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, Thunderloo cast 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).
In the Under Thunderloo was a great time, but once it was over, Nodler was thrown back into the wasteland of his early twenties, not really knowing what to do with himself and his talent. He had dreams, which he talked over with Cooper. She encouraged him like good friends always do. They talked about opening a theater across the street from Catal Hüyük. Nodler and Cooper even skulked about the empty mattress factory on McKinney Street with an architect, imagining a theater in the space. But they were dead broke, and the architect was merely a friend's dad.
For a while Nodler booked bands at Catal Hüyük, where he also lived upstairs in a damp little room with broken-out windows and nothing but a cold drizzle of yellow faucet water to bathe in. After a few months of this low-life existence, Nodler and Cooper had had enough. He went to work for Cyrano's coffeehouse; she fled to the SPCA. And they decided to mount another show -- but not in a bar.
More important was the fact that, this time, Nodler would direct. The show would be Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities. "I'd never directed anything before," says Nodler. "It was just that all those people who'd seen In the Under Thunderloo had said, 'Well, okay, but it's not theater.' So I was like, 'All right. Fuck you, then.' I'll do some real theater. We'll do the impossible play, the one people do at the end of their career. The holy grail of avant-garde theater. I've never directed. I'll direct that. I'll do it with no actors. And we'll all be really drunk!"
Inebriated though he may have been, Nodler was able to tap into his strange group of friends and burn a desire into them to do something grand. Metal sculptor Mike Scranton, whose motorized creations have scored well at the Art Car Parade, built the set, filling up the vacant middle space at Commerce Street Warehouse with an enormous iron jungle city. "There was a two-ton staircase that went from the center of the room to nowhere," says Nodler. "And every night, after the show, a band would play, just for us. Sometimes two bands played, sometimes three. And we always had a keg."
Whether the show was artistically successful was almost beside the point. What was important was that the show solidified Nodler's resolve to make theater on a consistent basis. In fact, it was from this show that the company gleaned its name. A line from the Brecht script reads: "In my dreams I'll call him my Infernal Bridegroom." Infernal Bridegroom Productions was officially born.
Cooper says Nodler has always been a leader, even in high school, when they both attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Bob Singleton, the head of the theater department at HSPVA, agrees. "Jason always had eyes that seemed very, very deep," he says. "He was always taking things in, sucking up the world. He was always questioning ... and he was an excellent leader with the students, always putting together shows. I'm not at all surprised to see those early seeds flowering."
As paternal as he can be -- and he really does gaze at his company members with what looks an awful lot like fatherly pride -- Nodler is also full of bad-boy brazenness. In the beginning, he went around thumbing his nose at the local theater establishment. "Back in the early days I said things I wish I hadn't," he says. In fact, he'd still like to "hire someone who will follow me around just to tell me to shut the fuck up."
Yet it's precisely that dance-with-the-devil, wicked internal blaze that keeps Nodler producing plays that saner theaters wouldn't touch. Besides Brecht's "impossible" Jungle, Nodler and his group have produced more than 25 famously difficult plays, including Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, Jean Genet's The Balcony, Beckett's Endgame and Maria Irene Fornes's Mud -- all strange, challenging and deeply intellectual scripts that IBP seems to understand implicitly.
This understanding might have something to do with the company's eclectic makeup. The constantly mutating troupe has included everybody from erudite Ph.D.'s, such as Charlie Scott, who plays the mayor in Fucking A, to skate punk rockers, such as Tony Barilla, the guy with the spiky, flamingo-pink hair who assists Nodler in IBP's office (and writes critically acclaimed music in his off time).
The glaring lack of theatrical training is by design. Back in the old days Nodler decided to realize his raw-bone aesthetic by employing one simple method: "No actors." Cooper remembers when they were casting Mud. "One of the characters was this mildly deranged pig-fucker," she says. "So we cast this guy who basically -- well, we don't know about the pig part -- but he fit the profile. Jason's like, 'This guy'd be great! He's just like the character!' "
Over the years, Nodler has loosened a little on his position about actors, but not much. "The problem with actors is that they are all so ... actory, kind of laminated....I came across Picasso's definition of art, 'Art is telling a lie to tell the truth' ... which is especially appropriate to theater. Theater's not pretending to tell the truth....You have to say you're acting. That's the truth. Actors tell you a lie in order to get you to another place."
Even today some of Nodler's favorite actors have no formal training. Cooper, for instance, studied only dance at the University of Houston and HSPVA. The only experience Andy Nelson had in theater was with a comedy improv troupe. But as more actors joined, more "had all their chops," as Nodler puts it. Some, in fact, have gone away to graduate school and come back. Amy Bruce, for instance, worked with the company, starring in Cowboy Mouth, before she went off to school. She returned and was promptly cast as the whore in Fucking A. Another IBP alumnus, Jim Parsons, is now off at the Old Globe in San Diego studying theater, but "he's always got a home with IBP," says Nodler.
"I think there's something slightly wrong with our actors," the artistic director says. "I think my actors, well, they bring the truth to the stage. And that's why you're able to see there's something wrong with them. They're not faking it."
Nodler has created an aesthetic identity by choosing bizarre spaces in which to mount shows; it's partly the function of a company without its own theatrical home, and partly the natural result of a creative and wildly resourceful artistic director. IBP has produced plays in bars (Catal Hüyük and Rudyard's), parking lots (the Zocalo Theatre's), in metal barns (Zocalo proper), in a warehouse (Commerce Street), in a dilapidated shopping mall (Westbury Square) and in the shadows of Interstate 10 behind Last Concert Cafe.
Only in the past couple of years has the company started working steadily in theaters around town. Stages Repertory Theatre, Atomic Cafe and DiverseWorks have hosted most of the company's recent shows. Truth be told, Cooper can't imagine going back to the bugs and sweat and grime of parking lot productions. (Nodler, who is afraid of dogs, still shivers at the memory of all the stray mutts running through many of the outdoor performances.)
As IBP's performance spaces became increasingly legitimate, so did the company itself. In 1996 the group formed a board of directors made up exclusively of its company members. Nodler asked his actors to sign a cocktail napkin that said simply, "IBP '96-'97," thus turning his collection of friends into an official company of sorts. Many of the cast members from Fucking A signed that original scrap of paper, including Cooper, Nelson, Scott and Troy Schulze.
The company was granted official nonprofit status in April 1997; naturally the board expanded to include non-theatrical members (the board now includes former Press writer Shaila Dewan). A year later this expanded board realized IBP needed a full-time employee to operate the group. Nodler was the obvious choice. After all, the whole thing had been "Nodler's vision," says longtime board member Leo Boucher.
Around the same time, IBP also received its first major grant. Until that point, the company had, remarkably enough, stayed in the black just on ticket sales, two small donations from Smirnoff and a gift from the Goethe Institute. The company has since received a CACHH grant, the Rockefeller grant and $27,000 from an anonymous private donor.
Nodler's success in the theater community has come from a strange combination of rugged, ragged individualism and polite cooperation. Little about his upbringing prepared him for his position. The middle-class boy grew up in southwest Houston until he was 12 years old, when his parents moved to West University after the family home burned down. Though he has always been interested in theater (he started taking drama classes at the Jewish Community Center when just a boy), he didn't seem to acquire his passion from his folks. They are true civilians. His dad was a CPA before becoming an insurance salesman, and his mom "does real estate." Yet it was in this crucible that Nodler developed his dark outsider instincts.
Nodler's rebel aesthetic probably would have gone nowhere, however, if not for Bradley and DiverseWorks, which have had a huge impact on the development of IBP. In 1996 Bradley witnessed the company's production of Georg B¨chner's Woyzeck. "It was a really incredibly staged piece," says Bradley. "I started talking to Jason because they were producing a number of wonderful shows each year, but they were a homeless company." Several months later Bradley asked Nodler if IBP would be interested in collaborating on a piece with another artist. Would he ever.
Bradley and Nodler ultimately agreed on a three-year commitment for three shows. Then they made up a wish list and narrowed it down to Brian Jucha, a highly experimental director with his own company in New York City. In 1997 Jucha and IBP put on the very dark and funny Last Rites, an avant-garde piece about sex, dating and everything in between. Next up was King Ubu Is King, written by Nodler himself. Parks's Fucking A is the last project in the commitment, although Bradley looks forward to working with Nodler again, saying the two will "probably take a year off and then go back" to collaborating.
No matter what the future brings, it's hard to imagine anything topping the blind serendipity that made Fucking A a reality. Two years ago Bradley showed up at IBP's fifth anniversary party at the Hogg Grill. Nodler tells the story this way: It was late in the night, and everyone was tipsy when Bradley approached Nodler. "Hey, there's this grant, and it's due in a week," Nodler recalls Bradley's pitch. "Do you want to go for it? We don't really have time. It's about finding collaborative artists. Do you want to try to do it?" Nodler "was drunk enough to say sure."
To submit the grant, Bradley and Nodler had to make a list of the five people they would most like to work with. Suzan-Lori Parks was at the top. They knew it was a long shot.
Lo and behold, Parks said yes. She did so mostly, the playwright says, because of her friendship with Bradley, which began years ago when they worked at New York City's BACA Downtown, a gallery/performing space in Brooklyn that operates much like DiverseWorks.
Nodler and Bradley agreed to produce Parks's script without seeing it first; that's because it wasn't written yet. In fact, Fucking A wasn't finished until the fall of 1999, at which time Parks cast the show via videotapes sent to her from IBP. Cooper says the casting actually seemed very laid-back. "[Parks] said to Jason, 'Why doesn't Tamarie just play Hester?' " Parks wanted someone she could count on, no divas.
Parks still seems relaxed about the whole thing as she sits on the floor during rehearsals, quietly knitting or smiling at the jokes in the script. It's Nodler who's spinning around DiverseWorks like a top, commanding actors to be on time, negotiating with the woman who's videotaping the production for the lighting designer, and pacing in the parking lot as he chain-smokes Kools.
His angst is understandable. The man's got a lot on the line. People from all over the country have been invited to the opening. Bradley has solicited people from the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, "the best presenting space in the country," as well as Michael Wilson, artistic director at Hartford Stage (Wilson has also directed several shows at the Alley, including Angels in America). The national press has been invited, too, including writers from Newsweek, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Bradley sees this show as a "critical moment" in IBP's development. The company is "poised to become a national touring company," she says. "And Jason's profile is going to increase." She foresees him getting invitations to direct all across the country.
Directing invitations would be an ironic outcome for Nodler, since he isn't helming the production of Fucking A. Yet his presence is palpable throughout rehearsals. Parks tells the actors what to do, but it's Nodler who makes sure they do it. Even more telling, his influence is clear in the way this company works together on stage. Over and over, the actors talk about how committed they are to the company and to Nodler's vision of producing intelligent and inventive theater.
Rob Bundy, the artistic director at Stages, a theater with its own rags-to-riches story, says that Infernal Bridegroom is "intrinsic to keeping Houston viable artistically." Bundy acknowledges that IBP is doing the risky, experimental work that no other theater in town can afford to do on a consistent basis. Gregory Boyd, the longtime artistic director at the Alley, agrees. "Infernal Bridegroom is providing a great service to Houston audiences by bringing in the extraordinary theater artist Suzan-Lori Parks. She is clearly one of the most intriguing, distinctive voices in the country," Boyd says.
It's a Sunday afternoon, and rehearsals for Fucking A seem to be going well. There's an easy calm to the work happening on DiverseWorks's big, black stage. The cohesive nature of the company is evident. There are no screaming divas running around backstage and refusing to cooperate. In fact, when Nodler and Parks run through the several scene changes, every actor in the room happily volunteers to move props.
The beer kegs of years gone by have been replaced by Styrofoam cups of coffee and large fruit smoothies. A loaf of whole wheat bread is being passed around to the hungry. Parks tells everyone to be sure to take vitamins. Cast member Dan Treadway is at home sick, and Parks is mother-henning over the healthy, aware that opening night is less than two weeks away.
Barilla sits at the piano helping the actors learn the songs that Parks has written for the work, which she adamantly states is not a musical. "It's a play with six or seven songs." The playwright realizes this sounds strange, and she smiles at the incongruity. The woman is disarming. She is approaching her late thirties, but could easily pass for 20, if not for her maternal tendency to call the actors "honey." She's also full of praise. Schulze, who plays a troubled character named Monster, is worrying over a few notes in his song. Parks tells him to relax, that he has a wonderful singing voice.
But she's also very exacting. After a run-through, she reads notes to the actors from a tiny book she scribbles in, telling them to "learn the lines as they're written." Later she asks that an actor make sure not to cry over a line; "make sure we can hear the line," she says. She's obviously the playwright, mother hen or not.
Fucking A would seem to encompass some of Parks's complex personality, the concerned mother and the brooding perfectionist. Set in some mythical future, a sort of regressive third-world hell, Fucking A is about a place where more people are in jail than not. Bounty hunters enjoy cutting the hands and feet off their live prisoners, then feeding them to wild dogs as the other prisoners watch.
Hawthorne's Hester has a whole new set of troubles. Her "A" no longer stands for adultery. Her son has spent the last 30 years in prison, and she has become an abortionist so that she can make the money needed to buy his freedom. Despite the futuristic setting, Hester's methods are ancient, gory and Gothic. She has been branded on the chest with a festering, constantly oozing "A," and she totes her bloody tools about in a big metal bucket.
As disturbing as all this might sound, there's still a lot of macabre humor in the show. In one tune, the bounty hunters searching for Hester's son sing, "We hunt, but we do not eat what we catch / That'd be a little much, don't you think?" The effect is eerie and incredibly funny.
This gruesomely dark humor fits right into IBP's aesthetic. After all, this is a company run by a man who claims, "Wit is a little too uplifting for me." That IBP would collaborate with Parks, and vice versa, says much about the company's unwillingness to compromise as it reaches for higher goals.
It would seem that no matter how legitimate he gets, Nodler will always remain a ragamuffin hellcat, dressed in a baggy T-shirt and beat-up Doc Martens, smoking Kools and in desperate need of a shave. Yet is it possible that all this exposure will affect the group's artistic sensibility, one that seems so deeply connected to IBP's punk-rock beginnings? Nodler doubts it. In fact, board member Boucher imagines the group developing much like Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, the cutting-edge company that is, in part, responsible for developing such heavyweights as playwright David Mamet and actor John Malkovich.
Besides, Nodler says, full of his own irreverent brand of pride, wherever IBP ends up, "there will always be a little bit of the gutter" in it.
Fucking A opens Thursday, February 24, and runs Thursdays and Saturdays through March 18 (no performance March 11), at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, (713)335-3445. $10-$15.
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