Catastrophic has been one of the most intriguing theater groups in Houston in recent years.
In the third year of its MasterMind Awards, the Houston Press had a lot more work to review. Nominations poured in from readers willing to help us determine who we should recognize for cutting-edge work in the local arts and creative scene.
In addition, our review panel came up with some of its own groups and individuals whose works we've looked at through the year. And, of course, there was some overlap.
Once again, we can't offer the world, but we are handing out $2,000 to each recipient with no strings attached. And the recognition that they have achieved something significant for and in the Houston community.
Last year, we recognized Opera Vista, which used the money to help pay for its annual March festival. And the recognition helps in grant applications, its Executive Director Joe Carl White tells us.
Another recipient, Reginald Adams, founder of the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston, credits his MasterMind Award as boosting more than MOCAH's bank account. "Every penny counts with the work we do," he tells us, "so the money was certainly appreciated and well used. But the money itself didn't make as much of an impact as much as the recognition." Adams says that after the award ceremony last year, MOCAH signed several large contracts for arts projects with community organizations such as Neighborhood Centers, Inc., the Greenspoint Redevelopment Community and Sparks Parks.
Our third winner from last year, the SoReal Cru, used its award money for rent, which kept it open in hard times. Since then, the dance studio has increased in both the number of students and the classes it offers.
We wish the same level of continued success to this year's three winners — who'll receive their $2,000 checks in a ceremony at our third Artopia celebration on Saturday, January 29, at Winter Street Studios (2101 Winter St.). The winners:
Foodways Texas, a new organization dedicated to preserving the food history of Texas.
Catastrophic Theatre, founded by its artistic director Jason Nodler. In 2010, Catastrophic Theatre premiered — to considerable acclaim —Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood, a play about a Dutch rock star/artist/poet whose life ended in suicide in 2001.
Nameless Sound and its director David Dove. Nameless Sound is a nonprofit exploring new ways to teach music in public schools and out in the community.
Along the rural backroads of southeast Texas, about 100 miles outside Houston, Kenneth andJudy Anderle own and operate a small farm, cultivating and processing sorghum cane and, ultimately, producing sweet sorghum syrup. By Judy's estimation, the Anderles are one of three or four families in the state who still use the old-fashioned method for making the syrup.
"You just gotta watch your seed," says Kenneth Anderle, who is featured in a new documentary by filmmaker Keeley Steenson. "You just gotta go out there and judge it and taste it every now and then. It's a lot of work."
The documentary, Good, Better, Best, was commissioned and promoted by Foodways Texas, a group of Texas food writers, chefs, restaurateurs and food academics, created during the summer of 2010, who want to preserve and promote Texas food history. The film, one of the first tangible things that the group has produced, is at the heart of what the group can and wants to do.
"I think about my mother. If she knew about things like these sorghum producers, that would be great," says Houston chef Chris Shepherd, who runs the popular Catalan restaurant on Washington Avenue and has been involved with Foodways Texas since its inception. "She knows she can go into a store and buy sorghum, but she doesn't know that she can get a better product that's being produced right here in Texas."
Shepherd continues, "There are all these little guys doing amazing things like that, and a lot of people don't know about them. I'd like to see those things that are being lost be recognized for what they are."
That fear of loss is, in part, what caused Robb Walsh, the Houston Press's former food critic, to found Foodways Texas. Walsh had for years worked with another group, the Southern Foodways Alliance, which operates out of theUniversity of Mississippi and tries to preserve the food history of the Deep South. Walsh gave lectures and led "food tours" and wrote papers — some of which eventually became cover stories in the Press. Some of his work involved correcting past inaccuracies such as accounts that left African Americans out of the origins of Southern food histories.
The same problem — little accuracy in capturing the state's diverse food history — existed (and exists) in the larger picture of Texas food history, including, for example, the creation story involving Texas barbecue. One largely circulated and accepted tale goes like this: A wealthy rancher out in West Texas by the name of Bernard Quayle(or Barnaby Quinn, depending on who is telling the story) started roasting cattle and hogs and such over open pits. The rancher's brand was his initials — B.Q. — with a bar underneath. "Thus, the 'bar B.Q.,' Walsh writes in his book Legends of Texas Barbecue, "became synonymous with fine eating — or so the story goes."
"Texas food history is really all this fantasy stuff," Walsh says.
Walsh had, in fact, tried to put together some kind of group, specific to Texas, a few years back, but there wasn't much interest at the time, and there wasn't a university that would grant Walsh the vaunted "academic affiliation" needed to jump-start such an organization. Walsh tabled the idea then and watched, almost painfully, as some of Texas's food history was gathered outside the state. One breaking point, though, came when the Southern Foodways Alliance started moving old barbecue equipment out of Elgin, Texas, a famous city in Texas barbecue lore, for a museum in Atlanta.
About the same time, Jim Gossen, the CEO of Houston's Louisiana Foods, joined Southern Foodways and started funding an oral history of Gulf Coast shrimpers and oyster fishermen. Gossen, Walsh says, was disappointed that similar work wasn't being done in Texas, and urged Walsh to try again to start up a group.
Then came Bryan Caswell. Caswell, the Houston chef who owns, among other restaurants, Reef and Little Bigs, joined Southern Foodways not long after the start of 2010, about the same time his celebrity as a chef was about to take off. In just a short time, his restaurants had become a huge hit, and his work at Reef had earned Caswell in 2009 one of the biggest awards in the food industry: Best New Chef from Food & Wine magazine. (Caswell, of course, wasn't "new" at all; before opening Reef, he had worked at some of the most well known restaurants in New York, Hong Kong and the Bahamas.)
Caswell, though, speaks often of his Houston and Texas roots.
"I love to travel, but at the end of the day, I've never seen it better anywhere else," Caswell tells thePress.
Caswell, like Gossen, pushed Walsh to crank up something outside of Southern Foodways and in Texas.
"We really got the bug to do this here," Walsh says.
One weekend in July of last year, Walsh invited 50 people, including Shepherd, Caswell and another Houston superchef, Randy Evans, for a brainstorming session, more or less, at Texas A&M University. (A&M was selected, Walsh says, because the school "owed him a favor" for some of the work he'd done at different events and as a guest lecturer.)
Hanna Raskin, a writer for the Press's sister paper the Dallas Observer, was at the meeting at A&M and wrote: "...since we were in Aggieland, [we took] a crash course in cow anatomy and [drank] flaming Dr Pepper shots with the undergrads at the Dry Bean Saloon."
"By the end of the meeting, we had forged an organization," Walsh says. "But it was really one of those deals where you step off the cliff and learn to fly."
But since its formation, the group has taken off. In just a few months, Foodways Texas produced a couple of documentaries (the sorghum film and one called 50 Years of Pie), created a board of directors, raised a budget for this year "in the six figures," Walsh says, and grew a membership base that now is close to 100 people. Walsh also landed an academic affiliation with the University of Texas's American Studies department, which donated some offices for the group in Austin. A doctorate student at the university, Marvin Bendele, agreed to serve, for free, as the executive director of Foodways Texas.
The group has three main goals in the next year or two, Bendele says. "We want to build up the archives, the oral history and films. The second thing would be to build membership outside the big cities, to have smaller events in other areas around the state." He mentioned El Paso, North Texas and in the Rio Grande Valley. The third thing, he says, is to get more community members involved in the organization's efforts.
"I'm absolutely amazed at how fast it's grown. It's shocked the hell out of me," Walsh says. "But [Texas has] more stories and more eccentric people than any other state, and we're tapping into that."
It probably also helped the group's success that not long after Foodways cranked up, Caswell appeared on the popular Food Network television show Next Iron Chef. He was eventually voted off the show, but it helped expand his celebrity as a chef, getting his name out to a larger audience. And while the show was airing during the fall, Caswell was promoting Foodways Texas.
"I have a sense of duty to make my work where I'm from. It's been important to me my whole life," Caswell says. "I'm in my late 30s, and some of the traditions I know are already starting to disappear. It's important to all of us to spotlight some of these old ways. So I think we're just scratching the surface of our potential."
Foodways Texas already has a few big events scheduled for this year. At the end of February, it's hosting a "Gulf Coast Gathering" in Galveston to highlight some of the forgotten heritage of the area's oysters and fish. There's also a barbecue "summer camp" scheduled for June at Texas A&M.
"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."
But Nodler, committed to returning to Houston and saving something from the remains of Infernal Bridegroom, returned to start Catastrophic Theatre. The company has opened five plays since 2007.
In the summer of 2009, Nodler was traveling in Europe, finishing some research for Bluefinger, when he was hit by a car in Amsterdam. The experience left Nodler with a broken leg. During his time at the hospital, he slipped into a deep depression. The experience also, however, led to his getting treatment, for the first time in his life, for his mental illness. He returned to Houston clean and sober — also for the first time in his life — to open Bluefinger.
Nodler says the group now has "a lot of new plays" that he hopes will take on a life outside Houston. And his sobriety has led to Nodler writing more than he has in a long time. He's currently working on a big project, he says, that is basically a play about his life. (He didn't want to talk too much about it, for fear that he would "hex it.")
More than anything, perhaps, Nodler is looking forward with a clear vision of what his theater, and, in effect, Houston theater, will look like.
"I used to be a very controlling director. I had to know exactly how everything was going to look," Nodler says. "It's different now. Now I feel like we all have our hands on the Ouija board, waiting to see how it will turn out."
During the mid-'80s and early '90s in Houston, the improvised/noise music scene, if there was, in fact, a complete "scene," started and ended with Sprawl, a popular potpourri of local musicians who gigged at the old Axiom and Fitzgerald's and toured the United States and recorded albums.
David Dove joined the band in 1988 as a 17-year-old trombone player, and he continued with the group until it broke up in 1994. For many young musicians, such an experience could define a career, and if not define, it would almost certainly shape a career path. For Dove, however, that's not exactly how it worked out.
Today, Dove is the director of Houston's Nameless Sound, a nonprofit that explores new ways to teach music in public schools and homeless shelters and just about any place in between. During the last four years with Dove at the helm, the group has grown into something that, as Dove puts it, is "on the brink of figuring out what this means."
"I see Nameless Sound as a network of music education; we're doing it on the grassroots level. And it's cool because Houston is seen as the place where this kind of thinking is taking root," Dove says. "But we are at the point where we have to decide, where do we go from here?"
Dove moved to Houston in the 1980s, when he was a teenager, from San Diego, where he had taken up the trombone and played in his school's jazz and marching bands. Once he arrived in Houston, however, the school made him choose between the two, and Dove ditched the marching band. It also caused him to become disillusioned with the traditional path — school — which led eventually to Sprawl.
After that band broke up, Dove found himself alone, musically, for the first time since he had picked up an instrument, and instead of trying to find a new group to jump in with, Dove went through a period of several years trying to find his own voice as a musician. And while he was doing that, he was also getting a top-notch self-education in different styles of music.
"Back then, you could see a guy like Pharoah Sanders at Miller Outdoor Theatre once a year, if you were lucky, if that," Dove says. "I knew Scandinavian musicians my age who had more connection to contemporary American jazz music than I had, because they had Oslov and Glascow."
Dove spent his time at the library, looking for music to listen to and reading material — anything that could expand and diversify his own music. He bought records at Sound Exchange and listened late nights to KTRU. He was playing with about the only three or four musicians in the city, he says, who were into the same kind of sound as him.
Near the end of the '90s, Dove said he started to realize that whatever drove him as a musician, he wanted to share, and in 2000, he hooked up with Pauline Oliveros, a Houston-born musician who was teaching music, through her Deep Listening Institute, in New York, San Francisco and overseas.
About a year later, Dove started a Houston chapter of the Deep Listening Institute, and after five years of that, he branched off to start the independent Nameless Sound.
"Typically, music education is more conservative than other arts," Dove says. "I'm not against orchestra or marching band, that's how I came up, but we're really about letting kids gain and develop more creative music. Not just perform what another composer wrote, but grasp how they can develop their own thing."
"We had our tenth anniversary (including the time with Deep Listening Institute), and we're known nationally and internationally," Dove says. "No one else is doing this in an organized way. I don't think this could've worked if I had gone to any other city."
Dove works with about 150 students and helps put on two concerts, never in nightclubs, each week. He also puts on workshops all over the country, and he does some in Mexico and Canada, and overseas in Vietnam and Germany.
As far as the next step, Dove truly doesn't know what it is, or if there will be one. Everything with Nameless Sound has always kind of happened on its own, and Dove wants to keep that spirit as the group moves forward. He's thought about trying to get Nameless Sound its own building, for its own classrooms and performance spaces, but he hasn't even started putting out feelers to find funding for that.
"We want each musician to have a voice; each musician is creative," Dove says. "But the common theme that's shared is not language; we try to teach them to listen. If someone can develop that range of listening, that's what we want."