I always wanted to pay tribute to my favorite theater in Houston, Catastrophic. But for some reason, I could not get anyone to meet me for an interview. This time I was more serious, so I reached for Walt Zipprian, one of the actors I adore from Catastrophic theatre. I know that he is German, so I knew I could count on him. Sure enough, he responded quickly and we met promptly at a restaurant of his choice, Kim Son on Jefferson. I haven’t been there in a century, probably since I last saw “Infernal Bridegroom”, now known as “Catastrophic theatre” performance very nearby the restaurant, in that same neighborhood, at the “Axiom”. Just going to that neighborhood brought back memories of those funny shows that we all loved so much, the great “Tamalalia” shows.
It was lunch time and the first thing that struck me is how tall Walt really is. 6 foot 7. The only other person that I stood next to that was that tall was one of the Rockets players during halftime. We gave each other a hug, but in a very unnatural way, because we are both not the huggy types. Next to his bread baking for relaxation, this is one of the many Germanic traits of Walt.
Walt does not have an accent, but he came to Texas from a small town in Bavaria called Landshut. He works as a medical professional in radiology at Baylor, in other words, he holds a steady job, so that he can pursue his art as a hobby. I think of Walt as “the rock in the world of shadows”. He has a constant smile on his face and he is so easy to talk to. It is never really about me, me, me, like it is with many artists, instead, it is an easy exchange, a flow in the conversation that I feel we are both really enjoying. We stop only when Walt’s boyfriend calls, but that was only for a minute, a couple of times during our lunch meeting.
We know we are not interested in our regular jobs, we are both interested in the creative and artistic that drives us, of course. Walt makes short films, some documentaries, and recently scripted ones. I went on his YouTube channel “MrUnclewalt” to find out about his creative endeavors. One film that really made an impression on me was about a Houston transvestite, Ms. Wendy Chicago. Very dark, depressing film about an older person addicted to alcohol, struggling to survive, yet finding true happiness on stage while performing. This was not a very good performer but somehow this personality drew Walt’s interest. Interest in the dark, unusual, messy and depressing in our (Houston) community is Walt Zipprian’s Beethovenian trait, I think. In the end, Walt is pragmatically optimistic, he looks for the positive light, the one that moves us forward, because we cannot dwell in the darkness for too long?!
Catastrophic theater shows that Walt and I both love are those that dwell on the lighter side of life, make us laugh, make us take a pause, while cleverly observing our (Houston) community. We both love Tamarie’s summer shows, and we admit that we don’t go to see many other Catastrophic shows during the year. This year I did go to see one show during their season, “Trevor”, the gorilla pet, performed brilliantly by Kyle Sturdivant, my favorite Catastrophic actor. This is probably a sign that we should all go to more shows at Catastrophic.
The main reason that both Walt and I love Tamarie’s summer shows is that these are original musicals, with live music, deeply rooted in Houston contemporary culture, written by Tamarie for specific individual actors, ones she has been working with for years. Walt plays Walt, Kyle plays Kyle and one season in 2014 I had the pleasure to join the fabulous Catastrophic live band with my keyboard as a part of the great Catastrophic team. The name of that summer’s show was “ A very Tamarie’s Christmas”. Walt was not in that show, but there was a big party at his house in Midtown. This is how I met him, the tall host, smiling above all his compadres in theatre. There was a lot of theater talk, of course, going into the wee hours of the night.
I have never been a part of the theater team for the duration of any show before, so I learned a lot about this labor of love: we started rehearsals in June and ended with many shows in August. It was almost every night, so I had to dedicate my summer to Catastrophic. My wage was below minimum, but I have to say that to this day I consider my piano job at Catastrophic as one of the strongest and most formative experiences of my life. About a week before our rehearsals started, Tamarie came over to my studio where I told her about how much I love playing my melodica alongside my piano. I played for her as I held it on my lap and blew in it through the pipe, playing it with my right hand, while playing the piano with my left hand. I played my slav-like sounding music. Tamarie then gave me the opportunity to accompany a sad speech by one of the actors with my melodica on stage. I loved this strange duet I had with Greg Dean.
I loved so many actors on stage in the show. John Dunn made me laugh every night, even though I knew every line and every movement….and Kyle, when he came dressed as a big Thanksgiving turkey, it was impeccable, like an energy boost even on the most tired of nights!
Just like in any job, there were a few little things that got on my nerves that summer, one of them being that backstage when the old group of Catastrophics started chatting, a lot of times it was about their grand ol’ time they had at the HSPVA. Those of us (like me and Walt) who came from other countries and other equally great high schools, were never included in these talks. I guess we could have felt a little left out? Could have we possibly been a bit jealous? During these very bonding HSPVA story times, I so wanted to point to them that the most famous actor who started at Catastrophic, formerly known as “Infernal Bridegroom”, also one of the most famous American and global actors, Jim Parsons, did not go to HSPVA. He attended a regular proletariat suburban Klein Oak High School in Houston. In any case, Walt informs me that Jim Parsons did show up to a Catastrophic fundraiser at least once. Catastrophics are very proud of his success and that is evident during their most awesome fundraisers: there is always a life-size standup poster of Jim Parsons there. Very Catastrophic style of doing things…
Walt and I both agree that live music is crucial in Tamarie’s shows. The reason we even mentioned it is because there was a recent year without live music, and that was disappointing to most of us fans. Tamarie’s shows are always funny, sometimes with a political note, actors and audience are having a good time, shows run very smoothly, usually without a glitch but behind it all, there is a very professional and very talented crew, lead by Tamarie’s strong fist. Some actor improvisation gets adopted, but that is a relatively rare event. Music can be really catchy and funny too. One of my favorite parts of the show is seeing Tamarie do a grand finale tap-dance song, Broadway-style. She is a phenomenal writer, actress, and tap-dancer! If you are in the audience, you will be a little surprised at times, then you will be amazed, and most definitely, on the top of it all, you will be entertained, so get ready to enjoy this juicy theater gem of Houston!
I have been inviting my friends to see Tamarie’s summer shows now for years. Without a doubt, she wins hearts of us Houstonians with her clever and super funny scripts. An over the top scene at a local “Whataburger” can send us, the audience into our belly laughter, and for that, we are the most grateful. Personally, I consider comedy, the hardest genre to execute in theater, and also the one that is not given enough respect. My respect for Catastrophic and for all of its participants is only deeper as the years go by. Thank you Tamarie, thank you Catastrophic, and thank you, Walt! Go and see the next Tamarie show this summer. You will fall in love with her, with Houston’s original theatre and maybe even with Houston itself if you are not from here. Walt is the lovely host, the rock of Catastrophic, the artist you can count on, so I chant: Catastrophic and Walt rock! Catastrophic Theatre ist fantastisch!