Catastrophic Theatre’s Jason Nodler seeks the raw truth
By Wei-Huan Chen, Story by Wei-Huan Chen, and Photography by Yi-Chin Lee
November 11, 2016 Updated: November 11, 2016 5:27pm
original story from Houston Chronicle: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/entertainment/arts-theater/article/Catastrophic-Theatre-s-Jason-Nodler-seeks-the-raw-10608188.php#photo-11791676
Jason Nodler can hardly sleep these days. But when it happens, he gets to dream. And sometimes, in those dreams, he gets to visit his best friend. Jeff Silverman was a freckled, dark-haired boy who loved “Star Wars” and knew all of Nodler’s secrets. He was a smartass, popular and lived six blocks down the road in their predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Maplewood West. The two looked and acted so much alike they were often mistaken for each other. Nodler calls him the twin brother he didn’t meet until he was 5.
When they were 13, Jeff hanged himself from a tree in his backyard. No one told Nodler why. The adults in his life said it was an accident, but he knew they were lying. That’s when Nodler learned to never trust authority, to avoid the false and the palatable and to realize that everything is temporary, even the people who were everything to him.
Nodler, now 47, never meant to live this long. He was supposed to die in his 20s, he says, referencing his earlier “nothing lasts” lifestyle that included drugs, alcohol and bouts of depression.
Sitting outside the Midtown coffee bar Double Trouble on a damp, noisy afternoon, Nodler, wearing a T-shirt that says “I Hate Theater,” lets a cigarette burn out between his fingers as he reminisces about all of his friends who are gone. There were the three who died in 2002, then the two he lost five years later. “It just keeps happening,” he says.
“My entire history can be summed up by saying, ‘When I was 13, my best friend hanged himself. The following year, I discovered Samuel Beckett.’ You can figure out the rest from there.”
Now, when he’s not dreaming about the friends he’s outlived, he grapples with the questions Jeff left him. And he does something beautiful. He makes those dreams come to life. His thoughts manifest themselves into the one form that’s come closest to offering an answer – theater.
“My entire history can be summed up by saying, ‘When I was 13, my best friend hanged himself. The following year, I discovered Samuel Beckett.’ You can figure out the rest from there,” says Nodler, the artistic director of the Catastrophic Theatre and the bald, ragged, acerbic, trembling, charismatic, Kool Filter Kings-smoking man often described as one of the most daring theater makers in Houston.
Anger into art
Nodler is a manic depressive and an alcoholic, though he can’t drink anymore because alcohol reacts poorly with the medication he’s taking for Lyme disease, an illness that makes him nauseated, exhausted and suicidal.
Soon, he’ll be headed to the best part of his day: rehearsals at the MATCH, where he directs the Catastrophic Theatre’s Houston premiere of “Song About Himself,” Mickle Maher’s dystopian play exploring social media and Walt Whitman. The production, which opened this weekend, is playing through Dec. 3.
He’s using just a bit of his limited energy today to talk about death.
“It was this seeking that I was obsessed with. I’m always in search of the meaning of life, for the answers to the great unanswerable questions, in music, with drugs,” he says. “I didn’t know where to throw my punches. If I had a choice, I’d throw them at God, except I didn’t believe in him.”
Look at the artists who inspire Nodler – playwrights Beckett, Wallace Shawn, Sarah Kane; musicians including Bob Dylan and Elliott Smith – and you’ll see a common thread. It’s the need to respond to the questions posed by Jeff’s death, the kind of searching that, after a theater performance, often leaves audiences stunned in silence.
Grown-ups gave Nodler a false answer to his friend’s death. Nodler, whose parents divorced when he was 5, has spent his life proving them wrong.
He thumbed his nose at authority in all facets of life, making theater for people who “hated theater” – his work embodying the anger and emotion of punk rock while diving into existential terrain through confounding, disturbing stage performances.
In the 1990s – after studying playwriting at New York University and, back in Houston, working for California Gov. Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign – Nodler led a cohort of rebellious, drunken twentysomethings to make theater no one thought was possible or acceptable. Their company, Infernal Bridegroom Productions, put on shows in parking lots, punk-rock clubs and abandoned shopping centers.
With actors such as Tamarie Cooper and Greg Dean, Infernal Bridegroom wasn’t the only renegade theater troupe in Houston, nor the first, but it drew a passionate crowd at a time when most theater companies seemed irrelevant to the angst of the younger generation. And, through partnerships with writers including Suzan-Lori Parks, it was the first avant-garde theater company of its kind to reach a national acclaim that even the city’s theater establishment envied.
“Jason and his team were some of first innovative theater makers in the city,” says Cynthia Williams, a former theater critic for the Houston Press. “They really challenged what a theater was supposed to look like.”
Nodler was the one director in town most likely to deliver what playwright Howard Barker called the “catastrophic theater,” which is theater that disturbs, befuddles or challenges audiences. He presented the modern-day version of the Theater of the Absurd, plays that dramatically abandon conventions such as traditional narrative and sensible dialogue. It was Nodler’s response to not only the easy fiction of what grown-ups said about Jeff but of easy fiction in all forms.
Brazen and risk-loving, he took the anger and tragedy from his life and spun it into art. He found plays that spoke to him – “Woyzeck” by Georg Büchner, “Suicide in B Flat” by Sam Shepard, “Waiting for Godot,” by Samuel Beckett – and staged them in unusual places for nontraditional audiences.
“Jason was an innate leader,” says Jim Parsons. The Houston native and star of “The Big Bang Theory” joined Infernal Bridegroom’s company after starring in its production of Beckett’s “Endgame,” staged at the “needle-addled” Commerce Street Art Warehouse in 1995.
“You were willing to dive in with this man who didn’t have the answer because you know he’s able to beat a pathway for you to discover it.”
Nodler embraced the absurd and the avant-garde, Parsons says, and though the company rebelled against the pageantry and tradition of theater, Infernal Bridegroom made worthy theater nonetheless. It allowed its actors an honesty that no other theater offered.
“As a young gay actor who was not comfortable having everyone know, the kitchen sink dramas scared me,” Parsons says. But with Nodler, “I felt free to really play as freely as I ever had in my life. There was no turning back.”
Nodler’s directing style used to be outside-in, which meant actors heard Nodler’s ideas and channeled them with their performance. But his process became improvisatory, bare, inside-then-out, a Konstantin Stanislavski-style method that forces the actor to embody the character by using his or her own personal history.
“You boil it down to the true human aspect of the character,” says Candice D’Meza, who was last seen in the Catastrophic Theatre’s wrenching fall production of “Buried Child.” “You start there, rather than with the theme.”
Greg Dean, who has worked with Nodler since the beginning of Infernal Bridegroom (Parsons says he and other striving actors looked up to Dean while at the University of Houston), agrees. “He’s gotten less attached to ideas about things,” he says. “He’ll try things out, then scraps it. It’s like a palimpsest. It’s written, erased and written on again. And all the traces remain.”
By 2003, what used to be a ragtag group of kids was a professional nonprofit company with five full-time staffers and a budget of $350,000. Back in the 1990s, those who said, “I want to start a theater company” would be laughed at, Dean says. Nodler’s company changed that, and he had become a public figure in the Houston arts scene.
But he was still the best friend of the boy down the block who hanged himself, still the manic depressive radical right-to-die guy who, years later, during an interview at Double Trouble, says: “We don’t ask to be born. I don’t feel we have an obligation to live. I was never angry with my friend for committing suicide. People get angry when friends do that; they say it’s selfish. What I say back is, if someone is in such incredible pain that they have decided to end their own life, and you want them to stick around longer so you won’t be upset, who’s really selfish?”
A lasting legacy
In 2003, at the height of Infernal Bridegroom, Nodler, still struggling with depression, could no longer keep up appearances.
He told the community he was leaving Houston for various reasons, but it was really because “I couldn’t keep it up anymore,” he says. “I wasn’t in a hurry to die. I was just finished with living.”
He left town with plans of suicide. Not wanting family or friends to find his body, he drove to places such as Albuquerque, N.M., where no one knew him. He earned money as a technical writer and worked as a freelance director in Pittsburgh, in Atlanta and at a theater in Providence, R.I., called The Perishable Theatre. “It has since perished,” Nodler says.
Things, apparently, did not go as planned. During his travels, he got distracted by whatever brought him joy – big or small.
“It was like, I could do it now, but in two months they’re going to premiere the new Batman franchise,” he says. “I’d like to see that before I die.”
He fell in love and ended up back in Houston at the helm of Infernal Bridegroom. After the company went under due to a financial controversy in 2007, the Catastrophic Theatre emerged, with none of the anger, over-drinking and personal toil of a group of twentysomethings but all the same yearning for the truth.
In the early days, everyone knew what he and his company stood against, but what did they stand for? With youthful fury morphing into the calm sorrow of his 30s and 40s, Nodler inched closer to the answer.
That answer’s not for everyone. Nodler doesn’t care about appealing to everyone. Some may say the Catastrophic Theatre presents “depressing plays.” “To us it’s not depressing,” Dean says. “It’s taking the painful things you see around you everyday, the things you see in the world, and making something wonderful about it.”
Nodler presents stories about isolation because if he can make one person feel less alone, then he’s done his job. He’d rather make art for that one person than dumb down the content for everyone else.
Sure, many artists will tell you art saved their lives. But many of those life-and-art-affirming platitudes ring hollow compared to how Nodler talks about the Catastrophic Theatre, which is with warmth and dedication, the same way he talks about his boyhood “twin,” Jeff Silverman.
No, Nodler rarely ever feels good these days.
The Lyme takes over his entire body, in spasms called herxing. “It’s the urgent, desperate need to jump out of my own skin,” he says. Other times, “It feels like I’ve lost my tether to the world. I’ve lost the ability to metabolize love.” But during the three, four hours of rehearsal each day, he gets to have fun.
These rehearsals are the most joyous moments in his life. Nodler will often open up to his actors and leave the room in embarrassment, paving the way for the actors to access their own vulnerabilities to shape their performances.
And the Catastrophic Theatre, though informed by Nodler’s worldview, might be the ultimate exception to what he learned about life when he was 13.
“Even though the first truth of my life is, ‘All is temporary,’ I think of this theater as something that won’t be,” he says, sipping his iced coffee, then grabbing another pack of Kools from his bag. “I hope it will last forever. I hope it will always be there. I won’t know.”