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August 16, 2023

Geek! Turns 10: A Conversation with Playwright Crystal Skillman


Geek!, Crystal Skillman’s hilarious and fast-paced comedy-drama about the dynamic world of cosplay, premiered in New York City at Incubator Arts Project in 2013, in a production from Vampire Cowboys Theater Company directed by Robert Ross Parker. The New York Times called the show “A riot of visual invention… an ode to fangirls and fanboys.” In the ensuing decade, both Geek! (US/UK) and Geek! High School Edition (US/UK) have been performed to glowing success across the US and around the world.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Geek!, we caught up with the playwright to discuss the show’s inspiration, themes and enduring appeal.

Geek! takes place at a convention for fans of a fictional anime/manga called Dantes Fire. What made you choose The Inferno as inspiration for the world of this play?

My love for comic book conventions happened when I met the love of my life, Fred Van Lente. Before I began writing comics with him, I started behind the booth helping sell comics or visiting him. At each “comic con,” as we call them, I met cosplayers (fans that dress up like the characters they love), who moved me. They were young, vulnerable, old yet playful, they loved story, they loved fantasy, and I saw firsthand the joy they have in meeting the creators of the universes that have inspired them.

As for the idea of using The Inferno, comic cons are basically heaven or hell to me (Hell as in packed tight, sweaty, but Heaven as in you get to be with all your fellow geek fam!). I wanted the comic con in the story to be a bit “heightened,” so I thought of the nine levels of Dante’s Inferno and that seemed right to me. I cheated slightly in my universe as I made each planet in the DF universe have a different quality (sci-fi mixes with old-school fantasy, etc.) but it allowed me to have creatures from space, twin towers, and armies in a fun mash-up! I developed the universe alongside creating the three girls whose friendship is at the heart of the play: Danya, Honey and Ellen. Danya and Honey are in awe of Samagashi, who created the Dante’s Fire universe, and we discover why Ellen isn’t with them and the importance of this quest as the play goes on.

You get so much comic mileage out of the contrast between mild-mannered youths and their badass cosplay characters. But you clearly have great affection for these kids. Did you set out to champion geeks this way?

Loooove you picked up on that. That was for sure the point. Cosplaying is all about “wearing your heart on your sleeve,” literally. Just by how you dress and act, you show who you are. The choice of your alter ego, in fantasy, reflects how you move through the world. What you’re up against. How you get through it. In a way, I think fantasy and cosplay is our armor to dealing with the real world. When we present our creativity and imagination – we connect. We meet our tribe. People who can help us. No one helps a Geek more than a fellow Geek!

Geek! wrestles with the idea of heroes vs. villains. (At one point, the Guards ask themselves, Are we the villains?”) Are there distinct heroes and villains in your play, or is everyone a bit of both?

The hardest thing in life to accept is that there are no heroes or villains. We’re all flawed humans trying to be heroes and villains. In this way cosplay makes so much sense. In some ways too this is my commentary in a coming-of-age play about getting older. Years ago, those guards, a different generation of Geeks (more Gen-X), felt differently. Faced with the conviction of youth, they question themselves. Originally there was another monologue for Jerry, the guard obsessed with Star Wars (Tom, the other one, is obsessed with Star Trek). It was about how no one believed in George Lucas while making Star Wars, and he was consistently having a heart attack during filming (true). He believed in himself enough to make this iconic movie that, at the time of filming, everyone thought was crappy. I think of that sometimes when I need to muster courage. I love that monologue, but it had to go as it was just a beat too much.

The play is full of surprises. Things are often not what they seem… Were never sure whether a newly encountered character is friend or foe. How much of this came from your writing, and how much emerged during workshops or rehearsals?

This is very much my style. I’m always looking for a very live, present way of presenting a world so that the play itself is an experience. The play moves FAST. When it first came out, I would watch anyone over 50 watching this play, and they were bewildered. I thought of this a lot when I created Rain and Zoe Save the World (about two teens who tackle the climate crisis), which also goes quickly but is intergenerational. It goes fast and slow. I’m learning how to pace these things based on the adventure. So it makes sense that this show is beloved by high schoolers and college students, and I hope people will see the connection between Geek! and Rain and Zoe. They are both plays that use a YA perspective to tell stories that have strong messages about the world today. Geek! was a commission for Qui Nguyen (Vietgone, Disney’s Strange World) and his theatrical company Vampire Cowboys. So, working with his insight, director (and Vampire Cowboys co-artistic director) Robert Ross Parker and our incredible team was life-changing. I got to workshop and change a lot in rehearsal. This is still the way I work. I believe in creatively visual, theatrical storytelling married with character-driven work that speaks to today. I have an art degree, as well as a writing degree from Parsons School of Design/New School.

2013 Incubator Arts Project production of Geek! (Nick Francone)

Several characters struggle over what other people think of them. What message do you hope the play sends regarding this theme?

All humans judge (but try to fight against this and/or let go) and/or are judged on a daily basis. I feel great sorrow because of this. This is my personal struggle. Sadly, many people want to put you in a box. This world is full of judgment. The light in the world is creativity, friendship and finding a way to be open despite the harshness of the world, which can also be quite beautiful… if you keep your heart open.

There are so many dynamic female characters in Geek! Can you talk a little about Girl Power in the show?

Are you saying my play was Barbie before there was Barbie? Because I’ll take it! Girl Power is everything in the show. It’s about identifying with being in opposition to the patriarchal/gendered world and being STRONGER than it. I wanted to write a play where the goal was to meet a female creator. Again… was I writing Barbie before Barbie? Greta Gerwig! Call me up girl, let’s jam on your next screenplay…

Whats it like knowing that teens all over the world are doing your work? Have you seen any particular productions of Geek! that you remember specifically?

Yes! In 2017, Athens University did Geek! Director Hugh Long asked if I would like to fly out to see the show, and talk to the students. I did, and it was over that period of time that he told me he would like to commission a new play from me. He said let’s start dreaming on it. While out there, I visited the US Space and Rocket Center, where I found the story of The Rocket Men, my new play currently gaining notice. It’s so strong because we built a three-year commission around the piece. As a part of that, I got to see an early version of the script staged (this past spring). So that was life-changing. With teens – it’s endlessly fun when I’m at a comic con and they come up and tell me they were in Geek! Many teachers write me about how powerful the play was for their students to do, especially for more shy students.

Do you have any advice for theatremakers looking to stage the play in the future?

Especially after extensively working with director Jared Mezzocchi on my new play Rain and Zoe Save the World, I can share what he has taught me about breaking down “impossible” moments. Very similar to the work that Robert Ross Parker was doing on Geek! as well. Focus on the “how” in a way that dramaturgically says what you want to say about the show. In essence, the larger fantasy moments are in their head as they are imagining them. To me that says simple imaginative props and lighting. When do we “see the strings” holding things up? The cosplaying videos are important in the piece to the three girls, but usually, the three actresses love making those videos themselves. I think this is a play that can be very cooperative and blend design departments together.

Also, as the characters are all Geeks, this is a chance to highlight actors that usually never get a chance on stage. This is a play that champions the underdog and can create confidence in young theatre artists by being on stage AND backstage. There are also sketches in the Concord Acting Edition where you get the thoughts from costume designers Kristina Makowski and Jessica Wegener. As for creating the puppet-ish costume of Squeaker, who becomes Honey’s friend (her sidekick in Dante’s Fire universes), it is pretty simple and FUN to make. You may not be able to order these sets and costumes like you can for Clue, but isn’t that part of the fun?! Think of Halloween and how creative one can be. Teachers, I guess what I’m saying is the answer you have is right in front of you – your students. Let them help, grow, and learn with this creative play.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?

A deep belief in themselves. The theatre is powerful when it empowers the audience. That is the point to me. I think it’s a very powerful piece right now because it asks you to investigate what theatre is. We are currently in a huge debate about this in the theatre community as we rebuild over the past few years. But to me, the theatre is not a physical space. It’s the essence of a story happening right there in front of you and your relationship to it, and your own imagination, feelings, and response. I hope all audiences leave the theatre feeling more open, and find the words Samagashi offers to our heroes Danya and Honey healing. When they finally do meet her (spoiler!!), Danya expresses that after the loss of her friend Ellen (she committed suicide, which is revealed in the play), she doesn’t understand how to live in the world anymore. She is broken, but Samagashi offers the advice, “Live long enough. Live long enough to be old, and then you will understand ’O My Darling.” We all have different stories and identities, but our goal together is to create a world where we can live together, and each life, each person, has a chance to shine… to be seen and heard! That is my goal as a writer and activist.

Crystal Skillman is an award-winning playwright, fictional podcast writer, and comic book author. Her new plays include Rain and Zoe Save the World with Drew and Dane Productions (2018 Earth Matters on Stage Prize, 2022 UK debut at Jermyn Street Theatre, 2023 Lab Workshop at University of Maryland, 2023 Webster University), The Rocket Men (2020-23 New Play Commission, Alabama Center for the Arts) and Open (New York Times’ Critics Pick, Onstage! Tour in Italy, 2022). You can listen to her play with Fred Van Lente, King Kerby, at Broadway Podcast Network.

To license a production of Geek! or Geek! High School Edition, visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.

Header Image: 2013 Incubator Arts Project production of Geek! (Nick Francone)