There are no ninjas in Qui Nguyen’s Outtakes, no rap battles, no resurrected heroines. Instead there is a quieter kind of storytelling, more conversation than battle royale—something you might not expect from the crowned king of geek theatre, author of such titles as She Kills Monsters and Alice in Slasherland.
“It’s almost like you have the feeling of having found an old cassette tape,” said Playwrights Horizons associate artistic director Adam Greenfield, “and you’re putting it into your boombox and hearing something that you weren’t really necessarily meant to. But it turned out to be a gift that you did.”
The gift Greenfield is describing is an upcoming podcast episode from playwright Nguyen. Outtakes, airing May 14, is the fourth installment in Playwrights Horizons’s Soundstage, what it calls an “original anthological series of scripted short fiction works.” The series, which has been in development since mid-2018, bowed a few months ahead of schedule in light of the shutdowns and social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Artists involved include Heather Christian, Robert O’Hara, Jordan Harrison, Kirsten Childs, Milo Cramer, Jeremy O. Harris, Lucas Hnath, Carlos Murillo, Jenny Schwartz, and Kate Tarker. The shows are available as free podcasts via most platforms.
“I’m a big fan of Playwrights and what Adam is doing, and I’ve been excited about playing with different formats in theatre,” Nguyen said of the project. “I like to push form, I like to play outside of the box, and the opportunity to just play in a different format always excites me.”
The three-character episode draws deeply from Nguyen’s 2015 semi-autobiographical play Vietgone, which is based on the story of his own parents, refugees from Vietnam in the mid-1970s who later met in an Arkansas camp. Outtakes is extremely pared down compared with the stage production, which NPR dubbed a “sex comedy about mom, dad, and refugee camps.”
Instead, Outtakes tells his parents’ story through a series of imagined cutting-room-floor clips, remnants of interviews he had with them while writing Vietgone. This was an opportunity for Nguyen to piece together discarded snippets of their story—and this time include himself in it.
“This one is more centered on my relationship with my parents, which was fun to talk about,” said Nguyen, who also explored his family history in 2019’s Vietgone follow-up, Poor Yella Rednecks.
“The plays have been basically about my parents with each other—it was their love story,” he said. “In Outtakes, I think it was my attempt to put me in it a little bit more. The basic premise is basically my attempts to get my parents to talk, and I think that this experience is funny in and of itself.”
Greenfield said he was excited to see how Nguyen’s playful approach to storytelling would adapt to the scripted audio format. “He was one of the writers that I knew right away I wanted to commission in the first round,” Greenfield said. “He’s kind of Shakespearean in the way he moves through time and space and the way he invites us to imagine these wild landscapes, where he transports us from place to place within those landscapes with a single sentence.”
Pushing the boundaries of theatre is what Nguyen aims for, and he does so with distinct humor and flair. His longtime theatre company, Vampire Cowboys, is known for such canonical “geek theatre” works as Fight Girl Battle World and Living Dead in Denmark. These pop- and counterculture-drenched productions are attention-grabbing, fantastical melees of kaleidoscopes of visuals: videos, costumes, puppets, and martial arts mingling with musical numbers, plus a signature smattering of curse words.
In She Kills Monsters, Nguyen’s gruesome yet heartfelt dive into sibling relations through the world of fantasy role-playing games, he balances the fantasy of the quest with the heaviness of real life. The production is a favorite with his fans, and he recently revisited the script through the lens of the virtual meeting program Zoom. Nguyen sees this “Virtual Realms” edition as a new way for him to create opportunities for the underrepresented, something he champions in his stories. Students at the University of Maryland recently livestreamed the premiere of this digital version.
“I think even beyond this moment in time, what I discovered immediately was that by having a Zoom version of this play, actors who couldn’t do my shows before can do it,” Nguyen said. “If they suddenly aren’t physically capable, or they’re in a community that doesn’t have the financial means to put it up in a theater, it allows people who are maybe physically handicapped to be able to do the show, because it’s built to be performed in front of a camera that you basically sit in front of.”
So what is Nguyen doing when he’s not Zoomifying She Kills Monsters or creating new podcast content? The busy playwright is also raising money for No Kid Hungry through the Homebound Project, testing out a digital version of Vampire Cowboys’ Saturday Night Saloon, and working on an undisclosed project with Disney. “I am a person who is addicted to expression,” Nguyen admitted. It’s an addiction shared by his whole family, and the martial arts movies he’s made with his kids are evidence enough. When it comes to storytelling, for Nguyen it’s all in the family.
Sarah Tietje-Mietz is a Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.