Company One’s Director of New Work, Ilana Brownstein, spoke with playwright Qui Nguyen about his process, his history, and his geekery.
ILANA BROWNSTEIN: How did your company, Vampire Cowboys begin?
QUI NGUYEN: It started in grad school for me and Robert Parker, the other Artistic Director. It was our first year in grad school, we were assigned to work together on a project, which is how we met. We did this show together, and I wrote this really serious piece about incest. Robert hated it, and I hated working with him, and we were both like, this is terrible and we hope we never have to work together again. A couple months later, I discovered there was a comic book shop in this small town where we went to school in Ohio, and I was like, man, I’m gonna go buy some comic books. This was around 1999, so it was before geek was cool. There was no geek chic. If you were reading comic books you might as well as have admitted to reading porn. I walk into the shop, and lo and behold, I see Robert there. We were so thoroughly embarrassed by the fact we were both young adults reading comic books, but after we got past that, we decided to get lunch and talk about the comic books we like. We started drinking, and like any other young theatre artists in grad school, we ended up talking about the shit we liked and didn’t like. We realized we were both interested in a mainstream Hollywood aesthetic, and the question of how to use that to tell deeper stories in the theatre.
We also realized that in talking to all our actor friends at school, who were in The Cherry Orchard and whatever, that they thought acting was boring. They were doing shows to become better actors, but the shows they were working in, they didn’t give a shit about. We thought we should put together something they wanted to act in, and that we wanted to watch as well. At that point, I saw a part of Robert that wasn’t evident in that first project when we were trying to be “serious theatremakers,” and he saw a part of me that wasn’t trying to impress people with my “serious playwriting.”
We put together a show called Vampire Cowboys. It was basically three different stories, with film noir, and superheroes, and some influences from Buffy (because it was the late 1990s). We interspersed each piece with these vampire cowboy pieces where cowboys would face off. The first time, there was a duel with guns, and one was a vampire and would bite the other. The next time they used kung-fu. The third time they used samurai swords. That was the first “Vampire Cowboy” idea – it was more sketch comedy than anything innovative. The only innovation that was part of it all was that we were doing something for the students and audience at Ohio University. It wasn’t about teaching anything, it was strictly about entertainment. There was also a large amount of stage combat in it because I was a fight director.
That was our first show, and after that our professors were very much like, “that was cute, but don’t ever do anything like that again.” So we listened a little bit, and in the second year we did our Very Serious Work. Robert directed Hamlet, and I wrote a play about the Vietnamese Boat People. In our third year, we went to New York for our internships and were trying to find our place in the city.
The thing is, there’s a lot of great work in New York, but none of it was speaking to us. We’d come to the city together, we were roomies, we were on our internships, and we ended back in that conversation that started year-one of grad school. For those previous two years, Robert has directed a lot of shows, I read and wrote a lot of plays, but that silly little comedy we did was still the most important thing for us. So: what if we took that same idea – a for-the-people aesthetic, a pop culture language of stuff everyone knows – but use it produce something a little deeper, a little darker, something that actually conveys some emotion?
We created our second show, A Beginner’s Guide to Deicide, and we brought it back to Ohio as we finished out the grad program. It was revelatory. It made us go, “oh, there’s something more to this, there’s something here to be for.” When we got back to New York after graduation, we wanted to continue to explore it, but (like anyone) we also wanted to work for someone else and get paid. So we kind of gave up on our idea in favor of interning for more established companies.
I was a waiter, and I hated waiting. I was terrible at it. I remember thinking, I gotta find a way to not do this. Arbitrarily, I applied to the Van Lier fellowship at New Dramatists, which came with money. Luckily, I got it, and I used the money to mount our first show in the city called Stained Glass Ugly. It had Vampire Cowboy ideas behind it, but it wasn’t really a Vampire Cowboys show. We used our roommates as our actors, rehearsed in our living room, and put it in the Midtown International Theatre Festival. I thought the art of it was pretty good, the show was ok, but the thing is: Robert knows how to direct shows, I know how to write them (or at least I think I do), but we didn’t know how to produce a show at all, and we didn’t know how to market it, at all. So there was no one in our audience. At all!
The big moment that changed everything, and allowed us to become our own company, was that Abby Marcus – who is now my wife, and was, at the time, someone I was interested in – she had come to see the show. Afterwards, she said, “you’re great artists, but you’re terrible producers. Give me your company, I’ll make you something.” And that’s what we did, because she was literally the only person in the audience aside from the reviewer, and definitely the only one who had paid. She asked us the hard questions about what we wanted to do as artists. To have that third voice in there that could see the forest for the trees was valuable. What do you want to do, what audience do you want to reach? She was crafting our new mission statement. (Our mission statement at the time was the same crappy one everyone has when they’re starting out: we want to make innovative plays for everybody! Just like every theatre company on the planet.)
Abby pushed us, and was actually the one who coined the term “geek theatre.” We had to find a way to put what we do under one tent. Once the term was there, the reviewers started to use it, and it became our identity. We called ourselves Vampire Cowboys, named after our first show. Once we started, and once Abby came on, she became that force that got New York to see us. There are hundreds of theatre companies, and thousands of shows in any month, so how does anyone see anything? For us, the thing that made it possible was Abby, she found us our audience.
Abby made us get a booth at Comic-Con. Robert and I were like, we’re a “yeah, we know we do this kind of work, but why do we need a booth at Comic-Con? It’s $2000! That’s a lot of money to throw down that we could use for something else.” But that first time we were there, Comic-Con kind of giggled about the fact we were a theatre company offered to sponsor us. So suddenly we had this very legitimate label. Not only were we a geek theatre, we were a geek theatre sponsored by New York Comic-Con, which is THE mecca and yearly holiday for geeks. We were the only theatre company to have that distinction, and remain so to this day. It means a lot. In terms of outreach, Abby invited the New York Browncoats [fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series], and the New York Star Trek Club, and they would come to our shows. These types of groups very much became the heart and soul of our audience. We had to get specific about who we were doing these shows for. At the time, we read some statistic that said the average dedicated theatre-goer sees about 8 shows a year; and most professional theatres have season ticket holders who see like 6 shows a year with them. That leaves 2 shows the theatre-goer would see elsewhere the rest of the year. So, every other theatre company in New York is fighting for those people to spend time in their theatre with those last 2 shows. We were like, “wow, that’s not very many blue-hairs to fight over. We don’t want to do that.” Instead, we focused our audience on the demographic we best serve. The specificity to that particular sector has, interestingly, made our audiences very diverse. We actually do have an older crowd that comes to Vampire Cowboys.
You do it long enough, and people eventually begin to notice. It’s hard not to notice a company that consistently sells out shows. Abby always said, if we’re successful, we’ll be legitimized. When you’re starting out, you want to be legitimate, you want The New York Times to show up, you want people to take you seriously. She said, don’t worry about that. Do good work, people will come see your shows, and then legitimacy will come. She was completely right. Two years ago, the last time Abby and I lived full time in New York, one of the last things we did in town was receive an OBIE, which was awesome. At that moment, we were like, Abby was so right about being true to ourselves. It was so idyllic. It was the kind of thing you talk about, but never think is going to happen. She’s my wife, so I’m very fond of her, but if you ask Robert, who is not married to my wife, he’ll say the same thing – that Abby was able to focus all our crazy ideas and make us into what we are.
We’ve evolved from our original scrappy aesthetic, we do a lot more multi-media now. We’ve always had one rule: if a designer wanted to work with us, we found a way to make it happen. That was it. In our 2nd year, for example, the puppet maker we work with now said, “hey, Vampire Cowboys needs puppets.” We were like, there’s no character here that’s a puppet, but we can make that happen. So now we have a puppet designer. Our projection/multi-media artist is someone who was on staff and was trying to teach us how to use some equipment. Afterwards he said, “this is cool.” We were like, “wanna be part of the company? Come on!” We’re the kind of company where we have actors we work with all the time, but the resident company is primarily designers. It’s the other side of the table, and actors come to play with us. When we were getting started, I was calling myself a fight choreographer more than a playwright. Now, I don’t do fights at all.
IMB: How do you define “geek theatre” these days?
QN: I define it as theatre that’s built around something people can obsess over. These days, the term “geek” is way more expansive than it was in the late 1990s. Then, you’d think of the socially awkward person who hangs around in the comic book shop, playing board games or D&D or something like that. Something isolating, disconnected from the mainstream. But with the onset of the internet, suddenly everyone can geek. You like Housewives of Orange County? You can watch every episode online, and know more about that than anything. The problem with geeking in the 1990s and before is that information was so hard to access. It meant “geeks” were a certain kind of person, someone who was committed enough to physically go to these places. You had to put out physical effort to collect knowledge, which removed you from other activities. There were a limited number of people who wanted to do that, it marked you. Now a kid that has no idea about Spiderman as of a week ago can go on Wikipedia and read everything there is about Spider-Man and know as much about Spider-Man as I do. You can have a geek theatre piece about math, or politics, or whatever. You can geek out about anything. Geek theatre about Wall Street might be a harder sell, but there’s an audience for that. If you obsess over, let’s say, numbers, but you don’t work in that field, there’s something geeky about that kind of fandom. It’s wish fulfillment – wanting to connect with something larger than yourself that you’re not otherwise a part of.
IMB: Your brand of Geek Theatre has more specificity to it, connected to comic books, etc.
QN: Well, generationally, that’s who I am. My personal definition of geek is all about tabletop gaming, comic books, Spider-Man, superheroes, that’s the generation I came out of.
IMB: For you, what is it that’s compelling and important about comics, role paying games (RPGs), etc? What is that stuff doing that makes it something you want to continue to work with, artistically?
QN: The attraction for me to those stories is that they’re epic. I even say it in SKM, it’s about reaching for something waaay larger than yourself, and as a person and artist, that’s something I relate to. Everyone wants to be bigger than themselves. As a kid, you wanted to be Batman or Wonder Woman. You wanted to play RPGs so you could kill dragons and save princesses and kingdoms and be hoisted aloft as a legendary hero. You want to be remembered, leave a bigger impression than your physical size. Superheroes are modern day Greek Gods, these are the heroes beyond ourselves. Of course we don’t invest in them religiously, but we once did. They’re writ large. Not that I don’t like small stories, but you can write a story about domestic relationships and you can also have exploding space ships. To me, I like Buffy, which is about saving the world, but is also about high school relationships and growing up. I like that kind of allegorical story telling, versus didactic story telling. To tell a Buffy story, but to take out the vampire element, I don’t think that would be as interesting. Once you throw in the larger context, it gives depth. The fact that I can watch this show about a female lead character, that’s a cheerleader, raised in California, that couldn’t be further away from a straight dude in, like, Arkansas, yet I connected with her as if she were me. It’s because I related to her aspirations, not just her circumstance.
IMB: Many people who are enamored of geek culture found themselves as outsiders in the social milieu of their teen or young adult years, and that the outsiderness has a specialness to it when married to the stories that you’re talking about. For you, VC has always been a place where you have your work done, and now you’re branching out to produce work by other writers, like Crystal Skillman. What’s it like for you to send your work away from VC into the world for other people to get their hands on?
QN: I think it’s really exciting. The first production is always super super-special, but like any other playwright, you want other people to do it, you want to see how other people tackle it. The stuff I write can be quite intimidating for other theatres, people read it and they’re like, “What? There’s a space ship battle? And a robot that turns into a … what?” The longer I do it, and the more I see other people try it, it’s great. I do talk to artistic directors who often ask me, how do you do this or that part? I like urging people to just roll the dice. It’s why I do it, to have other people do it.
IMB: Have there been any big surprises for you, as these pieces have moved out beyond VC?
QN: Absolutely. The way people tackle things always surprises me. That’s the poetry of a VC show – it’s not just the words, it’s the question of how interpretation works. When you have a 5-headed dragon at the end of your play, everyone is going to approach that differently just by nature of their resources, who they have on board, what their inclination is, and how they execute that. To me, that’s the poetry, that’s a dance I love watching. When people ask me if I want to see a recording of productions I’m not a part of, I’m like, you don’t have to record the whole show, but I’d love to see these specific moments and how you tackled it. How did you figure out that dragon? That dragon is tough! I’ve had many people say, we love the play! How do you do the dragon?
IMB: One of the things that drew C1 to the piece and your work in general is the ability for a play to be an event, really theatrical, really entertaining, really into pop culture, but also doing some fairly serious work on the social end. There’s some stuff in this play that tackles the big questions. What parts of that are consciously important to you?
QN: At VC, we always call it the “secret mission.” It’s only because of the fact that we don’t put it on our website. We don’t sell the fact that we are consciously diverse, that we are tackling issues that we think are very important like inclusion and diversity – both in terms of the artists we work with and the subjects we talk about. When we started, it seemed like people had a weird connotation to work that pushed forward a social message. People were like, “oh, I’m not political, I just want to have a good laugh.” So, we just didn’t tell that that’s what we were going to do. First, we entertain the crap out of people, and then they go, “wait, did I just watch a lesbian Asian American kill vampires? That’s really changed my perspective on who can be a superhero because I didn’t know I could cheer for that!” The problem with that, which I’ll share with you, is the fact that because it is a secret mission, often times it’s not inherent in the script that we’re casting our shows diversely. In She Kills Monsters, we outright talk about it, but often we don’t, so sometimes people will do the shows and I’ll be like, “oh you actually just cast it as an all white cast, which has a totally different feel than when we did it, and that’s actually important to me.” So as we do this year after year, those elements are becoming more apparent, and coming to the forefront. You can’t ignore them. And by now, our secret mission – because we’ve talked about it so much in interviews – is no longer secret. VC has a very social element to it, and it’s about redefining how people see superheroes.
IMB: It feels important for it to be both secret and not secret. There’s something akin to what you were talking about earlier, which I read as a kind of Big Tent Geekery. I’ve been super aware over the last couple of years of the conversations that are happening around race and the Comic Cons, who gets to play who in cosplay – where that falls apart and where the successes are. The big tent aesthetic says anybody can be a part of this world, not just those who stereotypically fit our assumptions about what the characters can look like or be.