Jacqueline Lawton: Give us a little background on where you’re from originally, where you grew up, and how you ended up where you are now…
Qui Nguyen: I was born and raised in the deep south, went to grad school in the midwest, and cut my teeth in New York. And I got here with the support of many many awesome friends and one amazing beautiful wife. Currently I’m packing for the airport which seems to be my most frequent addy nowadays. I live in transit. And that’s been both fun and exhausting. I love it. Also I’m yella. But I think you coulda guessed that by my name.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
QN: Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pinholes in the curtain of the night?
Okay, so I’m quoting Highlander. I’m not really sure what made me get into theater. There was no particular show or cosmic event that drew me to it. In Eighth Grade while I was filling out my upcoming Freshmen Year high school schedule, my bestfriend Chuck simply leaned over to me and said “The girls in drama class are hot”. That was enough motivation for me to sign-up. And he was right. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
JL: What is unique about being an artist where you live?
QU: New York is the greatest shitty girlfriend of all time…or shitty boyfriend depending how you like to shake your bedposts. For the vast majority of the time, your lady barely even acknowledges you are even alive and expects you to praise her up and down no matter how much crap she throws your way. She’s expensive, she’s materialistic, and she’s crazy flaky. Today’s Jeremy Lin is easily tomorrow’s Mike D’Antoni with the simple turn of the calendar page. She will never unconditionally love you. She will never put you first. And she has many many other lovers so if you have a tendency towards jealousy then your psyche is guaranteed to get beat up on a near hourly basis.
She’s a total crap lover, but here’s the “but”: When it’s good, it’s unbelievably good. We’re talking ice cream and blow jobs good.
Cause the moments she wants to love you, she tells you through The New York Times. She whispers it in your lobby and gets fancy people to email you their contact info. She spells it out to you in a love letter filled with amazing reviews and soldout shows and extended runs. And in those moments you feel like Justin fuckin’ Biebers and the city is your screaming Nickelodean-aged audience.
And then…when the calendar page turns…she’s forgotten all about you again.
Which isn’t a bad thing. Because there’s also times when you do something and it doesn’t turn out great and all the love that could have been coming your way suddenly morphs into 99 shades of hate. Real Hate. Like Mike Daisey hate. That’s when the best thing about NYC isn’t her sexiness, it’s the fact that she’s inexplicably forgetful. And forgiving. And amazing. Like Spider-Man. Who’s also a New Yorker and you best not forget that.
JL: You are a Playwright and the Co-Artistic Director of the Vampire Cowboys of New York City. Starting a theatre company isn’t easy! What inspired you and what do you hope to achieve?
QN: My mom inspired me. She has this amazing greasy spoon diner in my home town. When she went to open it almost 30 years ago, people thought she was nuts. Partially because the mere idea of opening a restaurant is already crazy enough, but to do so with food that’s not your native cuisine seems down right insane. And surprisingly hamburger steaks and hushpuppies are not part of my mother’s Vietnamese cultural background. But she did it anyways. And made it flourish. And fed, clothed, and sent three boys through college and grad school with it.
When asked why she was so adamant about making it work, she always simply replies “Because it’s mine. I have to make it work.” That’s at the heart of why I do what I do. Like my mom’s diner, people thought I was already nuts for starting a theatre, but to do so by creating work centered around racially diverse, gay, and/or female superheroes seemed insane. But I did it anyways. Because the art I create with my company is uncompromisingly mine. It’s my voice unfiltered, made alongside a team of artists that I trust unconditionally. I have to make it work. Because it’s mine.
As for what I hope to achieve, it’s simple. I’m a storyteller. I want to tell good stories that get people excited to come see them. That’s all. And to do so with as much profanity, kung fu fights, and gratuitous action sequences as possible. Cause I’m also a geek. And proud.
JL: Who nominated you to be a Young Leaders of Color Award Recipient?
QN: The Playwrights’ Center from the mighty mighty land of Minneapolis, Minnesota!
JL: What excited you most about taking part in the conference and the program?
QN: To see if my downtown heart had a place amongst those producing regionally. I used to think it was silly to even imagine my geekster shows fitting into those mega-theatres. As it turns out, peeps not only knew who I was but they were really excited to talk to me. It was eye-opening to say the least.
JL: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the conference?
QN: Todd London (Artistic Director of New Dramatists) is a straight up dance machine. Yes, I woulda said something regarding our incredible Core Values workshop or something from Seth Godwin’s amazing speech about effectively communicating to your tribe instead of futilely marketing to the masses, but I’m gonna guess the rest of my fellow YLCers got that covered. So instead I’m gonna go with Todd London is a dance machine. Seriously. That man can boogie! And he’s awesome. I love that dude!
JL: What are some of the challenges you have faced as an artist of color? What have you learned from these experiences?
QN: People will look at me through that prism whether I like it or not. When I first started out, I hated that fact. It felt confining. No matter what I did, the label “Asian American” got plastered on it regardless of content. If I wrote a play about disfigurement, it was automatically an Asian American play about disfigurement. If I wrote a play about Shakespearean zombies, it became an Asian American play about Shakespearean zombies. It never failed. If I touched it, it was yella. Wrote a song, Asian American song. Made a sandwich, Asian American sandwich. Had a baby, it was Jewish. Okay, so Jewish Moms win all. But mostly, mostly I had an Oriental Midas touch. And that drove me crazy.
But that’s all past tense. Because 10 years later, I realize that honestly it didn’t or doesn’t matter. Regardless of how peeps in lit offices want to label me, my audience labels me something else entirely. They just label me as Qui. They fill my houses and they give me a home. And on the occasions when I get emails from them saying something nice cause I’m telling their stories in a medium they thought didn’t care about them in the first place, I realize that it’s important that I keep doing what I’m doing regardless of other people’s perceptions. Now that I’m in this business, I have no choice but to succeed. Because I’m now more than what I was when I began. And it’s because of them. My audience rocks.
JL: What advice do you have for other young artists of color in the theatre?
QN: One - Eat foods high in protein, never skip your cardio, and always have a weapon nearby that will extend your reach like a baseball bat. I don’t how this will help you in theatre exactly, but if there’s a zombie outbreak you’ll be ready.
Two - support your peers. And I don’t mean to just pay lip service to the idea, I mean be a real cheerleader for your homies.
At the conference, there was a lot of artists my age who liked quoting the line “I see far because I stand on the shoulder of giants” when talking about their careers. I got no hate for that. I’m no different. I get to do what I do because of luminaries like David Henry Hwang, Ralph Pena, Tisa Chang, and Tim Dang broke some big ol’ barriers for me years ago.
But here’s the thing, though they broke those barriers, they didn’t get me here. This is not to say I got here on my own. Far from it. But the people who brought me here weren’t the theatre royalty I read about from afar, it was my fellow worker bees beside me. They helped me cut my path. And in return I will happily do whatever I can to cut down any trees for them as well.
I cheer on my peers’ successes as if they were my own. Because when you’re in the brush, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who has an amazing benefactor who will airlift you out of the jungle, then the people truly hacking a path for you are you and your buddies. You may look up to the giants, but make no mistake the peeps beside you are your real heroes. Invest in your network, not just yourself. Trust me, it’ll be far more fun at the top if there’s a whole gang of you up there to party with.
Plus if there is a zombie apocalypse, those are the mofos you want watching your back, not David Henry Hwang. For one, DHH sucks at using a chainsaw. And second, if he is gonna save anyone it’s gonna be BD Wong. Love your peeps, they will keep you alive.
JL: What’s up next for you and where can keep up with your amazing work?
QN: As an Artistic Director for Vampire Cowboys, we’re getting ready to produce Crystal Skillman’s new amazing play, GEEK, which takes the structure of Dante’s Inferno and places it in a fictional Anime convention where two geekster girls have 9 levels of geekdom to traverse to get to their infamous hero. It explores both the good and bad sides of “geek identity”. I’ve been a huge fan of Crystal for years now. She’s a phenom of a writer who mixes heart and comedy with the finesse of a magician. She’s been setting the NY downtown theatre scene on fire these last three years and I cannot be more excited to be one of the lucky theatres that gets to pimp out her ludicrously inspired work.
As for me as a writer, I’m busy penning a new politically-incorrect action-comedy called WAR IS F**KING AWESOME with my frequent composer Shane Rettig. I’m also working with superstar writers Erin Courtney, Eisa Davis, Robert Lyons, KJ Sanchez, and Chris Wells, on a new show currently titled TRADE PRACTICES conceived by director Kristin Marting and designer David Morris with HERE. And I got several productions popping up across the country: SHE KILLS MONSTERS in Boston with Company One and in Savannah, Georgia with the Savannah College of Art and Design, FIGHT GIRL BATTLE WORLD in Chicago with Infusion Theatre; KRUNK FU BATTLE BATTLE in the Los Angeles area with Ponoma College, and ALICE IN SLASHERLAND in Birmingham, Alabama with Theatre Downtown and in Syracuse, New York with Red House Arts Center.
I’m also currently writing stuff for my 3 year old son Sam. When it comes to work, that kid is undoubtedly my masterpiece. I just wanna keep him happy. And I’m not saying that cause I’m a doting father. I’m saying that because when Sam’s not happy, he’s a raging A-hole. And 3 year old A-holes are Satan.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!