Cultural Commentator

Comic Book Playwright Adam Szymkowicz on the Rise of Geek Theater

Cultural Commentator

Comic Book Playwright Adam Szymkowicz on the Rise of Geek Theater

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If there has been one truly remarkable trend in the last decade of New York theater, it is the rise of so-called Geek Theater, a sub-genre notable for comic book sensibilities, genre play, and steel-nerved heroines. By reaching out to the comic book community, and nerd-sympathizers as a whole, theater companies like Qui Nguyen’s Vampire Cowboys have done something amazing in this dark era for traditional non-profits—they have filled theaters.

Now Adam Szymkowicz, a playwright known for quick-witted genre play, has dipped his toes into the ever-pleasant waters of geekdom. His Hearts Like Fists has been running for the last few weeks at Long Island City’s Secret Theatre. It closes tomorrow, but like all great superheroes, Adam Szymkowicz will return—in next spring’s Clown Bar, produced by the good people at Pipeline Theater Company. We spoke to Adam yesterday, about, well, all sorts of things.

Where did this play come from?
I don’t remember, exactly. It was a few years ago. I’ve played a few times with genre—like I have a cowboy comedy Hamlet, and a film noir play. I wanted to do something with comic books. I started reading a bunch of X-Men and some other Marvel stuff, and I tried to do my own version of that genre. A world that’s normally more about action, I made about love.

There’s plenty of love in comics, though, right?
Some of them. I don’t know if you know Craig Thompson or Jeffrey Brown, but their stuff is more graphic novels. Not action at all—just relationship stuff. I’m crazy about their work.

Why Marvel over DC?
I have some Batman. I have some DC too. I guess I’m more of a Marvel guy.

Besides the comic book element, how is this different from your other work?
There’s three big fights in it. It relies quite a bit on this other thing that’s not words, which is so much fun, and was done so well in this production. It’s a much different play than something that’s just a couple people in a room talking, although I try to have some sort of theatrical element in most of the stuff I do.

And how much does it owe to geek theater plays like, say, the work that Vampire Cowboys does?
Oh, they’re great. Vampire Cowboys are great. I’ve seen maybe three of Qui’s plays. My favorite, I think, is the one that was done with the Flea a while back. [Ed's note: She Kills Monsters.] Mostly, I was kind of crazy about the narrative—this woman going into a fantasy world to seek out her dead sister, to learn about her. Qui was a big inspiration for this, and that one hit me emotionally the most.

I saw that Hearts Like Fists was produced in LA not too long ago. Are you based there or in New York?
I’m based in New York. I flew out to see the LA production, which was really well received. I was only there for the week before and the preview. I gave a bunch of notes and said a bunch of things, saw it go up, and then left. They were trying to do an extension, but it fell through at the last minute. We’ll see if they can remount it.

What’s the theater scene in California like?
It’s very spread out.I’ve only had three or four productions there, but whenever I’ve gone I’ve had good experiences. It’s nice to have the same play go up on both coasts.

Now you just need a production in Kansas City, and you’ll have covered the whole country.
I actually just spent two months in Kansas. I was at the William Inge center, workshopping a musical there based on this pirate play of mine. I bill it as a lesbian pirate musical, but it’s not totally lesbian. Most of the time I spent there, I was teaching high school kids playwriting.

How was that?
It was eventually quite rewarding, but very different from teaching in college. I was teaching fourteen year-olds, just going into their English class, and they always said, “Aw, man, we gotta write again today?” Some of them took to it, some of them not too much. There was this kid I was having trouble getting to write. Occasionally he’d write something, but it’d be half a page. The teacher finally told him, if you don’t write you can’t come to the night where we do the readings. He kept putting it off. On the last day he went to the computer lab, and ten minutes later came back with this play. It was short, but it was a huge hit. There were shotguns and zombies and psychiatrists and the CIA. It was a lot of fun, but he couldn’t do it until he was under the gun.