Nodler and Cooper toast 20 years

Can it really be 20 years since Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper first teamed up on a theater project?

In a word, yes.

Nodler wrote and directed "In the Under Thunderloo," a post-apocalyptic rock musical produced in spring 1993 at punk dive Catal Huyuk, and persuaded Cooper (a fellow High School for Performing and Visual Arts alum) to play a small role and provide incidental choreography. Her one line still is remembered (by Cooper, at least): "What happened to us?"

Nodler and Cooper have been making adventurous theater ever since. "Thunderloo" turned out to be the first show of what would later be named Infernal Bridegroom Productions, becoming Houston's leading avant-garde troupe. Nodler was artistic director for most of its years, and Cooper became a Houston institution for her series of madly irreverent summer musicals purportedly based on her own exploits.

Though Infernal Bridegroom Productions ceased operations in 2007, Nodler, Cooper and other signature talents regrouped the following year to form Catastrophic Theatre. With a series of formidable artistic successes – from a string of memorable Houston premieres of plays by Chicago playwright Mickle Maher to the continuance of Cooper's original musicals – Catastrophic has reclaimed the crown as Houston's foremost avant-garde stage company.

As a nostalgic nod to the crazy kids they were two decades ago, "It Was 20 Years Ago Today" is the theme for Catastrophic's annual fundraising gala Saturday. If there's one thing the Catastrophic gang is famous for – other than hair- (and eyebrow-) raising theater – it's throwing a great party.


Q: What advice would the older and wiser you of today have given the younger and relatively clueless you of 20 years ago?

Nodler: To relax and maybe not to try so hard at forcing things.

Cooper: I would tell me to just trust my instincts; they turned out OK. And I would have warned myself not to date … well, I would give her the list of these certain unspecified persons not to get involved with.


Q: You've got one minute to pay tribute to your longtime collaborator. What would you say?

Nodler: Tamarie is my oldest and perhaps dearest friend, and that's why we work well together. We know each other so intimately, we've lost too many friends, shared so many ups and downs. And that intimacy has been as important as anything else in my artistic or personal life.

Cooper: Jason is really hard to say no to. He has continued to convince me to do pretty much whatever he wants me to do – including moving back here from Portland at one point. I credit him for pushing me, because it's given me a really lovely career. It's very much like a brother-sister relationship – really hard to imagine one without the other.


Q: What's your proudest achievement?

Nodler: Our "pay what you can" policy has been a greater success than anyone anticipated. It's attracted people to take a chance – people who say they'd have never gone to a cultural arts event, but because they could pay what wanted, they came and now they're interested in seeing shows here and at other theaters. I'm also proud of our ensemble work, the years of shared history we bring to working together, that results in a safe environment for experimentation. I always tell them with every show, the production will rise or fall relative to our collective ability to take it personally. I like being part of the only group in Houston that does this kind of work, happy there are people from outside Houston who come here to see us.

Cooper: Well – obviously, besides my daughter – it's the continued opportunities of my original work. I've had many wonderful acting opportunities in other plays, from "Medea" to "Marie and Bruce." But not everyone gets to create a new show every year about her innermost thoughts and feelings. That's satisfying.


Q: What's your ultimate guiding principle for making theater?

Nodler: No thinking, no planning. Follow your nose. We work very intuitively now, emphasizing unconscious emotions. I worry when people tell me, 'You made me think.' What I really want is for them to feel something.

Cooper: Make it truthful. Whether it's being true to the text of an established play or recalling a high school evening gone wrong in one of my original shows, I try to approach everything with a lot of truth.


Q: What can partygoers expect Saturday?

Cooper: It's going to be awesome. One of the many hats I wear is event coordinator, and I'm making the music and performances more a focal point than usual. We're bringing back musicians from "Bluefinger," "Speeding Motorcycle" and the Kinks' "Soap Opera." And there'll be some favorites from my shows, too. (Hint: the celebrated "Bacon Ballet" is back.) People can come in costumes with the '90s theme – grunge, TV characters or whatever – or just in T-shirt and jeans. We're very informal – never the usual stuffy fundraiser.

Nodler: The Last Concert Cafe has a large open area in back, and we're closing the street, so it'll be a street party. It's selling well, so attendance will be strong. Each of our parties distinguishes itself. Having fun is even more of an aim than raising money. Not that the money's not important, too.