Updated Tue, May 8, 2012 3:35 pm
The Vampire Cowboys Theater Company was born out of a chance meeting between former Ohio University students Robert Ross Parker and Qui Nguyen at Universe of Superheroes, a comic book store in Athens.
"[It was] before 'Geek Chic,' before 'hipsters,' said Nguyen. "Going into a comic book store was the equivalent of going to a porn shop. I looked up, there's Robert and I was like, 'Oh hey, man. I'm doing this for research.'"
Common ground at the comic book shop quickly turned into conversations over beer about their frustrations with modern theater.
"Entertainment and art have become separated in dramatic storytelling," said Parker.
Vampire Cowboys is the product of the duo's efforts to combat that divide: To bring entertainment and theater together for a modern audience.
Having spent the past 10 years in New York, the pair have returned to their alma mater for the 75th Anniversary of Ohio University's College of Fine Arts.
War is F**king Awesome!, Nguyen's latest play (under Parker's direction), will make its debut at the Elizabeth Evans Baker Theater on May 9 as part of the School of Theater's 2011-2012 season.
The play was written specifically with OU in mind as part of an alumni showcase made possible by Professors Shelley Delaney and David Haugen, who, in close collaboration with Parker and Nguyen, wrote grants in order to make the play possible.
War is F**king Awesome! follows heroine Unity Spencer, a girl-gone-government-weapon charged with the protection of the United States in its darkest hours.
Armed with the eyes of a hawk, the ears of a wolf, the strength of a bear and the speed of a puma, she battles her way through America's greatest wars with the help of Chief Killsalot, a "magic Injun" trapped in her brain.
The following interview was conducted by dramaturgs Anthony Kochensparger and Erin Peters (dramaturgs are students in the OU School of Theater's BFA playwriting program, supporting the development of new plays via research and dramatic analysis).
DRAMATURGS: How did Vampire Cowboys get started?
ROBERT: Qui and I were students here at Ohio University. Qui was in the MFA writing program and I was in the MFA directing program. We got assigned to work with each other our first quarter on a short play that Qui wrote. We did that play and had fun and enjoyed working with each other, then a semester later, we both ran into each other at the local comic book store.
QUI: When we realized we both liked comics, we decided right then to do what theater people do: midday drinks.
ROBERT: We talked about all the things that we liked and didn’t like, how theater should and shouldn’t be and why everything else is terrible. You know, what grad students do--what theater people--do in school. We felt like there were a lot of young kids from Ohio here who had never seen a real play, in the sense that they’d never seen a piece of theater that was about them. Entertainment and art have become separated in dramatic storytelling: Films are entertainment and theater is art.
QUI: So we decided at that point that we wanted to “save the world” by doing shows. We wanted to do a show that’s in a vernacular that everyone understands, in a language that they speak, to show them that theater can be awesome, pure and simple. It’s not about anything heady, it’s just about having a great time, that it can be a party. So we created our first Vampire Cowboys’ play called Vampire Cowboy Trilogy.
ROBERT: We tried to make a play that was more like comic books and movies.
QUI: And the stuff that we liked about those mediums.
DRAMATURGS: You both moved to New York in 2002. When you left Ohio University, did you have any plans to take Vampire Cowboys with you?
QUI: We moved to New York and I think both of us were just trying to get work. After months of not doing any theatre--I was just working to pay bills--I applied for the Van Lier Fellowship at New Dramatists which is for writers of color under the age of 30 who aren't in school anymore. Luckily it came in and it included a modest grant. I used half of it to pay my rent so I didn't have to be a waiter anymore and with the other half, I called up Robert and said "Hey Parker, let's do a show!" And so that's what we did: We put together our first Vampire Cowboys show called Stained-Glass Ugly. It was a two-hander where we used our roommates to be our actors, rehearsed out of our apartments, and it was performed at the Midtown International Theater Festival, which...
ROBERT: No one...
QUI: No one came to see, except for my now-wife Abby Marcus and two reviewers. Seeing this, Abby was like, "You guys are really wonderful artists but you're terrible producers. Look, give me your company, you and Robert can stay artists and I'll produce all your shows from now on." And then when we did the Vampire Cowboy Trilogy and had a really great run with it, Abby decided to bring it to the New York Fringe Festival. Here’s the thing: The space we were in had only 50 seats, we had one of the few shows that already had a run filled with great reviews, and the show title was called Vampire Cowboy Trilogy, so thusly people bought tickets right away. It sold out pretty much before it even started.
This was when Abby decided to send out mailings to artistic directors; not invitations per say, just flyers. And so when they independently tried to come see our show, they couldn’t. We were sold out and all they could see was this line that literally stretched out our door and around the block. This immediately created early interest in our company. It was a really good trick that she pulled, and ever since, she keeps thinking of clever ways to bring in audiences. She brought us to New York Comic-Con who now sponsors our company, and she got us in contact with all the local Browncoats and Comic Book/Sci-Fi groups and pop-culture Podcasts. In doing so, she found us an audience that was outside of the traditional, that would connect with our work and know that we were making work solely for them. And they just kept coming and we kept growing. Our budgets got bigger, our shows got bigger, we started getting Off-Broadway shows and stuff like that and that's just been our trajectory.
ROBERT: I think it's good we always believe that our most recent show is our best one yet. We try and do better each time, be more ambitious and crazy, to always be able to look at the work we’re currently doing and saying "Yes, this is our best one yet!"
QUI: War Is F**king Awesome is our best one yet!
DRAMATURGS: What brings you guys back to Ohio University?
QUI: So the big conversation that we’re currently having is how to expand our process to include new collaborations, to broaden the way we develop plays. What if we took the development of our shows outside of the city and what if we did that in collaboration with universities, using their students and faculty as support? It’s a mission of ours to attract that age group into theater anyhow. And so, when we started talking about what schools to collaborate with, the first one we wanted to engage was Ohio University, 'cause this is where the company started.
ROBERT: I think I just wrote Shelley (Delaney) an e-mail and she was super enthusiastic.
QUI: And so was David (Haugen).
ROBERT: And then they both went after grant money to make it happen. It also happened to be the 75th Anniversary (of Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts), which is kind of awesome and fun and fitting because, for us, it’s also been almost exactly ten years since we graduated which is kind of neat.
QUI: This is part of how our company’s growing.
ROBERT: We’ll have done a full production of the script with a huge cast and a run. We will just know so much more about this than we would normally. It teaches us so much about this project.
QUI: The funny thing is, this will ultimately be a musical. Right now we’re just basically producing its "book." So this production of War is F**king Awesome is the only one that will ever exist with this particular script. I think that’s special. It’s a rare thing. People should see it. It will be f**king awesome.
To learn more about Qui Nguyen, Robert Ross Parker, and the Vampire Cowboys, visit www.vampirecowboys.com.
Slideshow: "War is F**king Awesome!"
L-R: Robert Ross Parker, OU School of Theater Assistant Director Maureen Wagner, Qui Nguyen
Heather Petersen as "Unity Spencer" and Emily Williams as "Melissa Jones"
John Silver as "The General"
Emily Williams and Heather Petersen
Ashley Bossard as "Grace" and Heather Petersen as "Unity Spencer"
Emily Williams and Heather Petersen
Heather Petersen and Emily Williams