Jason Nodler and His Catastrophic Theatre
By NANCY WOZNY
Jason Nodler hardly acts like the theater legend the city has bestowed on him. His quiet, unassuming demeanor may be more suited to the guy in the background. Yet, for the past few decades, his presence on the scene, first as founder of Infernal Bridegroom Productions (IBP) and now as artistic director of The Catastrophic Theatre (TCT), has loomed large in theater goers’ hearts.
TCT has just wrapped up an impressive inaugural season, building a momentum that they hope to sustain during these rocky economic shores and follow up with yet another ambitious season. Launching with Mickey Birnbaum’s post-apocalyptic play, Big Death and Little Death, followed by two wildly original Mickle Maher plays, The Strangerer and Spirits to Enforce, TCT hit a stride bringing bold new voices to Houston stages. (Both Maher plays made the top ten theater experiences of the year by The Houston Chronicle.) The Tamarie Cooper Show and Troy Schulze’s original art crime thriller, The Splasher, showed off in-house talent. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s bacchanalian black comedy Hunter Gatherers proved yet another feather in Nodler’s playwright scouting cap. Rarely out of the news, TCT scored two Houston Chronicle Star section features. Without a doubt, the troupe has maintained its “it” status and shows no signs of slowing down.
Within minutes of starting a conversation with Nodler he’s talking about the people he surrounds himself with, first and foremost, his associate director Tamarie Cooper, and a slew of Houston’s most idiosyncratic talents. “Theater is a collaborative effort,” says Nodler from the Sul Ross office he shares with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Joined by their time together at HSPVA, running Jerry Brown’s Houston presidential office, working at IBP and now TCT, Nodler and Cooper have rarely been apart. “We have found this wonderful group who work their buttts off to do what it takes to make theater,” says Cooper. “Something comes out having a history of working together, the level of trust in the room is palpable.”
For Nodler, art is made by people. “We are a company,” he insists. “And if you look at any innovation in theater history, they have all emerged from companies.” Nodler prides himself on his sharp eye for casting. Instead of the traditional audition process, he prefers conducting several readings of a particular play. It can take several before Nodler arrives at the right mix for a particular play. “I feel proud of my casting ability; I’m good at that,” he says, humbly. “Sometimes it can be frustrating, especially for new people.” Maher’s Spirit to Enforce, with its large cast of highly distinct actors playing assorted super heroes, proved a good example of Nodler’s ability to mine the talent in front of him.
The team also includes company veteran Troy Schulze who had a banner year with TCT. He premiered The Splasher at DiverseWorks, appeared as a wooden John Kerry in The Strangerer and as Tom the passive agressive doctor in Hunter Gatherers. “The good thing about the company model is that we get to know each other so well and have an idea of everyone’s potential, so casting is less of a puzzle,” says Schulze. “That said, we are constantly on the search for new blood. It’s an infectious thing, people are often surprised at how unpretentious we are, we are not eggheads about culture and are clued in to all forms of entertainment.”
Nova Arts Project managing director Sean Patrick Judge found himself stretched in a good way during his first play. He first learned about Nodler from the cover of American Theater which featured IBP’s production of We Have Some Planes. He jumped into his role as Jim Lehrer full throttle in The Strangerer. Judge entered the process just slightly intimidated, but quickly accommodated to Nodler’s quiet style. “He couldn’t have been more open, relaxed, patient, and smart. There were days when he would give exact, pin-point directions. Other times, he told me to do whatever feels good,” Judge remembers. “So I got the exact direction I needed and the freedom to play.”
Nodler surrounds himself with some heavyweights when it comes to his advisory board, which includes Alley Theatre’s artistic director, Gregory Boyd, University of Houston’s director of the School of Theatre & Dance Steven W. Wallace, Dan Dubrowski, Michael Zilkha, and Stages Repertory Theater artistic director Kenn McLaughlin. TCT’s collaboration with Stages includes Cooper’s work, and the recent Hunter Gatherers. “They are willing to throw themselves into the work so there’s such excitement to the process when they are in the building. We need that kind of vibrancy here,” says McLaughlin. “Jason likes to stand a little closer to the abyss, which is critical in thinking of the entire theater community here. There’s so much about the human character that has not been explored.”
The future looks jam packed for TCT. More interested in the work than finding a permanent home, Nodler has laid out next season with a roving spirit, covering a lot of ground both artistically and literally, when it comes to the number of venues. This summer, TCT went global with a performance of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit at Mitrovica Cultural Center in Kosovo. Cooper plans to awaken the dead summer months with Journey to the Center of My Brain (in 3D!) at Stages. In the fall they are back at DiverseWorks for Obie Award-winning playwright Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema. Daniel Johnson’s Life is Happy and Sad (adapted by Nodler) goes down in the winter. Nodler remains deeply influenced by band culture. “I’m a fanboy,” he admits. Music continues to be a huge part of the terrain at TCT. After the success of the first Daniel Johnson piece, Speeding Motorcycle, Nodler plans another, Life is Happy and Sad, at Stages next winter. “After listening to about 800 songs, which I don’t recommend, I felt there was another piece there,” he says. “This one takes place in a practice room at University of Texas where Daniel created many of these songs.” Long range plans include Bluefinger, a collaboration with former Pixies legend Charles Thompson (a.k.a Black Francis) about the tempestuous career of Dutch painter Herman Brood.
For Sixto Wagan, co-director of DiverseWorks, it made perfect sense to offer the troupe three residency periods starting in 2010. “Jason and I are both interested in the creation process over a longer period of time,” says Wagan. “We are all about developing work, not just presenting it, so having TCT in the building is a perfect fit, especially considering Bluefinger. We want our building to be busy with the creative process all the time.” Nodler has had a long relationship with DiverseWorks, where several IBP works premiered. “I remember when the then-performance curator Loris Bradley called me,” says Nodler. “It was like Hollywood calling.” The continued liaison with DiverseWorks allows Nodler to focus on the work and worry less on the venue.
Much has shifted in both the cultural and economic climate since Nodler and Cooper first starting making theater in Houston. Nodler realizes that there is a catastrophe going on right now in the economy so he has implemented Pay-What-You-Can for the entire next season. “Make note, it’s not pay what you want,” quips Nodler. Cooper agrees that a good amount of growing up has gone on since they first started working together. “We are a little wiser, older and more experienced,” says Cooper. “I am still willing to follow him off the cliff.” Nodler, Cooper, and their devoted cadre of actors, musicians and designers remain determined to tell a story that does not get enough play on stages. “I was 24 when I started, our concerns have changed, the world has changed,” Nodler says. “I want to do plays about life on earth; the strange condition of being a human animal.”
The Catastrophic Theater presents The Tamarie Cooper Show: Journey to the Center of my Brain (In 3D!), July 31-August 31, at Stages Repertory Theatre. Call the Stages box office at 713-527-8243 or visit www.thecatastrophictheatre.com