In 2006 Catastrophic Theatre artistic director Jason Nodler created Speeding Motorcycle, a hit musical drawing from cult phenomenon Daniel Johnston’s words and music, which received praise from The New York Times, American Theatre and No Depression magazine. It premiered at Infernal Bridegroom Productions in Houston and received a second production at Austin’s Zachary Scott Theatre Center.
“One play wasn’t enough,” according to Nodler. “Daniel is so prolific and his body of work is so remarkable I feel like I could make ten of these things.”
Daniel’s early years in Austin are the stuff of legend. He arrived knowing no one in town and set about making music in a practice room at The University of Texas, where the play is set.
Where Speeding Motorcycle focused largely on unrequited love, Life is Happy and Sad concerns itself with the creative impulse and the importance of friendship.
Matt Brownlie, well known to local music enthusiasts as the frontman for bands Bring Back the Guns and Groceries, plays young Daniel. A live rock band, Roky Moon and Bolt (Best New Band, Houston Press), doubles in the other roles. Local legend Joe Mathlete (The Mathletes, Speeding Motorcycle) makes a key cameo as well.
Nodler created the new play during a residency at New Hampshire’s prestigious MacDowell Colony, made possible by a fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts. He is working closely with Daniel’s best friend David Thornberry (also a character in the play) to create what he refers to as a “docu-dream play.”
“Think Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape but with Daniel Johnston songs,” Nodler says.
Johnston has received a lot of attention in recent years. He was the focus of an award-winning documentary in 2006 (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) and a featured artist in that year’s Whitney Biennial. He is the subject of an upcoming motion picture based on his life and his work is featured in a new iPhone video game. On October 6, he will release his first solo album in seven years.
Johnston famously suffers from an extreme case of manic depression.
“When most people think of Daniel Johnston, the first thing they focus on is his mental health condition,” according to Nodler. “I am focused on how his sensitivity makes him similar to the rest of us, not different. His highs and lows are recognizable to us all and his willingness to share this sort of nakedly honest work, in the face of the difficulties he’s endured, is an inspiration. This play concerns itself with the deep sadness born of loneliness and isolation and the encouragement he derives from his special friendship with David.”
The form could not be more different from Speeding Motorcycle, but the result is the same. “Audiences will laugh, they will be moved and they will leave with Daniel’s songs and, more importantly, his inspirational story, stuck in their heads for many months to come,” says Nodler.
Speeding Motorcycle sold out two runs in Houston and dozens of people were turned away at the door. Get your tickets now for Life is Happy and Sad by calling the Catastrophic offices at 713-522-2723.
LIFE IS HAPPY AND SAD previews Wednesday, December 2 and plays December 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18 and 19 at DiverseWorks ArtSpace, 1117 East Freeway. All performances begin at 8pm. Click for more information on DiverseWorks.
$50 preview admission includes refreshments and a private party with the cast and crew. All other performances are Pay-What-You-Can.