HOUSTON: Situated on a street of warehouses and parking garages across the 10 freeway from the University of Houston’s downtown location is the Catastrophic Theatre, a cozy space complete with a lofted area where patrons can see a show while sitting next to the control panel. The intimate theatre operates on a pay-as-you-can policy all through the season round, making it an accessible night out for both avid theatregoers and first-timers.
The theatre’s Yelp page boasts reviews of its ample parking, free beer after curtain time, and a place to “score major points” on a date. The ensemble-based theatre commissions, develops, and produces all new work. We caught up with artistic director and cofounder Jason Nodler via email to learn a bit more about the company’s unique original work and how he keeps audiences coming back for that second date.
Who founded the Catastrophic Theatre, when, and why?
I founded Catastrophic with Tamarie Cooper and several of the artists that had been involved with my prior company, Infernal Bridegroom Productions. I had left Houston and IBP in 2003, but when that company was forced to close due to mismanagement during my absence, the artists that comprised the company asked me to return to help form a new one. We started Catastrophic in 2007 to continue making the work some of us began together way back in 1993.
Tell us about yourself and your connection to your theatre.
I am a native Houstonian. I received my degree in playwriting from NYU and returned home shortly after to produce my thesis play, the production of which birthed IBP. I was founding artistic director of IBP, and I’m the founding and current artistic director of Catastrophic. Before I became a paid employee with IBP, I did various jobs, including booking a punk rock club in which I lived, running the Houston office of Jerry Brown for President in 1992 (also with Cooper), fixing computers, selling coffee, and technical writing. I might be the only artistic director in the country with bipolar disorder and chronic Lyme disease.
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
For a relatively small theatre, we have a large national footprint, and people travel from across the world for the explicit purpose of seeing our new work. Music is very important to our work, and we have made original music-theatre in cooperation with Black Francis (Bluefinger) and Daniel Johnston (Speeding Motorcycle, Life Is Happy and Sad). We have commissioned new work from Suzan-Lori Parks (Fucking A), which she also directed in its premiere for us, as well as from Lisa D’Amour (Hide Town), Brian Jucha (We Have Some Planes), Mickle Maher (The Pine), and others.
And each and every summer, associate artistic director Tamarie Cooper creates an entirely new musical, which she has been doing for 20 years. Her summer shows have become a cult institution locally. We are very dedicated to the company and many of our artists, some of the finest in the region, have dedicated their entire careers to our companies. TV, film, and stage star Jim Parsons was a founding member of IBP, and he remains involved with Catastrophic as our largest individual donor.
Who is your audience?
An artistic director from a San Francisco theatre once said, “Theatre has to be better than dinner.” Our audience is anyone with a stomach. According to surveys, an unusually large portion of our audience does not regularly attend cultural arts events apart from those held at Catastrophic. And we are especially proud of the class diversity in our audience. Our performances are all available through a pay-what-you-can ticketing system. We don’t offer this just on special nights—it is a core value to us to make every performance accessible to anyone regardless of financial means. We have seen our audience and our ticket revenue grow exponentially since instituting this policy. Some see the first play they’ve ever seen for the change in their pockets; others that can afford to do so pay more to help subsidize this universally popular program.
We also offer free beer and other refreshments after each and every performance, encouraging audience and artists to stay late into the night sharing a little of their lives with one another. After a sold-out performance, the dock outside the warehouse in which our theatre lies is one of the most vibrant places anywhere in Houston.
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
Theatre Oobleck in Chicago. Like us, they make their work for a local audience and their aspirations are entirely artistic as are our own. We stole our pay-what-you-can ticketing model from them. And they are a true company of artists, making extraordinary work specifically for their own community. Though we only learned of them through the discovery of Oobleckian Mickle Maher’s plays a handful of years ago, their principles are more similar to our own than any other theatre I know. And they are a constant source of inspiration to us.
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
There are always at least 10 plays I am dying to share with our audience. Some are new, some are old. For any given season, I choose the ones that traffic in the concerns that are most vital to me at the time—those whose themes I am genuinely desperate to express. Beckett is our Shakespeare and Sarah Kane is our Sarah Ruhl. Our work is highly emotional. It is intended to make one feel, not think. Our plays typically have something to do with trauma, but we don’t produce anything that we don’t also find funny. The plays we select are also characterized by their ambiguity with regard to life’s great questions, which are asked but never answered, encouraging personal associations and manifesting a situation where there are as many possible interpretations as there are audience members.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?$540,000. We employ 75-100 artists each season.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
I’m in rehearsal for The Danube, by María Irene Fornés. I directed the same cast in this play 15 years ago and we are bringing back our original puppet director as well. Fornés was my mentor at NYU and she is my favorite living playwright. The play has a lot to do with catastrophe and diminishing circumstances, and I have fresh experience with chronic illness, which has been helpful in a funny way. I’m especially looking forward to everything we’ve got coming up, actually, because we only ever put a play up that we are desperate to share with artists and audience. In the relatively short term, we’ll be producing work from Beckett, Fornés, Maher, Mark Schultz, Sarah Kane, and Sam Shepard.
Our upcoming original music-theatre projects are probably most exciting to me. I can’t talk about many of those yet but one is a new musical to do with basketball, commissioned by our newest board member, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Mickle Maher is writing the book and lyrics and the pitch was the most exciting I’ve ever received. The working title is Why Did You Lose?
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
Endgame. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
Howard Barker invented the concept of “The Catastrophic Theatre,” from which we take our name. As he writes in his most recent book, “All I describe is theatre, even where theatre is not the subject,” and even when I’m sleeping all I think or feel will likely become a part of the work. Sometimes all we do at rehearsal is talk about our lives, and those are some of our best rehearsals. I also enjoy spending time with my dog Fonzie and my cat Steve, reading superhero comics, following electoral politics, and rooting for the greatest team in basketball history: The Houston Rockets.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
“We too shall become solemn, fat, and Ubu-like and shall publish extremely classical books which will probably lead to our becoming mayors of small towns where, when we become academicians, the blockheads constituting the local intelligentsia will present us with Sèvres vases, while they present their moustaches on velvet cushions to our children. And another lot of young people will appear, and consider us completely out of date, and they will write ballads to express their loathing of us, and that is just the way things should always be.” – Alfred Jarry
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