Jason Nodler has been a major force in Houston theatre for over two decades as the Artistic Director of two remarkable companies: Infernal Bridegroom Productions and The Catastrophic Theatre. It was Nodler’s play In the Under Thunderloo, written as his thesis project for NYU’s playwriting program that launched Infernal Bridegroom and productions of Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities and Beckett’s Endgame that cemented their place as a formidable local arts group. Performing in punk clubs and warehouses (and on one occasion a moving school bus) and drawing much of their talent from the Houston music scene, Infernal Bridegroom was an avant-garde alternative to the city’s more established, more conventional, and arguably way less exciting theatres. But they weren’t just rebels, they were doing exciting work: collaborating with major artists and garnering national attention. Their world premiere production of We Have Some Planes, created by Brian Jucha and the IBP ensemble, made the cover of American Theatre magazine. They also commissioned the world premiere of Fucking A, which was written and directed in its premiere by Suzan-Lori Parks, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, Nodler left the company and Houston to travel the country for a time, working as a freelance director and writer. He returned to Houston in 2007. Infernal Bridegroom had closed by then, due to financial difficulties, and Nodler became the Artistic Director of a new company, The Catastrophic Theatre. With this new company, he has continued to bring Houston an incredibly eclectic mix of work – rock musicals, productions of challenging classics, regional and world premieres by local and national playwrights, and the quirky musical reviews of Tamarie Cooper, which have become a Houston theatre tradition. Over the years, he and his companies have left behind their nomadic origins for a series of homes. Infernal Bridegroom eventually took over the Axiom, the club where they first performed and Catastrophic moved into the former Diverseworks space when that company moved to a new location in 2013. In 2016, the company will move to the new MATCH arts center in downtown Houston.
I selected Jason for my interview primarily because I think his companies have done the most consistently interesting work in Houston throughout my time here. Our aesthetic tastes are not particularly aligned – I like form and narrative more than he does, I think – but there’s a significant amount of overlap and, even when I don’t like the script, I am always impressed with the quality of the productions at Catastrophic. My favorite production of the last several years, Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness…, was a Catastrophic show. Finally, I find the variety of work done by Jason and his company, their ability to combine high and low culture, fascinating. I had met and spoken with Jason several times before this interview, but didn’t know him well and I enjoyed this chance to get to know him better.
On how he became a director and playwright
I was meaning to be an actor, and while I was at ‘PVA I realized that I really hated auditioning, I really hated rehearsing and I really, really hated performing … the only part I liked was getting the part. And I’m not a good actor because I’m too self-conscious, too shy. I can’t drop in. I can’t do this enormously brave thing that I ask my actors to do, which is to be emotionally naked. And I can’t do it. I can only oversee it.
Since I decided I didn’t want to be an actor anymore and I didn’t know what to do apart from theatre, I decided to become a playwright.
On becoming an artistic director
I wanted to have a family that I chose that made these plays together. We didn’t have an artistic director until 1996, when we went non-profit. We weren’t a non-profit for our first three years. We did a lot of plays without going non-profit, so all we could get was ticket sales….
We did the math on it…. We needed donations, so we went non-profit. And when several core artists convened to fill out paperwork for non-profit status we realized, ‘OK, we need to name an artistic director – who wants to do it?’ and it was just, sort of, obvious. You know, everybody sort of looked at me that way…. I was somewhat hesitant to take that title because I didn’t want to feel like I was a leader apart from the group. I wanted to feel like part of the group. And my role in the group – it’s a lonely one, you know, even though I’m very close with all of these artists and they’re like my brothers and sisters. And I love them. I’m in familial love with them. I’m in romantic love with them. All of them. But I’m not among them. Though I wish it were otherwise I stand somewhere else. And I think that’s just part of who I am.
Not ‘what you want’. It’s very specifically chosen. ‘What you can’. The distinction is, we’re not saying you can choose your own price for this. We’re saying we don’t know what you can afford. We want you to tell us what you can afford. The program requires, because a lot of people are going to pay less than our recommended price – and we want them to, we want those people very badly that can’t afford to pay that price – other people have to make it up by paying over that price. It’s been a very successful program because people have believed in it and supported it in that way.
We’ve seen our per-ticket revenue go up. We’ve seen our audience grow. And we’ve seen our ticket sales, total amount, go up. It’s been a win-win-win-win-win situation. I had to talk our board into it. They wanted me to talk to our major funders to make sure they were OK with it. Some of them were skeptical and said, ‘but we appreciate that you’re of a size where you can try this and try it out for everybody and report back and maybe other people will adopt it’.
People have always done pay-what-you-can nights, and that’s not the same, as far as I’m concerned…. We wanted to be all pay-what-you-can, all the time, so there’s no question about it. You don’t have to come on a certain night. If we’re performing, you can come see it for what you can afford.
On the kind of audience he wants
In the beginning I didn’t want a traditional theatre audience. I mean, I wanted them. But the ones that I really wanted were not them; they were the ones that hate theatre. That thought theatre was stupid. That would rather spend their money at a bar or seeing a band.
I remember opening night [of Infernal Bridegroom’s first show]. It was packed. It was so over-full and the audience was so eclectic. A limousine dropped off people in formal wear. There were homeless people in the audience that were just locals to the bar. There were a lot of punks there – everybody from the music scene was there, because there were so many local musicians in the show.
On what motivates him as a writer
I still have real difficulty writing when I’m not on a deadline. I needed those deadlines at school to make me write. And several times during my career, I’ve written grants, commissioning grants in hopes of getting a commission for me to write a play and that’s how I’ve wound up writing any of the plays that I’ve written. They’ve all been because there was a commission first.
On doing both serious literary works and musicals
Directly on the heels of Woyzeck, we did Guys and Dolls… I remember Tamarie, she was playing Miss Adelaide … she started cracking up after I gave her a direction and I said, ‘you’re laughing at me, right? What’s funny?’ and she said, ‘you’re directing this play as seriously as you did Woyzeck!’ and I said, ‘if I didn’t take this play as seriously as I did Woyzeck, we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s not a lark; I love this play!’
I’m obsessed with pop. I love pop. I love secondary colors, because they feel so pop. A lot of that is rooted in my love of the 1960s Batman TV show. That and Syd and Marty Krofft’s live action stuff are my two biggest influences. Well, no – let me say those two things and Bob Dylan.
On the importance of company
Company became an enormous part of who we were. It was probably the thing that was most core to our identity. I really believe in company. I don’t believe that any meaningful moment in theatre history has ever occurred without a company. You can go back to the Greeks and go up through the Berliner Ensemble. And stop on the way with Shakespeare and the Russians. It’s always been from a company. A company or a playwright.
What it meant [to be a company member] was: I’m serious about you and I want you to be serious about me… I want this to be your artistic home and I want you to help me to make it a satisfying artistic home for you. So I ask the artists to let me know what they want to be doing and I take it very seriously.
On the importance of theatre
I don’t care about theatre. I never cared about theatre. Theatre is a means to an end… It doesn’t have to be theatre. It could be something else.
When people tell me that they love theatre, it’s so confusing to me. It’s like saying you love weather. I mean, what do you mean? Do you love thunderstorms or do you love bright, sunny days? What kind of weather are you loving? There are no rules to theatre.
On their brand and moving from one location to another
So much of our audience has so much wrapped up in where we perform. Our identity is what’s on the stage and if the work isn’t primary, then, well, I quit. I want to quit if people just come because they like the space.
If our brand and identity are located in our work, then I very much want people to come because it’s the next Catastrophic show.
Looking back on our conversation, I’m struck by the emphasis on company. That’s a concept I have mixed feelings about. Of the two theatres that have most shaped me as an artist, American Players and McCarter, the first was very much a company-based theatre and did incredible work that way, while the second had moved away from a company-based model toward a model centered on scripts, which gave them a great flexibility that worked very much to their benefit. I’m drawn to the idea of a company and an artistic home, but I also know that I derive satisfaction and inspiration from working in a variety of settings with lots of different people. What’s most impressive about Jason Nodler and his work at Catastrophic and Infernal Bridegroom is the way that he’s managed to produce such varied work while building such a strong company. I think this is tied directly to his love of the works he’s produced, whether those were ‘literary’ or campy, classics or new pieces. Everything they do is important (to quote a Mary Zimmerman script) and that leads directly to the consistent quality that draws me back to their shows.