By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
"Our menus have sense of place," Shepherd says. "I believe in where my food comes from. Texas is its own realm, and that's why people are so proud."
Jason Nodler doesn't love theater. He doesn't love the spectacle, the pageantry, not the costumes or the lighting or any other technical aspects of putting together some big production. He knows people who do, of course, people who like to say, "I love theater!" For Nodler, they might as well be saying, "I love weather!"
"I'm a lover of a gathering of friends in a dark room and sharing intense emotions. Happy or sad," Nodler says. "I'm interested in plays that examine how weird it is being a human animal on earth."
He continues: "I believe we're going around once, and theater provides meaning to me for what is an otherwise meaningless existence. That's why I can't do a play about living in 1920s Harlem. I can't do a play that isn't important enough to me emotionally.'
So it goes with Houston's Catastrophic Theatre, the company that Nodler helped start in 2007 and has operated, as artistic director, since. And perhaps that mission, Nodler's mission, is why Catastrophic has been one of the most intriguing theater groups in Houston in recent years.
"Each one of these plays takes away a little bit of our soul, but it's a worthwhile expenditure of that," Nodler says.
In November of last year, Catastrophic premiered Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood, a play about a Dutch rock star/artist/poet whose life ended in suicide in 2001. The play, which was the subject of a November 2010 cover story in the Press, has been, quite simply, a raving success. And while Bluefinger — Nodler wrote and directed it — is certainly not Nodler's first critically successful work, it could, as John Nova Lomax put it, "mark the start of his life's second act."
And for Houston's theater and arts scene, that is a good thing.
"It's a really rewarding life," says Nodler, who is completing a stretch of eight months sober. "Making plays for 100 people a night...it's meaningful."
Nodler spent his teen years in Houston, attending the city's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, but after high school, he bolted for New York University to study theater. He graduated and moved to Portland, Oregon, trying to make it as a playwright and director. Even in college, however, Nodler wasn't particularly interested in "what was happening in theater," and that feeling carried over to Portland. He was more into the music scene, and he decided to move back to Houston to stage a play he had written, a kind of punk rock opera, titled In the Under Thunderloo.
The play, which opened and ran in the early 1990s, was Nodler's first contribution to the Houston arts scene, but his biggest contribution, no doubt, was the creation of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, Houston's seminal alternative theater troupe, which, among other things, launched the career of Jim Parsons. (Parsons won a Golden Globe this year for his role on CBS's The Big Bang Theory; he won an Emmy for it last year.)
Nodler's best-known work during his time at Infernal Bridegroom, and perhaps his most well received, was a play titled Speeding Motorcycle, based on the life and work of Daniel Johnston, an artist who had long suffered from severe mental illness. The New York Times covered the play in its article "Infernal Bridegroom has a hit with 'Speeding Motorcycle.'"
But despite the success of Motorcycle, Nodler in 2003 decided to leave Infernal Bridegroom.
"I was burned out," Nodler says. "Getting fucked up all the time, trying to balance that with the stress of running a theater company, wears you out. I was bitter. I needed to be elsewhere for a while."
Nodler has suffered from depression as long as he can remember, although he only recently began to acknowledge the illness and seek treatment. Some of the depression, he imagines, stems from the fact that Nodler's best friend killed himself when Nodler was 13. A year later, another friend did the same. And Nodler self-medicated, with drugs and booze, a lifestyle that continued after he left Infernal Bridegroom and Houston.
He started his time away, Nodler says, with few plans other than to travel. He bounced around directing plays in Atlanta, Providence and Pittsburgh. He met and fell in love with a woman in Pittsburgh, and just about the time he thought he might settle down there, someone from Infernal Bridegroom called and asked if he'd be interested in returning to serve as artistic director.
He was, but since he had to uproot in Providence after that company went bankrupt, he asked for a review, he says, of Infernal Bridegroom's accounting to be sure it was financially feasible for the group to make a longterm run with him at the helm. The review ended in disaster — about all the explanation Nodler will offer — and Infernal Bridegroom declared itself bankrupt.
"It was devastating," Nodler says. "Five company members [at Infernal Bridegroom] had died in seven years. (The deaths included two suicides, someone who died of congenital heart failure, an uninsured man who couldn't afford treatment for his skin cancer and another man who, Nodler says, literally drank himself to death.) [Losing Infernal Bridegroom] was like another death."
I'm thrilled for Nameless Sound to be recognized with your Mastermind award. Nameless Sound is an organization truly unique to Houston (and an organization who's development is directly connected to its city's culture). I'm very proud of the efforts/participation/contribution of everyone in our community (students, musicians, audience, staff, board, members, supporters, etc). I never expected this honor. I'm very happy to receive it.
There are a few inaccuracies in the story that I would like to clear up.
Sprawl (the band that I was in from '88 to '94) was not anything close to a "noise" or improvised music band. Houston at that time had a pretty healthy "noise" scene. (I use "noise" for the lack of a better term. Houston's experimental sounds have always resisted easy categorization, reflecting a certain quality about much of our city's culture.) I would say that I was trying for something that was musically a bit different (something that I was only hearing locally from my few collaborators). Our early efforts at improvisation did exist in the context of pretty wide-ranging experimental music activity in Houston that did have a history. (Maybe it was too wide ranging to ever be called a scene.)
These details about sub genres may not mean a whole lot to most of your readers, but the clarity is important to me. I would hope that my friends and colleagues in the "noise" scene don't think that I would purposefully misrepresent that history and context in my interview
A couple of other things to clear up might be less significant. I probably wouldn't bring them up, but since I'm at it......- I don't have a former student in band called Yucatan. Juan Garcia lives in the Mexican state of Yucatan. He plays in the Yucatan Symphony and teaches creative music to impoverished children in small villages. - I'm not originally from San Diego, but Orange County (It had a MUCH more serious punk rock scene!).
Thanks so much for the attention and recognition. Itâ€™s greatly appreciated.David DoveFounding Director - Nameless Sound
Thank you Houston Press!! We're very excited to be a 2011 Mastermind and look forward to putting that grant to good use. I did want to mention our affiliation with the University of Texas. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Toni Tipton Martin and Elizabeth Engelhardt, we are honored to be an affiliated institute of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, housed in the Community Engagement Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Please see our website for more details -- www.foodwaystexas.com. Foodways Texas is a statewide organization with over 100 members (and growing) that seek to preserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas. Thanks again to the Houston Press for this wonderful honor. I look forward to Artopia this Saturday.
Marvin BendeleExecutive DirectorFoodways Texas
Jeff's photo (Foodways Texas) should reference Chris Shepherd, not Chris Henderson, although I'm sure Henderson is a likable guy as well.