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Geeks and (Bloodsucking) Freaks: Lessons From The Theater Trenches

When I was 27 I moved to Ohio to study to be a theater director. Weird vocation/geography combination, but it seemed to make sense at the time. While I was there I met a guy named Qui Nguyen, who was studying playwriting. One day, we ran into each other in the local comic book store. This was only slightly less embarrassing than running into your friend in the local “adult” bookshop. Yes, we read comic books, but we didn’t tell people we read comic books. Having both been outed as supreme nerds, we decided to grab a beer. Over what became several beers, we came to three conclusions.

Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in Soul Samurai. Photo by Theresa Squire.
Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in Soul Samurai. Photo by Theresa Squire.

1.  Most people think theater is dull, pretentious, and boring.

2. There would seem to be a large amount of evidence to support this belief.

3. We both liked movies and comics a lot and thought that theater should be more like those things.

So we created a play called Vampire Cowboy Trilogy. It featured superheroes,
ninja, and an evil cheerleader, and we thought it was pretty cool. Almost 10 years later here we are in New York. We’re the co-artistic directors of the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company (now in its seventh season), and we are still working hard to prove theater can be fun, cool and exciting. It’s been a heck of a ride, and I’ve learned an enormous amount along the way. Here’s the important stuff in five quick points:

No matter what, you can never, ever bore the audience.

An audience will put up with a lot of shenanigans. They’ll let you try weird stuff, and even go along with ideas that don’t really work, but if you bore them it’s over. They will hate you. And I don’t blame them. They paid money to give up a couple of hours of their lives and put themselves in your hands. Fail spectacularly if you must, but never, ever bore them.

It’s about telling a story, stupid!

That is the job at its very core. Yes, you want to explore ideas and ask questions. Yes, you want to challenge forms and go further as an artist than you did last time. But your first job is to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. If you can’t do that, none of the other crap really matters. Stories are the whole basis of human identity. We are each a collection of stories, and it is through hearing stories that we come to feel and understand more about others and ourselves. The whole darn theater thing started millennia ago when we gathered around the fire and said, “Dude, I just speared a huge fucking mastodon!” And someone was like, “No way, how did it go down?” “Well,” we said, “let me tell you about it . . .”

Theater should be...well...theatrical.

It’s amazing how much of it isn’t. We’re still suffering under the belief that theater is supposed to be a bunch of people in a room talking to each other. That sounds a lot like a meeting, and people get paid to go to those. People seem to believe the stage is a limited medium and the opposite of film, where you can do anything. I think theater is most potent when the audience engages its imagination. And that imagination is more powerful (and way cheaper) than an ILM effects crew. There is a theatrical solution to staging any moment. Qui gleefully writes space battles, dog attacks and montage sequences. We have no freaking idea how to stage them at first, but they wind up being some of our favorite moments.

The art stuff doesn’t matter if no one comes to see it.

Theater hasn’t happened if the audience doesn’t arrive. Vampire Cowboys has a brilliant producer named Abby Marcus. She came to see our first show in NYC and thought, “This is a pretty good show. Why am I the only person in the audience?” She joined the company as our managing director and we haven’t looked back since. It’s one thing to try to make good theater, but if no one knows about it it quickly becomes a very frustrating exercise. It’s not like making a novel, painting, or film. It’s ephemeral, and when the thing closes it’s probably all over. You need smart marketing, qualified press representation, and creative producing. You need a machine behind a show or you’ll just be lost in the maelstrom.

If someone else is doing it better, shouldn’t you be working for them?

If the mission statement of a fledgling off-off theater company is remarkably similar to LAByrinth’s, or Second Stages’s, or MTC’s they’ve got an uphill battle for recognition. It’s pretty tough to beat someone with more experience/money/resources/reputation at their own game. Do something that only you can do. I can boast, without a hint of arrogance, that Vampire Cowboys is New York’s premiere comic book-inspired, martial arts action, dark-comedy-drama, puppet using, video making small theater company. And our latest show will be the very finest post apocalyptic, hip-hop, blaxploitation-samurai play of the season.

There have been many other lessons for me from the Vampire Cowboy experience, everything from how much stage blood should be used (a lot) to how many zombies it takes to make a hoard (about nine will do it). But the above points are the really important ones, and I consider myself pretty lucky to have had the opportunity to learn them.

Ma-Yi Theater and Vampire Cowboys present Soul Samurai, beginning February 14 at HERE Arts Center. For more info, please visit


Robert Ross Parker


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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