down, visibly upset. He plops down across from her – resting his head on a particle board scoring table, parroting her position – to diffuse a possible meltdown and coax a smile out of her as he brings her back to normalcy. Even from a few feet away, his hushed words are inaudible to anyone but her. Yet the intent of the wide-eyed and lighthearted tone he takes to break the tension speaks loud and clear.
Hours later, Ryan Lowe is onstage in a Third Ward wine boutique, a world away from the suburban bowling alley. And he is killing.
Narrowly removed from helping physically limited special needs kids to their feet, he’s now bringing an entranced audience of adults to its knees. He holds a self-made “Grandpa Puppet” unresponsively against his side at the start of his set, not referencing it through the early going. Raising his right arm – ventriloquist dummy-sized puppet attached – he finally makes use of the prop by launching into a graphic reenactment of Grandpa’s – thankfully untrue – Christmas Day suicide.
“You weren’t supposed to see this!” Lowe sneers, channeling the fleece octogenarian before the punctuating “bang” of a gunshot. The intimate room is split between uproarious laughter and uncomfortable gasps – which, too, soon mutate into laughs after acclimating to the morbid puppetry.
Under the bright light of the stage, this quiet and caring paraprofessional has been transformed from upstanding to stand-up.
This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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