“Geek is good.” That’s not the motto of the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, but it could be. The Williamsburg-based troupe builds its productions—and its audience—by tapping an appetite for spectacle-laden shows that sport everything from undead Shakespeare characters to—no surprise—blood-sucking gunslingers.
A VCTC production has something for you if you’re into schlock horror, martial arts, film noir, comic books, teenage sex romps, or any combination of these and more. It was this anything goes, sometimes sophomoric approach that inspired the company’s founding and drew Robert Ross Parker and Qui Nguyen, its founders, together. And it’s both reverence for heightened theatrical experience and irreverence for staid theatrical style that allows the Vampire Cowboys to offer, without blinking, lines like the following (from their latest production, Men of Steel):
“Oh no, Cap, Menace’s team of Norwegian Ninjas are surrounding us.”
Robert and Qui founded VCTC partly in response to their graduate school experience at Ohio University. They feared that the theater makers of tomorrow were taking too heavy a dose of the theater of the past.
“We thought, ‘When you’re 19, why are you spending a semester playing the role of Hedda?’ ” Robert recalls.
The danger was that students would conclude not only that theater’s best days were history, but that theater was no fun. Qui and Robert’s response in 2000 was to create The Vampire Cowboy Trilogy, a genre-jumping fightfest that combined a superhero caper, a paranormal detective story and a high-school warrior princess splatterfest. Scene and costume changes were masked by duels between undead foes with fangs and leather chaps.
The show was a hit, and Robert and Qui had found a niche to use more than just their talents as a writer and a director (Qui is a certified fight choreographer and Robert is a director, actor and writer with a flair for comedy).
Since moving to New York, Qui and Robert have stayed true to the imperatives that brought VCTC into being—a set-no-limits philosophy, a collaborative approach and an absolute commitment to entertaining audiences and themselves. Through four productions, VCTC’s bag of tricks has expanded to include multimedia, puppetry and song—not for high-art intellectual reasons, Qui is quick to point out, but because the company thought they would be fun.
The company’s current show, Men of Steel, certainly doesn’t violate the company’s “brand.” It’s full of fights, superhero/teenage angst, song and film-noir melodrama. While the script is thematically dark, the production still embraces the inescapable goofiness of live-action superheroes, Robert says, noting that Michael Keaton in a Batman suit—even an expensive one—can’t be as cool or mythic as Batman in the comic world.
“Even if you have a gazillion dollar special effects budget,” he says, “it’s still, like, guys in tights, and it looks kinda weird.”
If there’s an element of self-indulgence to the VCTC approach, it’s a self-indulgence that has attracted fans who see the company as kindred spirits. VCTC shows have become popular with the Browncoats (fans of the TV show Firefly), for instance, and the company performed in February at the New York Comic-Con, an exhibition of all-things-comic. On TV/movie fan sites and sites like MySpace, VCTC actively promotes its shows. The idea is to attract an audience outside of usual theater fans, Robert says: “It would be great to get a whole other crowd that doesn’t go see plays, but goes to see Vampire Cowboys shows.”
Not that the members of VCTC aren’t devoted to theater—all of the company’s members pursue theater careers outside of the company—Qui is an off-Broadway produced playwright, for example, and Robert works regularly as a director. The company’s production coordinator/designer, Nick Francone, designs shows across New York and regionally, as does its costumer, Jessica Wegener.
S o VCTC is an outlet—for its members’ imaginations, but also for the desire to experiment with genres, subject matter and production ideas that “serious” theater work often won’t allow.
Qui is Vietnamese-American, for instance, and writes—and is encouraged to write—“Asian-American” plays like his recently-produced Trial by Water, the story of his young cousins’ terrifying ocean escape from Communist Vietnam. While that’s one part of who he is, Qui says, VCTC allows him to complicate his perceived artistic identity.
“I think what Vampire Cowboys has given me is a voice besides being Asian-American, which is a huge thing,” he says. “I do Asian-American theater, but VC has given me a voice beyond my race.”
Ironically or not, though, the worlds of Asian-American playwriting and VCTC have begun to blur—the company is reviving last year’s Living Dead in Denmark in June at the National Asian American Theatre Festival, albeit not without initially second-guessing the appropriateness of this action-horror sequel to Hamlet.
“Robert was, like, ‘Wait a minute, is this show Asian-American?’ ” Qui says. “And my reaction was, ‘I am.’”
If the company has any overt sociopolitical mission, it’s to promote multi-racial casting—a VCTC show is as colorful in its casting as it is stylistically.
“That’s a very conscious thing on our agenda,” Robert says. “We’re not into having a bunch of white people on stage.”
But that’s where the statements end. The Vampire Cowboys are consciously, earnestly … unearnest. The goal is to follow their bliss, and make that journey entertaining for audiences. At the end of an interview, Qui points to fart jokes as an illustration of VCTC’s no-taboos-with-a-geeky-edge spirit. It’s a fitting analogy. After all, anyone can capture the vulgarity of such a joke. It takes skill to make it funny.
The Vampire Cowboys Men of Steel runs March 15 through April 8 (Thursdays through Sundays) at Center Stage, 48 West 21st St., 4th Floor. Tickets: $18. For more info: www.vampirecowboys.com or 212-352-3101.
Justin Boyd is a playwright, screenwriter and co-editor of the Theater section of the Rail.