Qui Nguyen and friend
You know who Qui Nguyen is: renowned fight director, acclaimed playwright, and Giants fan extraordinaire. You’ve seen his plays: action-packed, combat-filled geekfests like Fight Girl Battle World, Men of Steel, and Living Dead in Denmark. And you know his theater company: the genre-busting (and increasingly imitated) Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company.
So what else is there to know about this multi-faceted and hugely influential theater artist? You’d be surprised. On the eve of the world premiere of his newest soon-to-be-smash opus, Soul Samurai, Qui dropped by the ol’ blog for a marathon session that proves once and for all what a bad mofo he is. Check it, people…
I’d like to start on a non-theater related note. I know you are a New York Giants fan. Any post-season thoughts on their seemingly early playoff exit?
I’ll keep my answer concise since this is a theatre blog and I have been known to “long talk” when it comes to the football. Bottom line: We need Plaxico. We were unstoppable when he was out there catching the pigskin, now we look pedestrian without him. I really hope the Jints decide to keep him if they can. Every great QB had a great receiver. Montana had Rice. Big Brother Peyton has Harrison. Bradshaw had Swann. And, hell, even Brady was barely more than Clark Kent before he met Moss. Eli has Plax. He needs #17. Nuff said.
Okay, thanks for getting that out of the way. Now, on to the matter-at-hand: your new play, Soul Samurai. You recently wrote a hilarious blog post in which you revealed that two of the cinematic influences for Soul Samurai were the blaxpoitation film Blacula and Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. For real? And could you tell us more about that, please?
Well, yeah. These two flicks are two of my all-time favs. Blacula because it was the first movie that I ever experienced and was like “Holy crap, the bad guy in this film is completely justified in messing some shit up!” If you have never seen it, the movie goes a little something like this – Prince Mamuwalde – a.k.a. Blacula – goes to a certain Transylvanian Count to get help in stopping the slave trade. The count, being evil and all, does some backstabbing, turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, and then sticks him in a coffin for all eternity to suffer “in hunger.” However, Mamuwalde gets accidentally released from his coffin onto 1970’s NYC and then . . . well, you get the picture. The big thing for me in all this was that Blacula was actually out to save the world before he got cursed. His motivations were for good. And that really impacted my adolescent mind when seeing it. Blacula wasn’t just a monster, he was also a man.
In crafting the baddies in the Soul Samurai, I want to make them all as equally sympathetic as my favorite blaxploitation vamp. Where in some shows we’ve done, it was fun having some Iago-like evil being the big bad on our stage. This time, we’re going with a less “Bad guys wearing black” motif. We want to make the audience, at times, feel uncomfortable when they see the good guy win. We want to make it a bit more complex, but in a fun way.
As for Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, this is my numero uno. If you haven’t seen it, go rent it. If you have and you’re familiar with Vampire Cowboys’ work, the correlations are clear. As a kid, it was a flick that made me run around karate chopping everything around me after each viewing. It was a flick that had me cheer anytime a fight occurred. And the characters were awesome. Shogun Sho’nuff. Bruce Leroy Green. The glow! It’s the kind of entertainment experience I want to bring my audience every time I make a Vampire Cowboys show. I want folks to cheer. I want to get them excited. And if I see them directly afterwards attempting to do some bad kung fu moves in the lobby, I know I’ve done my job well. Soul Samurai is gonna attempt to do all these things and more. It’s gonna be awesome.
Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in "Soul Samurai"
Your theater company, Vampire Cowboys, is co-producing Soul Samurai with Ma-Yi Theater Company. Is this your first co-production with them, or anyone else? And how did it come about?
This is indeed our first co-pro we’ve ever done. How did it come about? Lots of beer and I think at some point there was perhaps some blackmail involved. And Ralph Peña (Ma-Yi’s Artistic Director) must have lost a bet during one of our infamous poker games. Yeah, Asians like to gamble. That definitely comes to my advantage since I got mad skillz when it comes to the cards.
But, no, seriously. This is clearly a huge move for both Ma-Yi and Vampire Cowboys. Ma-Yi Theater is the premier Asian American theater company of the country. They’ve won OBIEs, become a home for Asian American artists in the Off-Broadway arena, and championed new works by living playwrights. Vampire Cowboys makes shows that brings geeks to the theatre. On paper, it’s a very strange marriage. But I think that’s exactly why it happened. We have a lot to offer the other. They bring in the Off-Broadway crowd, we bring in the fanboy crowd. It’ll be interesting to see if our small Indie Theater will get any props from the big boys.
As for how it all started, Vampire Cowboys was involved in the National Asian American Theatre Festival, a festival that Ma-Yi helped produce a couple of years ago. Our show, Living Dead in Denmark was the festival’s sell-out hit. Ralp, who I know very well from being the Co-Director of Ma-Yi’s writers lab, said afterwards “Hey Qui, Ma-Yi should produce one of your Vampire Cowboys shows. It’s time to get you in a bigger theatre and your names out to a bigger audience”. As I’m sure most writers have heard time and again, folks promise stuff like this all the time, but rarely does it ever pan out. On this occasion, however, Ralph really meant it. So thusly, here we are.
It’s exciting, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s also all a bit scary. For Vampire Cowboys, we’re spending more money than we’ve ever spent before. And now we’re talking more seats to fill, more nights during the week to pull in an audience, and a longer run. This show could literally break us if we don’t pull off getting a crowd. And to top it off, the country is in a recession. So why go ahead with the biggest show of our lives? Well, cause as I said before, Asians do love to gamble. And as my wife loves to say “As artists, this is how we help the economy, by giving people reason to go out and live.” As silly as this show may sound, we really think what we’re doing is big time important.
By now everyone knows that you are a world class fight director, as well as playwright, and that your plays are loaded with stage combat. How and when did you first become interested in stage combat?
World class? Really? That’s really flattering of you to say. I’ve honestly never seen myself as such. Fighting has always just been part of who I am. As a youngster, it brought me a lotta trouble. Now as an adult, it puts food on my table.
Growing up as one of the only yella faced kids in an almost purely white and black town of El Dorado, Arkansas, I obviously did alotta throwing down. A great portion of my adolescent diplomacy came via smacking down redneck bullies. I was an angry kid who hated seeing people get picked on. Obviously, I knew what that was like. So I spent a lotta my public school years shutting up the shit-talkers. From necessity, I spoke in a language of fists and kicks long before I ever decided to translate any of it to the stage.
When I went off to college though, things had dramatically changed. By that point, the anger of my youth had long disappeared. Where I once was obsessed with being invincible, I now was possessed with trying to be unforgettable. I was an acting major at Louisiana Tech University and my fight skills had caught the eye of my then instructor, Mark Guinn. Mark is a very well-regarded and nationally-known fight director and stage combat teacher. He saw that I had some natural talent when it came to fight choreography and pushed me to pursue it. He showed me how to channel all the energy I once used to figure out how to beat up an opponent and turned it into a structure I could use into figuring out the best way to attack a story onstage. The same mind-frame I had when it came to breaking down someone’s defenses, I now was re-routing to figure out how to convey a story. It was an epiphany. By the time I graduated Louisiana Tech, I was part of one of the first sets of advanced actor/combatants with the Society of American Fight Directors recognized in all weapon forms. And since I moved to NYC seven years ago, I’ve managed to choreograph over a hundred shows and now teach stage combat at Columbia University. It’s been a pretty far journey from the teenager who once used to slug drunk truckers who picked on his brothers. But regardless of how different I’ve become, the essence is still the same. I enjoy creating fights cause it’s sort of in my blood.
Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in "Soul Samurai"
As a writer, you’re heavily influenced by many non-theatrical sources, like movies, television, and comic books. But you choose to write for the theater. Why do you prefer to work in your chosen medium?
Man, I wish I had a simple answer for this. But the truth is there’s no one big reason on why I decided to pursue theatre instead of film, comics, or television. Honestly, I definitely have ambitions in all those mediums as well. The ultimate vision for Vampire Cowboys is actually to, one day, be a production company that produces theatre, film, and comic books. But why theatre specifically? I guess because I honestly feel like I have something to offer the medium. If I didn’t truly believe that, I wouldn’t be doing it. Early on (and I guess currently as well), I had agents and other professionals tell me that I was wasting my time pursuing this craft since my voice seemed so much better suited for something like a Hollywood action flick over a Manhattan black box. They told me that no one would ever truly appreciate the work I do in this field, that creating what I create would only get ignored in theatre. That in this field I’d come off as being seen as a goof-ball oddity while in comics and film, I’d be a game player. And wouldn’t I prefer making money? Okay, so I do wish I was making more money and perhaps I do get dismissed by my fair share of “serious theatremakers and critics” thinking the shit I do is just silly, but I guess that’s part of why I do it. I think I bring what I bring to live performance because so often people think the genres of action, horror, superheroes, kung fu, sci-fi, and the like are just for film, that theatre can’t ever be as good at putting this sorta stuff up so why bother? And I’m a contrarian by nature. I hate being told I can’t do something. So I do it because I want to prove that it can be done. And not just done, but done brilliantly. I do theatre because teachers told me that I shoulda been doing something else. Theatre was the girl I wasn’t supposed to date so thusly I’m obsessed with her. Does that make sense?
Also, I just love the community. From my peeps at Ma-Yi and LAByrinth to my drinking buds at Youngblood, The Brick, Partial Comfort, and Nosedive, I can credit a lot of my current and future liver damage to those in the theatrical arts. My wife and my best friends in the world work in this medium. Sitting down to do a Vampire Cowboys show is like a nightly excuse to hang out with my buddies. From those on stage to those that come to our shows, it’s a big drunken lovefest of nerdy nerds geeking out. It’s the shit. Dig that.
You not only write for your own theater company, but for others as well. Is there a difference in the way you write for your company versus someone else’s, or do you approach all of those projects the same way?
It’s always different. Even within Vampire Cowboys. Sometimes the shit just hits. Sometimes it’s a trial of temper tantrums. I guess the big difference is when it comes to Vampire Cowboys, I know I have ultimate freedom to do what I want. With other companies, I’m working within their parameters. Sometimes freedom brings on genius, sometimes it just gets me even more loss. The same can be said for parameters.
I guess I’ve never really codified a specific process. With a show like Fight Girl Battle World, I practically pounded that out in a couple of weeks and then did some edits here and there throughout the rehearsal process. Soul Samurai took me years. It’s a play that I’ve written multiple versions to help figure out (not drafts mind you, but full-on different versions). I had one set in feudal Japan, another one that was more of a modern adaptation of The Three Musketeers, and finally the one that we’re now producing with a strong hip-hop vibe. The journey of creating the hero of this show wasn’t easy. Mainly because I wanted her to be perfect – my version of an Asian American Wonder Woman of sorts – a hero that could last. And no matter how much I wanted to make her right, it just didn’t seem to click. I could see how she moved, but never could picture her face. That is until I met and started working with actress Maureen Sebastian. She’s been with Vampire Cowboys since 2006 when she first appeared in our production of Living Dead in Denmark. She’s a strong, beautiful, and magnetic actress who I knew right away would be perfect as Dewdrop (the lead character in Soul Samurai). It was working with her that finally opened the story up for me. She broke it all open.
So the process of making shows is always different. I never know what it is that’s going to be my “in.” With Fight Girl, it was a staging trick that Robert Ross Parker (my director) thought up. With Soul Samurai, it was an actress. With something like “Quitters Inc.,” a show I wrote for Nosedive Productions, it was the base material itself. I think that’s what makes writing so exciting for me. It’s always a discovery on figuring out how to find my stories. It’s always an adventure.
Vampire Cowboys operates its own rehearsal space, The Battle Ranch, in Bushwick. What led the company in this direction? And how’d you pick the name?
I ain’t gonna lie – I wish I could say I was the one who thought of it, but all cred goes to my wife and our company’s producer, Abby Marcus. The Battle Ranch was her brain child. If you know my wife, you know that she’s a girlie with a lotta passion and a lotta heart. And that heart of hers truly beats for Indie Theater. Seriously, I’ve never met someone so relentless in wanting to promote Off-Off Broadway. And I only say this to help explain how The Battle Ranch came into being because it all goes hand in hand with her dedication to the Indie Theater movement.
When Vampire Cowboys first began, we had very little in the coffers just like any other small theatre starting out. And instead of trying to shell it out to tiny little holes out in Manhattan, Abby decided to bring us out to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to rehearse. There, we were able to work at Studio 111, a large beautifully maintained space that not only was available for only $10 an hour, it also gave us free storage so we didn’t have to tote our many weapons, props, and costumes back and forth at every rehearsal. It essentially gave us an affordable home. And it was here that Vampire Cowboys was able to grow and develop all our shows.
However two years ago, Tanya and Ken, the two curators of the space needed to let it go. And instead of letting it die, Abby corralled all of Vampire Cowboys together and announced that she wanted to take it over. Our response was a bit of a raised eyebrow. One, we could now easily afford rehearsal rental at any hall we wanted in the city. Two, this was a huge financial risk. And three, her plan involved keeping the rental price of the space down at $10 an hour, meaning that there was no way we would ever see any kind of profit from this venture, only potential loss. So why the risk? Why add the burden of running a space on top of our already busy schedules at producing shows? Because it was important, she insisted. Her mantra, “It’s not about the money, it’s about the community. Don’t you think it’s important that others have the same opportunities we had when we first started? We can’t let another affordable space disappear in NYC. It’s for the good of all. We have to do this. Cause if we don’t, we’re just making it harder for everyone else.”
And so, she won. And after two years of seeing all the good it has produced, I thank God she did. Countless numbers of small companies regularly rehearse there and the work that has come out of The Battle Ranch has been awesome. It’s also the home of “The Saturday Night Saloon,” our monthly show we produce during the fall and winter of serialized plays. And the sense of Indie Theater comrade we’ve been able to help promote has been incredible. As most know, since opening the space, we have had to move The Battle Ranch once (since our landlord decided to gut the original building and turn it into apartments), but the spirit and community still thrives in the new Battle Ranch. Again, it was a gamble, but one that has thoroughly paid off.
As for the name . . . you have to ask Abby. I think it just made her laugh.
What does the future hold for you and the Vampire Cowboys after Soul Samurai?
For me, it’s always hard to look beyond the show I’m currently making. Soul Samurai is so much a focus right now. I mean even beyond it being the biggest and riskiest production Vampire Cowboys has ever undertaken, it’s also perhaps the single most personal show I’ve ever written. Yeah, I know that might sound weird saying a show about jive-talking Samurai and hip-hop ninjas is one coming from the heart, but as blatantly entertaining as it may be, it really is inspired from a place of true sincerity. I grew up watching kung fu flicks and blaxploitation films. Being an Asian sensation getting raised in the deep south and living on the “rougher” side of town, it woulda been easy for me to feel bad about what I looked like or where I lived. But, as a kid, seeing characters like Bruce Lee and Richard Roundtree on the screen made me be able to raise my head up high and believe I truly could be the baddest mamma jamma in my hood regardless of my skin color. It was about heroes. Movies like Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon and Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection were flicks that made being a yella fella living up in the projects not so bad. Soul Samurai is my play honoring those films and hopefully adding another yella heroine to the bunch. This, as they say, is my verse.
But as for the future of Vampire Cowboys? Well, I can safely say we’ll be doing more shows, more films, and more comics. We got a remount of Fight Girl Battle World happening this summer and next year we’re planning on doing a show tentatively titled Alice in Slasherland. As for me personally, I’m gonna keep writing, keep making fights, and hope that anyone who’s read this comes out to see Soul Samurai. It’s gonna be fun. Easily, it’s the best show I’ve ever done.