On Stage Flying V: Theater by and for Nerds – and the Rest of Us

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Aegon’s Conquest Megagame With Megan Reichelt and James Finley. Photo Credit: JayLee Photography

There’s a little bit of nerd in each of us. Once a high school slur for socially awkward outsiders, in recent years nerd culture has found its niche.

“When I think about nerd culture, I think about deep love and deep obsession with the things that make you happy and make you see the world in a new way,” says Kelly Colburn, executive director and outgoing artistic lead for Flying V, a Montgomery County-based performance company that produces theater, wrestling contests and digital and technology-infused programs.

If the combination of pro wrestling and professional theater sound like an unusual pairing, for Flying V it makes total sense. “Wrestling is a very specific physical form of storytelling,” says actor, digital artist and pro wrestler Joey Ibanez, who with Tim German shares the artistic lead in the Fights wing of the organization. “Fights show us how stories can be told purely physically – there’s violence, intimacy, movement,” he notes.

In its 11th year, Flying V has grown into a multidisciplinary creative production company that feeds an increasingly avid audience of millennials and others passionate about nerdy pop culture throwbacks, while appreciating a digital conversation or game on Discord, or a thought-provoking piece of theater.

Recent performances included a March stint at Awesome Con at the D.C. Convention Center, performing a 1999 line-up of Cartoon Network programming with live actors. “It’s really goofy,” acknowledges navi – one name – who serves as artistic lead for the R&D wing of Flying V. “We got a bunch of performers and, with full sound and projection design in front of a big audience, we read [scripts from] ‘Dexter’s Laboratory,’ ‘Powerpuff Girls’ and the old melodrama ‘Space Ghost.’”

Not your grandmother’s theater company, Flying V, frequently performs and presents its pro-wrestling matches and slightly more traditional plays at the Silver Spring Blackbox theater on Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. The organization touts itself for “larger-than-life moments on small stages,” while aiming to connect with audiences through unexpected storytelling techniques.

“Professional wrestling is uniquely American in the sense of storytelling it created to mimic sport,” Ibanez says. “But it’s also high melodrama: The characters and the audience interaction are more akin to Shakespeare in the Globe [Theatre], than I think theater nowadays is. There’s something to be said about performance where the communication, the conflict, is specific fighting, specific physical movement.”

For those wondering, the name Flying V refers to an iconic pop culture kids’ film from the 1990s – the beloved Disney hockey movie “The Mighty Ducks” – chosen by a previous artistic director. These days the organization runs via a group leadership model with three wings – theater, Colburn’s purview; R&D overseen by navi; and fights, co-led by German and Ibanez.

Each artistic leader has agreed to a three-year term, which is renewable if they choose. In future years, they foresee the roles shifting as new leaders emerge from the company as the programming evolves. This means more experimentation and discovery and less likelihood the artistic leaders will fall into a rut.

Ticket to Fly With the V

This summer, Flying V initiates a new wing: family-friendly programming with Family V’s “Bulleketroet,” a puppet show based on an original Dutch folklore puppetry piece. Ruben Vellekoop, the company production manager, leads this project, which tours to Maryland libraries this summer.

“It’s a mythical story about a woodcutter and an ancient creature who meet in the woods. A morality tale, it’s all told through shadow puppetry,” Colburn says. “Ruben’s been developing this for probably the last two years now.”

“We’re excited about this initiative during the summer to offer different family-friendly ways of storytelling through various mediums,” she continues. “It’s an audience that we haven’t really tapped into before – the young’uns – and that’s super exciting.”

“‘Bulleketroet’ is the right mix of being sincere while also being a little bit vulgar and goofy and over the top that is a true distillation of a Flying V show for an all-ages audience,” navi adds. “It really hits a lot of what we try to do with our mainstage theatrical productions and our larger-than-life storytelling and wrestling. But it’s condensed in a way that a two-year-old can laugh at the jokes.”

“The puppeteers work in a very, very tight team and with a very condensed, fun visual spectacle,” he adds. “As well, the puppeteer does all of the voices and it bounces all over
the place.”

Flying V Fights and Manga

Back to the wrestling ring, Ibanez notes an upcoming July tournament: “We’ll have our winner from our previous ‘Technical Difficulties Tournament’ slam up against our current winner of ‘Technical Difficulties’ to crown the best wrestler in Flying V’s Technical Difficulties Tournaments.”

Finally, the Flying V team conferred amongst themselves in secretive whispers before revealing the company’s latest theatrical project, with a “you heard it first” urgency. Under the season moniker “Animate Reality,” this fall the team will produce the renowned multimedia play “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” written by DMV area playwright Natsu Onoda Power.

An invention of famed Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka, manga and his Astro Boy character grew out of Japan’s post-World War II fascination with the double-edged ramifications of technology and destruction.

The play was a huge hit when it premiered in the region in 2012, although it hasn’t been seen in the area since. What’s more perfect for a production company driven by nerd culture than a play driven by a manga comic book hero ensconced in a world of high- and low-tech adventures as he fights battles for a peaceful post-nuclear existence?

“Natsu [a theater professor at Georgetown University] is very careful about how it is presented and there’s a degree to quality which we will hold ourselves to, to make sure that it is as magical as the playwright’s vision for it,” Colburn explains. “As a company that is tied to anime culture, cartoon culture and larger-than-life fighting culture … we have a reverence for the creativity of the play … and the story of the artist. It’s as much about the creator of Astro Boy as it is about [Onoda Power’s] creation.”

The plan is to tap into each wing of Flying V – theater, R&D technology and fights – to include live drawing, digital stage projections and video and the grandeur and big movement sections that together will tell the story with both theatricality and care.

That reverence and passion for going all-in on off-the-beaten-path performances keeps Flying V close to its original founding principle: that “nerding out” is where it’s at.

“Nerd culture today is what it is to be passionate enough to learn about, pursue and enjoy [something] unabashedly and openly, almost defiantly,” Ibanez says. And that’s exactly how Flying V approaches its work – on stage, in the technology sector and in the wrestling ring.

“This year, everything from our stage combat classes to ‘Astro Boy,’ to our wrestling shows to performing at Awesome Con,” navi says, “we are encouraging our artists and our audience to see the world as a little bit more colorful and to enjoy a little bit more …. Find a little bit more animation in your own world in small ways or in gigantic inter-cosmic ways with Flying V.”

For more information on Flying V and its upcoming programs, visit flyingvtheatre.com.

Lisa Traiger is an award-winning arts journalist who writes on theater, dance, music, film and visual arts from her home in Montgomery County.

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