authentic listening, part 2: the rise of geek theater (and death of the theater geek) – an origin story

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 and, 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.

Poster from Sovereign, the third part of Mac Roger’s Honeycomb Trilogy

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.

Hearts Like Fist cast, photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum

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.

Illustrations by Peter Shevenell, Design by Christy Briggs

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.

You can read part three here.

it’s so absurd

This morning, I woke up confused. And a little disappointed. It’s because of this.

I’m confused because it doesn’t seem Diane Snyder saw the same play I saw. Or, perhaps she was reviewing a play she wished she was seeing. Whatever the case, I’m troubled because I generally praise Time Out New York for reviewing a play for what it is, rather than what they wish it might be.

Specifically, Ms. Snyder wrote:

 “This wickedly twisted premise unfortunately strays far from the path of logic, putting shock ahead of sense.”

So many great plays have done this. Absurdist gems like Rhinoceros, Pterodactyls, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, and The House of Blue Leaves  paved the way for the smart hilarity that is Hand to God.

But maybe, Ms. Snyder thought she was seeing a play by Greenberg or Simon.

I don’t know.

The problem is: no one reading the review in Time Out New York will know how sorely the review misrepresents Hand to God. Readers will think it is a traditional comedy about a teenage boy trying to get over his father’s death. Sure, this is the plot, but more importantly, it’s a brilliant, absurdist morality play revealing how people manifest mythology, like the devil and sin. Any time puppets appear on stage they are a metaphor for something larger. If Ms. Snyder focused on the play’s raucous metaphors rather than its literal storytelling, perhaps she would have seen what I saw.

Here’s my perspective:

Steve Boyer and Scott Sowers. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Steven Boyer knocks it out of the park with a career making performance. His nuanced performances as both Jason, the teenage boy who recently lost his father, and Tyrone, a possibly devil-possessed puppet, should win awards and earn him work. It’s a tour de force in the truest sense of the phrase. Through him, the funniest fight with one’s own hand since Evil Dead and the hottest puppet sex since Avenue Q currently grace The Ensemble Studio Theatre‘s main stage. The best thing Ms. Snyder wrote was that his performance is “a big hallelujah.” Amen, to that.

Geneva Carr and Scott Sowers. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Geneva Carr is magnificent and slightly frightening as Jason’s tortured, widowed mother, knowing she doesn’t need the consoling, security of a man her own age. She wants the release of a teenage boy’s cock. She wants to feel the pain. If ever someone literally took the advice of Peaches, it is this woman.

Pastor Greg, earnestly played by Scott Sowers, grounds the play. He is that audience member asking “WTF?!” We accept everything onstage because this guy doesn’t get it either. In the end, it’s his blind faith and moralizing that is the butt of the play’s joke.

Bobby Moreno was born to play the part of Timothy. He has one objective: to get laid. Sometimes, characters only exist to make us laugh, push the story forward and offer some of the best physical comedy you can find in the theatre. This is Timothy’s role, but Bobby brings pathos to this single minded boy. And he’s funny as hell.

Megan Hill embodies Hand to God‘s ingénue, Jessica, with awkwardness, sweetness and a simmering sexuality. She’s the smartest of the bunch and the voice of reason. She makes us understand love, connection and sincerity and isn’t found in a book or set of rules, dead fathers or socks shoved onto one’s hand. These joys are discovered in other living human beings willing to turn the rock over and see a beauty no one else understands.

Megan Hill and Steve Boyer. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Then, there’s Tyrone. Oh, Tyrone. Like so many ids who’ve come before him, Tyrone is the embodiment of young Jason’s desires. He’s everything Jason wishes he could be. Jason doesn’t want to admit it, and he doesn’t like it. But the venomous words Tyrone spits at other characters and the audience are deep truths. And, as we all know, the devil speaks the cold, hard truth. He has since the beginning. And he does again here in the form of the potty-mouthed Tyrone.

Orchestrated with deft precision by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the hilarity of his mad-capped crew rarely lets up, but when it does, the simple offerings of human connection are never overly sentimentalized. Some of the best physical comedy this season is in this production, and Moritz deserves credit for bringing this brilliant play to life.

Like his predecessors before, Robert Askins’ wrote a new absurdist gem in Hand to God. He joins a young crop of smart and bizarre playwrights, like Leah Nanako Winkler and Josh Conkel, who create uniquely theatrical experiences bent on forcing us to examine our humanity and the silliness of it all. These voices must be encouraged and appraised for what they are, not what reviewers wish they were. They create outlandish scenarios that serve as metaphors for the overly sentimental, stuffed-up, class-driven realism passing for plays these days.

It isn’t experimental theatre. It isn’t kitchen sink. It is absurdity its best, and it’s a departure for The Ensemble Theatre. Artistic director William Carden should be praised for having the guts to produce it.

Okay. I’m done.

Please, don’t consider this a review. An open letter to Diane Snyder of Time Out New York? Maybe. An endorsement? Definitely.

In the end, I’m just a playwright, hoping to help another schmoe who’s in the same boat. Rob’s a brother in theatre, and he deserves for people to see his work for what it is.

Go see Hand to God before it closes on November 20th. It’s wicked good.