Rolling The Dice: Qui Nguyen Reveals All

Company One’s Director of New Work, Ilana Brownstein, ambushed geek-playwright Qui Nguyen when he wandered away from his scout- ing party, tied him to a chair, and cast spells at him until he spilled all his secrets.

Ilana M. Brownstein: Explain yourself. How did you end up here?

Qui Nguyen: I don’t know, the influences were all so early – Spider-Man, Bruce Lee movies, The Last Dragon. When my parents came to America they didn’t have a filter on how to raise kids. I watched a lot of stuff on TV that was way too inappropriate for me at a very early age. American pop culture was always just a huge part of my whole existence. It also helped to teach me English – I learned to speak by reading comics and seeing cartoons and watching movies where people cuss a lot. That shows up in my work, there’s a lot of cuss words. I knew Foxy Brown and Shaft – these were the characters that make up the fertile ground of where my art goes.

IMB: I demand to know, how did your company Vampire Cowboys come into existence?

QN: My co-Artistic Director Robert Parker and I started out as grad school classmates. We got assigned in our first year to do a show together, and I wrote this really serious piece about incest. Robert hated it, and I hated working with him. A couple months later, I discovered a comic book shop in this small town where we went to school in Ohio. This was 1999, so it was before geek was cool. 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 we decided to go get lunch and talk. We realized we were both interested in a mainstream Hollywood aesthetic, as well as the question of how to use it to tell deeper stories in on stage. We put together a show called Vampire Cowboys – it had a lot of influence from film noir, superheroes, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and kung fu. 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. But we still wondered: what if we took the idea of a for-the- people aesthetic and pop culture language, but use it produce something that actually conveys some emotion? We both ended up in New York, where I was a waiter, and I was terrible at it. I remember thinking, I gotta find a way to not do this. Arbitrarily, I applied for and got a fellowship at New Dramatists that came with money, which I used for our first show in the city called Stained Glass Ugly. 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 it. 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. 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.

IMB: "Geek Theatre?" Define your terms.

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, discon- nected 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.

IMB: But you geek out to the traditional stuff. Why?

QN: The attraction for me to those stories is that they're epic. It's about reaching for something waaay larger than yourself, and as a person and artist. Superheroes are modern day Greek Gods, they're writ large. I enjoy stuff 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. I can watch this show about a character that couldn't be further away from me, yet I connect with her as if she were me. It's because I relate to her aspirations, not just her circumstance.

IMB: You've been hiding something. I can tell. Reveal your mission!

QN: At VC, we just 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 that we are consciously diverse, that we're tackling issues we think are very important, like inclusion – 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 message – “Oh, I'm not political, I just want to have a good laugh.” So, we just didn't tell them that that's what we were going to do. VC has a very social element to it, and it's about redefining how people see superheroes.

IMB: Who trained you in the ways of magic? I need a name.

QN: I played D&D for probably about two years, in 7th and 8th grade, and not that frequently because our Dungeon Master Chuck – who Chuck in the play is based on – was often just very annoyed by me. I always wanted to figure out how to break the rules. (It's not hard to read into why I became a writer. Now if I want to break a rule, I just do it.) We were kids, going through puberty, and we didn't know how to talk to each other about it, but we could do it through the characters who were in the game. We told our secrets and desires and the things that trying-to-be-macho 13-year-old boys are not supposed to talk about. I grew up in a primarily black neighborhood, so if you looked around the table, it is not what you would expect in terms of what D&D players “should” look like. That experience was really important to me.

IMB: Our spies have told us you have plans. Reveal them now.

QN: I hope that for some people, their experience with the play is sort of akin to Agnes’ – that they're eye-roll-y about D&D. I also hope that in the end, we can get to the point where we understand the appeal – to spark curiosity, to try out something new, to play a game that requires storytelling. I want to expand people's universe. The bigger point is, we've all had people in our lives who have passed away. For me, that person was Chuck. He died when I was 29, and he was 30. I'd lost track of him after high school. He's also the guy who introduced me to the theatre. I owe him a lot, but I never got to tell him how much he meant to my life. And I never got to know him as an adult. That's why this story is told. It's my wish. So, the super cheeseball ending, were we talk about how life is just a bunch of stories, I totally really believe that. Probably more than anything else I've ever written. That's the collection of who I am. This whole pop culture thing, I do it because I think it has the ability to carry that weight.



The Huntington