Vampire Cowboys Theater Company: Guts, Gore, and Mainstream Appeal

Now that Lestat, the latest vampire musical, has suffered a critical drubbing, a theatergoer could hardly be faulted for being a bit skeptical about a dramatic group whose name evokes those nocturnal, bloodsucking creatures. But the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company (VCTC), a young yet already well-received New York-based theater troupe, is determined to push against any and all expectations, and that includes its name.

Not that its work has much to do with vampires anyway. Co-founders Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker, who met while theater graduate students at Ohio University, invented the name, quite simply, from two things they liked—vampires for Nguyen, cowboys for Parker.

Although they were advised by a mentor to change their name to "something more serious," the name stuck, and Nguyen defends their choice while revealing his company's mission. "We'll earn the respect of other people by the work we do," he says. "If you're going to judge us by the name Vampire Cowboys, then you shouldn't be our audience member anyway. Our first mission is to entertain. We try to make theater that people love."

Over five years have passed since the inception of the Vampire Cowboys, and since then the troupe has incubated transcendent new work and talent while producing a healthy handful of shows, including a sold-out run at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. Perhaps best known for their potent blend of genres and artistic conventions, the Vampire Cowboys are deeply committed to exploring weighty subject matter through such mediums as stage combat and comic books, music and pop culture.


Vampire Cowboys Theater Company's Poster from Living Dead in Denmark

The group is now presenting what is perhaps its most ambitious work to date, Living Dead in Denmark, a sequel to (and "skewering" of) Hamlet, in which a resurrected Ophelia leads other deceased Shakespearean heroines (including Juliet and Lady Macbeth) to defend Denmark against a herd of zombies.

Sound a bit bizarre? Nguyen, who wrote the play, certainly concurs. "It's a 'zombie Hamlet,' " he attests. "Completely goofy." But before you dismiss it completely, consider that the Vampire Cowboys have been refining this particular piece of theater for years now. Not only that, but beneath the complex fight choreography and visual feast, this play is a treatise on race.

Don't let the surface spontaneity fool you; there is something both steady and studied coursing through the veins of these Vampire Cowboys. And although they presumably want to take you on a wild theatrical adventure, they won't leave you to crash and burn unattended. "Rides aren't fun when you don't feel like the person driving the car knows how to drive," Nguyen points out. "We want to make sure that people feel safe in our hands."


Living Dead in Denmark Publicity Photo

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At Ohio University, Nguyen was appalled to see students who had dedicated their lives to theater watching dated plays with little connection to their own lives. "I realized," he remembers, "that these 20-year-old kids from Ohio had no clue what theater could be." Inspired to fill the gap, Nguyen and Parker joined forces to "create a show that was about now," and VCTC was born, along with its first theatrical triptych, The Vampire Cowboy Trilogy.

There was a "crazy reaction from everyone at school," Nguyen recalls. "They had never seen anything so immediate." The two brought their concept to New York in 2002, where they expected to be surrounded by similar-minded artists. Scanning the theater scene, however, they were disappointed as they discovered shows that had either a good idea or good craftsmanship, but rarely both.

With money out of their own pockets, they staged their New York premiere, Stained Glass Ugly, in the summer of 2003, and began to generate a healthy fan base. Wisely, they keep a close eye on their audience and have worked to maintain an open relationship with their fans. Their "First Bite" series, in fact, is designed to invite candid audience response. Living Dead in Denmark once ran in the series, and, as with their other shows, Nguyen reports that "the audience was very honest about the things they loved and the things they hated."

It seems wise—and rather unprecedented—to pay such close attention to an audience's reaction, but it's a formula that works for VCTC. "It's all about communicating," Nguyen says. "We're trying to get the audience to get it. We start out very story-based and plot-driven, and then we add the other stuff. We celebrate spectacle on top of it all."

And spectacle, in this case, is anything but gratuitous. Instead of throwing in meaningless binges of special effects, risks are taken to enhance the power of the storytelling. As they take on provocative subjects such as child molestation and race, the Vampire Cowboys are committed to communicating as clearly and effectively as possible.

Most often, the clearest communication happens visually. Parker and Nguyen were both trained as movement artists, although Parker (director of most VCTC ventures) comes from a more Western, European aesthetic, while Nguyen (playwright and frequent fight choreographer) brings more of an American and Eastern sensibility to the group. Their joint embrace of movement, Nguyen explains, helps to "keep the medium very visual."


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"It's not locked in tradition, but in how we can get from A to B in the quickest, easiest, and most entertaining way," he says. "It's a very cinematic view, and it keeps it visually exciting for a whole generation of people who were raised on MTV." But he admits that "it is a tightrope in how you implement the visual with the literal."

VCTC definitely attracts a younger demographic (mostly 18- to 30-year-olds)—the very demographic, ironically, that Broadway shows so often attempt—and fail—to entice. Nguyen attributes this appeal, in part, to VCTC's commitment to reach "the geek in all of us." In this sense, VCTC shows are an outlet for anyone who has ever played chess, went to a sci-fi convention, bought a ticket to Spider-Man, or obsessed over Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"I don't think there's anybody who doesn't have a geeky side," Nguyen maintains. "We're appealing to that kind of nerdy side of everyone."

Nguyen and Parker continue to revise their shows right up to the end of the rehearsal process, preserving a freshness that is very immediate. Scripts aren't locked until the last possible moment, and the commitment to collaboration is strong and unrelenting. Nguyen describes the group as an "artistic collective," a community of "consummate professionals" (several designers have worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows) who constantly inspire and "push each other to make bold choices." And thanks to the individual strengths of company members, the productions often evolve in unexpected but exciting directions as the creative team adds to the mix the members' talents in puppetry, multimedia, and music composition.

As a theater kid who was "overeducated in the classics," Nguyen is determined to use his background to create theater that is relevant today. Future goals for VCTC include producing more shows and continuing to grow as a theater company. "We don't want to be Broadway, movies, or the next TV series," Nguyen says. "We want to be the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company—a company that makes theater that we hope excites people as much as these other mediums. Live theater and live events are important, and as relevant as anything they can see on a screen."

Managing Director Abby Marcus has also helped with the company's growth. Nguyen calls her "the person who keeps our feet on the ground" financially, and she is helping VCTC work toward becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Still, Nguyen says, "there's no rush. We don't need to be the next big thing tomorrow. We're going to be here for a long time."

He adds, "I think we're very distinct in that we are creating for an audience that is very much us, and we're representing things that are very now and pop-culture mainstream. But there's no pretentiousness. I love so much stuff, and I get to do all that stuff in one show."


Vampire Cowboy Trilogy

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"Watch your grunts per move," fight director Marius Hanford warns his actors as they proceed through an especially complicated fight sequence. We're in a warmly lighted rehearsal space in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, and one actress sits on the floor, icing a sore muscle, while a slew of grotesque zombie masks sit on a table, staring blankly at the proceedings. Band-Aids, kneepads, and rubber entrails are strewn across the floor, and as Hanford finesses a routine, the other actors sit in rapt attention.

Everyone seems exceptionally keyed into the rehearsal. Even when the performers are given a 10-minute break, nobody actually breaks. Sweating and obviously near exhaustion, they continue to work at perfecting every thrust and jab of their weapons. Certainly, it pays to be precise when daggers are flying near your face, but the performers' interest clearly extends beyond concern for personal safety. As Hanford works to craft movements to fit and flesh out a character, each performer seems to be creating a sense of self out of every unique movement.

Or, alternately, out of a moment of stillness. "There! You see? Here he decides he doesn't need martial arts anymore," Hanford instructs a performer whose character suddenly abandons a fight.

The movements are stylized and vicious, disarming in their precision. The actors burst out laughing in their first attempts to use squibs (small bags filled with stage blood—water, for this rehearsal) to simulate blood spurting.

And here is the evidence of the collaboration Nguyen promised. Parker, the director, chimes in to better define a moment, while Hanford openly considers suggestions from the actors.

When I ask them for an encapsulated definition of a VCTC production, the response becomes yet another exercise in collaboration. "It's a living comic book," offers Marcus. "It defies genre," claims Parker, but then concedes, "It's like a movie, but better."

The 10 actors don't seem particularly concerned about definitions; instead, they're absorbed in the immediate, in the now. After Nguyen, who often directs the fights, jumps up to clarify a pivotal moment, Parker looks at him slyly, wagging one of the rubber entrails at his co-conspirator. "You've got guts, young man," he pronounces. "Guts." And this, perhaps, best sums up what drives the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company.

Living Dead in Denmark runs May 4-21 at Center Stage NY at 48 West 21st Street, fourth floor. Performance times are Thursday-Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 and are available at TheaterMania.com. For more information on the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company, visit www.vampirecowboys.com.

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