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In 1993, if you were young and cool, you hung out at Catal Hüyük a punk-rock club on the northeastern edge of downtown. That's where you'd find Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper; she tended bar, and Nodler drank beer -- if he wasn't judging some poetry slam in the front room, that is. And maybe even if he was.
It was in the skanky back room of Catal Hüyük that Nodler staged his first play, an absurdist work titled In the Under Thunderloo. A piece Nodler had written while studying playwriting at NYU, Thunderloocast a wide net, exploring language, the end of the world, drugs and the strange "Underworld Pumpkin People." This weird bit of theater made perfect sense coming from a young man whose literary hero was, and still is, Samuel Beckett, the playwright who revolutionized European theater with his absurdist use of symbolism, language, strange circumstances and dark humor.
Nodler and his friend Lisa McEwen, who persuaded the bar-hugging ne'er-do-well to stage Thunderloo, decided to cast the show with almost no formal actors, using instead local musicians. Eighteen-year-old Carolyn Wonderland, in fact, played the lead.
This motley crew went into preparations -- sort of. They drank beer; they built a ragtag set of platforms and curtains; McEwen directed while Cooper choreographed the dances; they drank more beer; they caroused; they played lots of head-banging music; they drank more and "did other stuff, too." And they kept on rehearsing, even when they were drunk.
Finally, come May 1993, they had put together something resembling a play: It included a long poem about cats, musicians acting like cavemen and technical mistakes that seemed like they might have been designed that way. The show was ready.
Opening night was mad. "We had this incredibly packed house," Nodler recalls. "It was overflowing. They were standing in a line." Everyone who was anyone in the punk-rock scene was there. Never mind that there was no air-conditioning or that the place stank or that drunks from down the street hung out at the bar pissing themselves. This was rock and roll theater.
"The show started with this opening interlude with cave people," Nodler says, laughing at the memory. "One of the cavemen was Matt Kelly, who was the lead singer for a local band. Kelly's character had the first line. It was, 'It have been hard day.' "
There was, however, a tiny personnel problem with the introductory scene: By curtain time, Kelly was a no-show. "We got a phone call saying that Matt had accidentally walked through a plate-glass window at the recording studio he was working in that day, and he was at Ben Taub all cut up and bleeding. And they didn't know when he'd get out. And everybody started telling me that I needed to go find the costume to put on. But I couldn't find anything. It was a loincloth. Nothing would substitute for that. So we held for a while, not knowing what to do. And then, about 20 minutes after our scheduled showtime, Matt came stumbling through the front door in his caveman outfit. He walked straight through the front room, right onto the stage. We turned on the lights and started the play. He got out there, hospital bracelet still on, cuts all over, and said, 'It have been hard day.' "
That was the first line spoken in the history of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, the scruffy theater company that Nodler has built, in fits and starts, into the city's most respected alternative theater troupe.
Seven years after that beer-soaked start at Catal Hüyük, Infernal Bridegroom now has an office at the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, tiny though it may be. Nodler is fully employed as Infernal's artistic director; he's even got an assistant ("couldn't do without," Nodler says). Infernal Bridegroom Productions has finally climbed out of what Nodler lovingly refers to as "the gutter" and is poised to move into the big time.
Funded by a $20,000 Rockefeller grant, which Nodler and Loris Bradley, DiverseWorks's managing and performing arts director, threw together in a week's time, IBP is about to launch the world premiere of Fucking A, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks's tragic, weirdly futuristic story loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The premiere is expected to attract national press, if mostly because of Parks's growing reputation. James Baldwin has called Parks, a two-time Obie Award-winner, "an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time."
Parks's most recent script, In the Blood, which opened at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater in November, was heralded as "extraordinary" by The New York Times. She wrote the Spike Lee-directed film Girl 6 and has recently completed two unnamed projects, one for Jodie Foster's production company and another for Danny Glover. It's no wonder that Nodler is beside himself to have his troupe of former underachievers working on her new script.
Nodler knew he was onto something with his very first show. In the Under Thunderloo was held over and played every night to sold-out crowds. He had done what no other theater in town could: He had tapped into a young, vibrant audience that wanted culture on its own terms. They were hungry for art they could relate to, and they had just enough dough in their blue-jeans pockets to pay the $6 admission (budget ticket prices, in fact, have always been a part of IBP; even today the company usually charges about $10 for its shows).