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Getting the Band Back Together

An interview with director Robert Ross Parker

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel, Geffen Playhouse Manager of New Play Development

As its subtitle suggests, Revenge Song is not only a play by Qui Nguyen, commissioned by and developed with the Geffen—it is a creation born out of the off-kilter, brilliant, theatrically innovative brain trust that is the Vampire Cowboys theater company. Vampire Cowboys established a reputation for consistently producing outstanding work in New York City in the early 2000s, but has been on hiatus in recent years. Now, the team is assembling once again for the company’s Los Angeles debut. Director Robert Ross Parker heads up Vampire Cowboys with Nguyen, and the co-artistic directors have been making work together for two decades. In the first week of rehearsals, I had the chance to chat with Robert about the collaboration that sparked the formation of Vampire Cowboys, the ways the company’s process has changed over the years, and the joys of reuniting for Revenge Song.

Rachel Wiegardt-Egel: What is the origin story of Vampire Cowboys? How did you get started in the first place?

Robert Ross Parker: Qui and I were in our first quarter grad school—almost exactly 20 years ago. We’d been assigned to work together. Qui had written this one act, and I was assigned to direct it—that was how we first met. It was a “serious play” that he’d written in a serious manner that I tried to direct very seriously. Then we ran into each other in a comic book shop in this tiny university town. Qui always says this was “before geek was chic.” So it was almost a little embarrassing to see each other in there, but we started talking about comic books and decided we should go for a beer. It was one of those beers that became many beers, and we had that conversation that you have when you’re young and full of it: “You know what the problem with theater is...” We were really into a lot of popular story genre things that you see in comics and movies and TV. The ecosystem has changed a lot, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but back then, that stuff had a niche vibe to it. We wanted to tell those stories on stage. So we cowrote this thing called Vampire Cowboy Trilogy and put it on, to our advisors’ great displeasure. (They thought we should be doing more serious things.) It was the story of a paranormal film noir detective and some 1950s American superheroes fighting communism and—this is so dated—a teenage warrior princess Xena riff. There were celebrity guest ninjas in the show every night. We had a great time. The story of the name is that we wanted the title to be something that had nothing to do with the show. One of us said, “Well, there are no vampires in it.” And the other one said, “There are no cowboys in it.” So that was what we called it. We went on to do another show while we were in school—it was about a Catholic school girl on a murder spree backward through time to kill God—and we would just get in trouble. When we got to New York after school, we thought “No one’s going to do a developmental reading of our ninja plays. And we don’t really want them to, either.” So we started producing them ourselves, and that’s how Vampire Cowboys came about.

RW: How does the process of directing a Vampire Cowboys show differ from other plays? How has process changed over the years?

RRP: It’s changed a lot over the years. Originally, Qui and I would co-write the shows, and he would also choreograph all the fights. Then we moved to a more traditional director/playwright relationship. Even when we’re working in a more traditional way where Qui is writing drafts of a script and I’m staging them, I’ve been around while he’s writing and he’s been in the room while I’m staging. We would start in weird ways, like deciding first on the title or the genre. Often, the structure was that we would do a workshop of a show in the fall and then stage it in the spring. We were focused on putting on a show no matter what. Sometimes we had an awesome idea, and sometimes—I don’t know what we had, but the show went on. That taught us a specific set of skills that are different from what you learn through the more traditional format of developing work. It’s varied greatly over the years. One thing that has always stayed the same is that we try to bring the work to the company. A choreographer could say, “I choreographed this awesome spin kick here.” And it’s like, “That’s a great choice, but can the actor do it? Is the actor amazing at it?” That’s something we do not just with fighting but with puppetry, with singing, with the play itself. Qui can write a great moment but if it’s not right for the actor we’ve cast, we will continue to tweak toward the company. That, I think, gives the shows a vibe of being devised, even if they’re not.

RW: What are you most looking forward to tackling in this rehearsal process?

RRP: I always have a lot of fun in tech with Vampire Cowboys shows, because we’re putting it all together. In the preview process too, because we do learn so much. Creatives always say, “We learn so much from the audience.” But on these, we really learn a lot from the audience, and we will sometimes make significant changes during previews. As a team, we’re committed to getting it right. There are all these pieces, and sometimes we’re shuffling the pieces around, but there’s also a kind of mercenary showperson-ship to the whole thing, where you’re like, “It’s gotta be a great show. The people have gotta love it.” Sometimes when I’m working on more traditional plays, it can get a little more precious and arty. There’s an old-timey entertainer vibe to the way we all think that I very much enjoy and think is unique. I’m looking forward to the people more than anything, especially as we get older and have gone our separate ways and had kids. To all be able to come together on the same project—to get the band back together, in a way—is really special.

Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation

FEB 4 - MAR 8, 2020
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Robert Ross Parker

A rousing, romping, music-filled look at the real life of Julie d’Aubigny, a queer 17th century French swordswoman and opera singer, Revenge Song is a heroine’s journey toward self-discovery and acceptance. In this world premiere Geffen Playhouse commission, conversations about gender and sexuality blend together with the outrageous fun and superhero style of the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company to create a genre unto itself—a hilarious, historical comedy with hip hop, rock and epic fight scenes.


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