The Origins of Geek!—An interview with Crystal Skillman by Jody Christopherson
Jody Christopherson: What sparked your interest in “geek” theatre?
Crystal Skillman: Geek theatre, while a movement of its own, is something that is very personal to me. I was made fun of until I went to college. I actually worked on photography during my lunch period to avoid the cafeteria, which I found to be a dangerous playpen of mockery. But I remember vividly sitting down to eat lunch for the first time at college—sitting with my tray at the University of Hartford was different. No one was whispering or throwing things at me. And I got it—in the “real” world everyone was busy! They were motivated to do what they wanted. From there, I realized I had survived and could start living in a whole new way in the real world. When I met Fred [Van Lente], my now husband, my world changed. I suddenly had the opportunity to live in a world of great comic book writers and artists and incredible creators of universes. In being a gal Friday, booth babe with Fred, traveling the world with him, as he was signing and greeting fans at Comic Con, I began to really study the fans and cosplayers. I saw the joy of meeting a comic book/anime creator that created or worked on a universe they loved. Some fans babbled freelay about their passion, some were too shy to speak a word, some would just play in costume, some with confidence, and some holding a huge cardboard sword, but you could see such vulnerability through the tough act. I noted with cosplaying the simple joy of meeting new people that were just excited to dress up like their favorite character. In a way it was like when I found drama club (the only safe haven, next to the darkroom, in high school). Going to a comic book convention you find a place to play, to be a kid again. While all geek theatre plays are very, very different—some plays put an original genre story on stage while others follow real characters who are actual geeks living in the geek community (as in this play)—both approaches are using genre for their characters to discover something greater. I think we are all excited to use genre to explore the story of the outsider, which we pour our hearts into because it is indeed personal. The story of the outsider longing to find their place in the world is one everyone relates to.
While all geek theatre plays are very, very different—some plays put an original genre story on stage while others follow real characters who are actual geeks living in the geek community (as in this play)—both approaches are using genre for their characters to discover something greater.
Jody: Why choose to write a story that centers on these three female characters: Danya Honey and their fictional counterpoints, Dante and Virgie, and the manga author Joto Samagashi?
Crystal: The Dante and Virgie characters are two teenage girls who are cosplaying—fans who dress up like their favorite main characters at an Ohio anime convention. The girls on a quest to meet Joto Samagashi, the creator of the anime series Dante’s Fire. Throughout the play we discover why. While the Dante and Virgie characters they play have magical abilities in the anime/manga (like a magic flute! And sword!). These girls in real life find their own lives paralleling the journey of their characters. This allows for some amazing break out theatricality in showing their perception—these flights of fancy. It’s how genre is used in this play, which operates a bit on a meta level, which I love that geek theatre encourages. As a character says before they enter the convention, “It’s a crazy cosplaying world in there. It changes how you see things.” Or as director Robert Ross Parker would put it, going into the con is, “Going down the rabbit hole.” One of the most fun things that happens at the start of the play is a video advertisement about the con which breaks down cosplaying for our audience (one of my favorite things I wrote that reminds us “Not to fuck it up and get to the con on that last day! Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”). Going into a world where everyone is dressed like a whole show that you love to pretend you’re actually in, is well, surreal. It creates a hyped up energy that these girls plunge into in order to run away from their problems. But of course, true fantasy forces you to face who you are.
Jody: Women in geek genres have come under a fair amount of scrutiny. Some might have even called this world a boy's club until recently. How do you feel about that and the female archetypes in these types of stories?
Crystal: One of the reasons I set this play with fans who love anime was the fact that anime has such strong female characters and a large female readership. There are also many writers of the genre who are women. I loved making the creator of the series Dante’s Fire, Joto Samagashi, a woman as well. The very start of the play acknowledges the generational divide between the older guard of geeks (with Star Wars and Trek-obsessed security guards!) and the younger, Danya and Honey, hell bent on meeting Joto Samagashi who created Dante’s Fire. But the guards, who are clueless to this more recent anime craze, assume the creator is male, which Danya and Honey are quick to lash out at them to correct. Danya, a female character, is actually cosplaying as Dante, a male character, and in many ways has adopted a simplified view of strength and fighting against the world. Through the people she meets there, her journey is learning patience and how to listen to ultimately be there for Honey. Honey is the younger of the two and much of Danya’s concern is how she’ll fare in the world unless she grows stronger. Both girls are living in the wake of the tragedy of losing their best friend and Honey’s sister. We see how fantasy helps them find their way in a world that asks you to “abandon all hope ye who enter here,” but we also see how they come to discover how fantasy sometimes has been keeping them from discovering themselves. Can these two girls reenter the world and discover what it means to be Danya and Honey?
Jody: Talk to me about your long working relationship with the Vampire Cowboys? How did it begin? What has it been like working with director Robert Ross Parker and artistic director Qui Nygen?
Crystal: The first show by Vampire Cowboys I saw was Fight Girl Battle World. That was it. I was hooked! I have been following them around ever since! Each play dissects the genre and creates deep, soulful questioning characters. Vampire Cowboys’ plays are always diverse as well—these are stories that can touch many different audience members because they can look on stage and see themselves in the play. Luckily, as I was “hearting” Vampire Cowboys, the wonderful Qui and I were getting to be good playwright friends too around the same time. When going to a Vampire Cowboys show you truly get to go into another world. It’s been the one time I feel like I could bring together the two worlds I live in—comic books and theatre. Qui’s work inspires me so much. His friendship means a great deal to me; to have him ask me to write for his company is such an honor. I first wrote two series for the company that ran in their incredible Saloon Series in Bushwick—Hack! and Killer High—and it was just a joy. As for the wonderful director Robert Ross Parker, I’ve been really lucky to work with strong directors over the past few years, and often if feels like a courtship. I follow them around for a bit and then finally it happens! Robert’s work has always floored me. I’ve seen his direction of several other non Vampire Cowboy shows including Goodbye Cruel World, his adaption of an older Russian comedy, which was so funny and so touching. Robert brings true stage magic to each play he touches yet always creates a world of such humanity for the characters. You care about them. They feel real even in a fantastical world. I’ve been dying to work with him for several years. Working on Geek! I realized how collaboratively the whole company works, which of course makes sense, but on a more detailed level there were lots of lovely surprises. What was an incredible surprise is that Robert does all the videos for Vampire Cowboys (there are usually a few in each piece). The videos are so important to Geek! and to see him direct both those and stage scenes created a seamless play. That is so hard to do! I’d also love to note Nick Francone’s—one of the big hearts that keeps Vampire Cowboys pumping— set design. The whole team has come together in the hopes of creating a meaningful exploration of what it means to be a fan, and through fan-dom discover yourself.
Jody: Where do your stories come from?
Crystal: For me, I feel passionately that there are no villains in life. In many ways my plays explore characters that can be seen as nasty or unlikeable, but we have access to them theatrically and are given permission to face the darker sides of ourselves. In Cut, Danno must face how he will recut his own life that is falling apart when he has a chance to move ahead as a reality TV show writer; In Wild, the love of two men is put to the test in the wake of infidelity; In Vigil, the creator of sleep deprivation torture in medieval time finds his world shaken when he is asked to torture a young girl from modern times who looks just like his daughter. Meaningful stories for me are like plunging into another world. It can be scary to do this kind of work. My work is funny and often, at the same time, heartbreaking. I’ve found that walks a dangerous line for folks. It’s easier to just be one or the other.
When I first started writing I felt a craving for stories that were easy. More recently, I think all generations are coming to face that the world is becoming more horribly and wonderfully complicated and so must our stories. While some may just see Geek! as a comic book come to life on stage, it goes deeper for me. Writing Geek! has been a bit like facing myself. The main character of Danya is how I was—fighting against a world that I felt wanted to swallow me up. When I teach playwriting as a guest artist at different programs in high schools, I meet young teenagers that remind me of myself. One student, not doing that well in class, found me in the library between classes and slid a book towards me. It was Dante’s, Inferno. He told me he has a lot of questions about life. He sometimes feels like Dante. It was almost exactly like the dialogue in Geek! Especially when he confided he was in the library during lunch because he is made fun of and gets into fights. Plays and theatre and sharing stories offer him—and us—another way. I want to inspire that kind of hope. My journey has been to meet incredible people that believed in me, raised me up, and kept encouraging me to share deeper truths in my work.
Jody: How do you write?
Crystal: There is usually a moment where I’m struck with an idea that’s partly tuned into the personal, but also driven by what I sense as a larger dramatic question for those around me. Something that speaks to a “why today” in the culture. When ideas come I usually write a two to three sentence blurb, I do a treatment/outline that will change (even if it’s just noting moments I want to hit). I create a soundtrack to the play that I listen to while writing and not writing. I’ll listen while walking down the street and I can keep working because it brings back those emotions I want to incorporate into the work. I break writing time down into actual sit down writing time (the goal is three to five hours at some point during the day), thinking through time (I will stop and work out character history as need be, as I go), and “beating through” time. I’ll print out the play and actually try to make sure the beats are there moment to moment. The past three years my plays have all been commissioned, which is incredible. That means when I’ve written a play I know it will be done.
Theatre is about community. It’s about collaboration. It’s about giving your audience a way to go through a story that unleashes their own.
Jody: Why make theatre?
Crystal: The day before we opened Geek! I was still tweaking major parts of the script. Vampire Cowboys and our whole team were behind me a thousand percent. Each time you put yourself out there as a writer, on the eve of sharing your work and yourself with others, you must face the fact that some folks might adore the play, some might not. It becomes it’s own being. But damn if that isn’t fucking scary as hell. These words Qui texted me the day before opening helped keep me going:
We do this to share a bit of our soul with the world. We never know how or who it will affect. Some of the most meaningful music and stories that restore and rejuvenate me have never had a good review and yet The Fresh Prince and Goonies do far more for me than Eric Clapton or The Godfather ever did. As you try to clean and tweak today, please remember this: I promise you that Geek! will change someone's life and you will never know who they are. But that's not possible without you making and putting this art into the world. I wasn't joking that this is hard and that's why not everyone does it. It is hard. Exposing one's heart shouldn't be easy. Now do the hard work only we can do even if that work is simply watching our words touch lives.
Theatre is about community. It’s about collaboration. It’s about giving your audience a way to go through a story that unleashes their own. To do that, we must keep working on making those stories as diverse as possible in order to reach more people. Many audience members have been coming up to us after the play sharing their own geek stories, some even facing the same tragedy these girls experience. This play is for them most of all. I wanted this play to be a love letter to the fans, and in a more specific way with writing for the company, the fans of Vampire Cowboys. For all the plays I write and those to come, I write plays in order to listen to others. I share this side of myself to hear what it brings up for others and their own lives. I believe that by us all sharing our stories in all forms from theatre to film that we push each other forward in this dangerous, exciting, gloriously strange world! I believe strongly it’s how we can always find a way. No matter how different we are, it’s the power of story, of our imaginations that connects us.
Geek! by Crystal Skillman, directed by Robert Ross Parker, presented by The Vampire Cowboys in the Incubator Arts Project’s New Performance Series, opened March 31 and plays through April 13. For more information and tickets please visit: http://incubatorarts.org/