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MasterMinds One Year Later: Catastrophic Theatre's Jason Nodler on Batman and Samuel Beckett

Jason Nodler, third from left, with Michael Haaga, Frank Black and Matt Kelly while working on Bluefinger.
Jason Nodler, third from left, with Michael Haaga, Frank Black and Matt Kelly while working on Bluefinger.
Photo by George Hixson

In the year since Catastrophic Theatre was named a MasterMind, the experimental theater company has added an additional production to its schedule, discovered a whole new audience, and artistic director Jason Nodler has even stopped smoking.

"Something I thought I'd never do," he said. "I used to smoke three packs a day of Kools."

Catastrophic won the award right after wrapping up its production of Bluefinger, an original rock opera inspired by a Frank Black album about the life of embattled Dutch musician Herman Brood. Now Nodler is working on another original play, this one based on his life, kind of. But more about that in a minute.

Bluefinger, which was also the subject of a Houston Press cover story, received rave reviews and sold out nearly every night. Since then, Nodler says, "the (MasterMind) award has made it significantly more possible for us to do the work we do."

"We're always working on limited resources. In the last year we produced five plays. It's been an extremely busy and productive year, and I'm not sure we would have been able to jump from four to five plays had it not been for the award," Nodler said.

"This year has been very eclectic for us. We produced Crave, which is a very fractured and conflicted play, and then we produced The United States of Tamarie, which is a very comical play about what it means to be an American."

And it's also been a productive year for the theater's founder, whose next original play will focus on addiction. Though the story is based somewhat on Nodler's life, the main characters are musician Elliot Smith, French playwright Antonin Artaud and Batman. Yes, Batman.

"I've been obsessed with Batman since I saw him on Super Friends at three years old, and even back then I thought he was scary," said Nodler, whose Facebook profile photo is a droopy-looking Batman caricature.

"Batman is a character who experienced a major trauma when he was a child, and the trauma made him literally crazy. He has an obsession with justice and fairness in a world that is fundamentally unfair. I am interested in that."

The new play, to be called Make Me Feel Fine, will deal with Nodler's own experiences with addiction. Nodler has been sober for almost two years, and he said theater is one of the ways he copes with the challenges of life. Catastrophic's motto, after all, is "We will destroy you," a nod to the emotional challenges nearly all the group's plays try to explore and invoke.

"Art is an opportunity to work through those feelings and bring them to the fore for people who might feel alone," he said. "As Samuel Beckett said, there's nothing funnier than unhappiness."

"But I don't want to give the impression that people should come to our plays because they are good for you, like Sunday School. Our shows are invariably funny. We don't do anything that's not fun or funny."

Nodler said it's not just the financial benefit of winning the no-strings-attached check for $2,000 that comes along with being named a MasterMind. The title itself bears much of the weight.

"The recognition of our work was very meaningful," he said. "It helped us to bring along new audiences. That was the biggest gift the Houston Press gave us."

Winners of this year's three MasterMind Awards will be announced in the January 26 publication of the Houston Press. Winners will each receive a check for $2,000 along with a plaque at a special ceremony that is part of the Press's annual Artopia Party celebrated at the Winter Street Studios on Saturday, January 28, 2012.

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