Matching Hello Kitties
(One Pink, One Baby Blue)
Walk 6th Ave,
Heads Half Off,
Identical Twin Sisters.
Matching Hello Kitties
Erhus & saxophones
Clustered in Columbus Park
(Former Five Points).
Flip & slap.
Points & shouts.
This is the second of a three part series on authentic listening, theater companies who do it, and how empathy can change the way we interact with our audience and other artists. You can read part one here.
Theater people frequently lament lagging box office numbers and an aging audience that only supports the largest institutions. There’s talk that we must do something drastic to sustain our future. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about audience. Who are they and why are they waning? The solution to salvation may not be as drastic as some think.Ten years ago, Vampire Cowboys figured out the formula. A self-proclaimed “Geek Theater” company lead by playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker, VC did two things. They followed their hearts, and they listened to their audience. Before VC, over-the-top, camp antics like cross dressing, wacky puppetry and goofy pop-culture references were relegated to cabarets and drag clubs. Certainly, theaters from the 1990’s like Collective Unconscious, Surf Reality and Todo Con Nada paved the way for VC to explore fringe theatrical devices. But, VC didn’t just create avant-garde passion projects for tiny downtown venues, nor did they try to fit their square-peg-style into a round theater community’s fashion. They aimed to cultivate a vast audience over the entertainment industry at large.
Vampire Cowboys was the first theater company to have an official sponsorship with ComicCon. For several years, these Geek Theater makers have manned a booth at the New York arm of the convention, offering live fight performances from their productions. Obviously, the increase in popularity of ComicCon paralleling VC’s inception is fortuitous, but the important point is they seized this opportunity and grew to cultivate loyal fans, as well as becoming critical favorites.
Another fantastic (now retired) program that VC offered was The Saturday Night Saloon. Again, building on the downtown theater models of the 90’s, VC created a monthly-serialized theater event that brought together some of the best up-and-coming playwrights, like Crystal Skillman and Mac Rogers. It also offered a regular home for actors and fans to get to know each other in an intimate setting. By involving these actors and playwrights, they expanded their talent pool and encouraged those artists’ inner geeks.
Vampire Cowboys inspired a theater movement that follows its heart and listens to the spirit of its audience. It effectively took the stereotype of the theater geek and turned it on its ear. Suddenly, it was hip to be square. More companies across New York City followed suit. Now, there are groups in Chicago and Los Angeles embracing the aesthetic. VC heralded the death of the theater geek and made way for a new hero: The Geek Theater Artist
Last season, Mac Roger’s theater company, Gideon Productions, produced his Honeycomb Trilogy – Advance Man, Blast Radius and Sovereign. It is an epic, science fiction tale about an alien invasion on Earth, the resistance and their rebuilding. The trilogy was ambitious, and ten years ago, it might have been a recipe for disaster. But Gideon learned from VC, skirted traditional theater press, and reached out to the science fiction community. They received accolades from tor.com and io9.com, which filled their houses with fellow sci-fi geeks. The productions’ success attracted the New York Times, which gave the trilogy’s final installation a rave. They also joined VC at ComicCon this fall, presenting Kill Shakespeare: The Live Stage Reading, based on the successful IDW Publishing comic book series.
Also last season, Flux Theatre Ensemble teamed up with Gideon Productions, forming an alliance with Boomerang Theater Company called BFG Collective. The three companies took over The Secret Theatre in Long Island City for six months, to disperse production costs. Flux produced August Schulenburg’s Deinde, a science fiction play about the rise of the singularity. Tomorrow, they open Adam Szymkowicz’s superhero noir comedy, Hearts Like Fists.
Next week, terraNOVA Collective, where I served as associate artistic director for eight years, also opens a comic-inspired play, Robert Askins’ P.S. Jones and the Frozen City. I saw a workshop of the play earlier this year. It’s filled with wild puppets and fabulous costumes in a far out dystopian future. It’s gonna be loads of fun.
Finally, Vampire Cowboys returns for their 10th anniversary season. For the first time, the main stage play won’t be written by its co-artistic director and resident playwright, Qui Nguyen. In March 2013, they’ll mount the appropriately titled Geek! by Saturday Night Saloon alum, Crystal Skillman. I also enjoyed a reading of this play earlier in the year, and it’s full of stage fights and geeky girl power.
It may come as no surprise that all of these theater companies have dipped toes or dove into the deep end of transmedia storytelling. Vampire Cowboys has a long history of creating online videos that tie into their shows. Flux Theatre Ensemble and Gideon Productions have used video blogs, news conferences, and pamphlets. And, terraNOVA Collective used video, written blogs, and Twitter for my play, Feeder: A Love Story.
Is the theater market becoming overrun with Geek Theater?
Can it sustain the influx of zombies, super heroes and sci-fi dystopian futures?
Short answers: No and yes.
There are only a handful of groups creating this kind of theater in a massive market, and there should be room for everyone to play in the same sandbox. However, it only works if they remember to stay true their hearts and listen to their audiences. When creators authentically listen, they lay the foundation for a long conversation with a dedicated and engaged audience. It can’t just be about the next box office transaction. It must be about cultivating a sincere relationship. If large institutions are going to thrive in an ever-changing digital landscape, these are the values they, too, must embrace.
Tomorrow, I will conclude this series featuring another panel from the Futures of Entertainment 6, focusing on empathy and listening.
Last night, I took the F train into Manhattan after being restricted to the borough of Brooklyn for almost a week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It was a surreal experience. The city was as quiet as I’d seen it since 9/11. Practically, the only cars on the street were taxi cabs, outnumbering other cars 10 to 1. There was a tension on the trains punctuated by supportive smiles and silent nods from other passengers.
I went to Manhattan to attend a talk, The Public Forum at Joe’s Pub, featuring two of my artistic heroes, solo performer Anna Deavere Smith and David Simon, creator of “The Wire.” They talked about their work processes, the music of speech, and, of course, Sandy. It was great being in a theater for the second time in as many nights, and hearing them speak in a place I consider a home was healing.
David Simon and Anna Deavere Smith
One of the most poignant moments came when Ms. Smith spoke about how tragedies can invigorate creativity. They spur artists to vehemently return to the work because artists make art. She expressed her anticipation of rejuvenated creativity and related it to shopkeepers returning to work after Hurricane Katrina. This is who they were, and if they didn’t open their shops, their lives lost meaning.
The Forum inspired, indeed. Mr. Simon shared how he records actual background conversations for all his productions instead of the traditional “peas and carrots” walla typically taped because it works as a soundtrack – the music of conversation. Ms. Smith insists on word perfect recitation of the interviews she performs because every “like” and “um” represents the soul of that person.
I left Joe’s Pub on cloud nine. After the talk, I was supposed to connect with my wife Christy, who was teaching yoga in the neighborhood, but my phone died and I couldn’t call her. We planned to meet up and ride the subway back to Brooklyn together. Instead, I hopped on the F train at Broadway-Lafayette, resigned to ride home solo. When the train pulled into the Delancey street station, I peered out the train’s window, hoping Christy might be on the platform, since that is where she typically catches it.
Low and behold there she was.
My train car passed Christy, and she didn’t see me in the window. She boarded the train two cars behind me, so I had to walk back to surprise her. At the next stop, I was able to skip to her car and sneak up on her, smiling big, hoping for a hug.
She saw me, and with wide eyes she said, “Were you down there next to the fight?”
Fight? What’s she talking about? Where?
She pointed to the end of the car, and I saw it: Two men – one big, young guy and another, older, homeless man. They yelled at each other. The young guy was pissed because the homeless man was staring at him. The homeless man shouted that he wasn’t looking at the young guy.
They got louder and louder until I said, “Let’s get out of here. Go to the next car.”
Christy hesitated, but the fight escalated, and it seemed punches might fly at any moment. She stood, and we went to the next car, fleeing the fight.
Through the end windows of our new car, we safely watched the young guy, inches from the homeless man’s face, screaming. Finally, as the train pulled into the Jay Street-Metro Tech station, the young guy lifted his arm and slammed it against the homeless man’s face. The homeless man dropped to the ground, and the young guy grabbed his own travel bags, exiting the train onto the platform.
Dazed, the homeless man stood up, scrambling for the young man, but then he realized he was leaving his own bags. He went back for his bags, grabbed them and stumbled onto the platform where I assume they continued fighting. The F train pulled out, and we headed home, both shaken by the experience.
A woman sat across from us. She was eager to recount the altercation blow by blow. How she evacuated the fight car, too. How the young guy had also yelled at her when she sat across from him. She speculated he might be displaced by the storm. He had travel bags. Maybe he was going home. Maybe he was an evacuee, headed to a friends’ place in Brooklyn. Whatever the case, he was disproportionately angry, and the homeless man got the brunt of that rage.
Soon, she spoke about the storm. She’d been volunteering in Red Hook and Coney Island, and the stories she shared were harrowing. She and her friend purchased saris in Jackson Heights and took them to Coney Island because women who wouldn’t leave their homes uncovered for religious reasons had been wearing wet, moldy saris for days. In the Red Hook Housing Projects, there are many elderly residents who didn’t evacuate and won’t leave. There is plenty of support from Red Cross on the ground, but the residents won’t evacuate. One elderly lady’s apartment had wet, moldy carpeting and was infested with rats and raccoons. The woman begged the older lady to let her carry her down 12 flights of stairs, but the older lady wouldn’t abandon her home. The woman told us she must get a hepatitis shot because she’d been wading in waste for two days.
Christy and I arrived at our stop, leaving the woman on the train with faint smiles and weak waves.
“Good luck,” we said.
“You, too,” she replied.
We felt gut punched. It was hard to talk for a few minutes, grappling with the fight we witnessed and the woman’s tale. After a detached week watching devastation on the news, we heard first-hand accounts of what it looks like inside the madness. We saw the affects of madness on men. We tried to make sense of our fortune of living at the highest elevation in Brooklyn, a place barely touched by Sandy’s wrath.
Then, I remembered the conversation of Ms. Smith and Mr. Simon just an hour earlier. As an artist and a writer, it is my job to share these stories. It is my job to reflect the madness of victims and triumph of heroes. It’s important to get back to work. For many, this may not be possible for a while, but it is important to return as soon as we can.
I can return to work now. I can help others with not only my donations and service, but by writing and sharing stories. It doesn’t matter if you sell coffee, teach yoga, work in a skyscraper, or entertain and educate through artistic creation. As soon as you can, get back to what you do best. It adds your unique voice back to a wondrously diverse symphony – the music of our city.
OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP NYC RECOVER
The City of New York volunteer registration nyc.gov/service
Park Slope Armory 8th Avenue between 14th and 15th streets in Brooklyn
(Kids cannot volunteer and should stay at home)
Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation
402 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY 718-965-3100
Red Hook Initiative 767 Hicks Street Brooklyn, NY 11231
ONLY ACCEPTING PREPARED FOOD
Red Hook Recovers (347) 770-152 https://redhook.recovers.org
Resurrection Parish (Gerritsen Beach)
2331 Gerritsen Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11229 (718) 743-7234
The Silver Gull (Breezy Point) 1 Beach 193rd Street, Breezy Point
Far Rockaway St. Francis, 219 Beach 129th Street
Coney Island Staging area @ 2770 West 5th Street Between Neptune and West Ave.
Staten Island – Tottenville High School
100 Luten Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10312
Rebuild Staten Island