Audiences will find a very different kind of holiday spirit in Queen of Basel. (Photo by Matt Mrozek)
Tamarie Cooper and Tasha Gorel play family members who pray together to weather storms. )(Photo by Anthony Rathbun)
A Art Basel triangle in Miami. (Photo by Matt Mrozek)
Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso (Christine), Kat Lozano (Julie) & Lee George (John) in Queen of Basel (Photo by Matt Mrozek)
There's no Scrooge in Baby Screams Miracle, but there is one odd storytelling grandmother (Rebecca Randall). (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)
Lighting a candle in the storm in Baby Screams Miracle. (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)
All across Texas stages, many an actor is putting on his or her best Victorian nightcap, furry hoodie, belled boots, or training wings to become a Scrooge, Santa, elf or probationary angel. Yes, the holiday theater season has come to pretty much all of Texas with a naughty or nice holiday-themed show for almost every taste.
Yet for those theater-lovers who find little cheer in the avalanche of tinsel decorated comedies and musicals, two theater companies, Catastrophic Theatre in Houston and Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, have carried on their own annual tradition of gifting alternatives to Texas audiences.
By coincidence, both companies this November through December are offering very contemporary plays by up and coming female playwrights — Claire Barron’s Baby Screams Miracle at Catastrophic and Hilary Bettis’s Queen of Basel from Kitchen Dog. To get an understanding why both companies choose such unconventional theatrical programming during this most traditional time of the year for Texas performing arts, PaperCity talked to Catastrophic co-founders and artistic directors Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper and Kitchen Dog’s pack co-artistic director Tina Parker.
Life and Holiday Complexities
Discussing the vital but sometimes simple messages of generosity or life appreciation that stories like Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life give, Nodler explains that though he loves those shows most of the time life doesn’t give such easy answers.
“Those are wonderful messages but family is very complicated,” he says. “I think it’s rare to have a hundred percent happy feelings all throughout the holidays about the season and about family, so we don’t typically see a lot of plays that honor those complicated feelings.”
Cooper empathizes the Catastrophic philosophy that pushes them to produce plays of ambiguity with no one message or meaning, and says those ideals become even more important for a play they produce during this time of year.
“Throughout any of our programming we don’t give you a clear: this is what you’re supposed to think or feel about the play. Whatever feeling you have is valid,” she assures.
“We’re trying to maintain as many possibilities as we can to expand the ability of various audiences members with various life experiences to draw an association with their life,” Nodler chimes in.
Nodler and Cooper reminisce that in the early days of the company they simply had no real interest in producing a holiday-themed play, but in later years that became a conscious decision to find plays with no seasonal setting or moral but still explored some of the conflicts and complexities of feelings we wrestle with during celebrations and family visits. Many of those plays have dealt with family, marriages or our place in larger communities.
“Sometime you can be surrounded by a group of people who love you and feel lonely,” Cooper notes.
Though they did once product Craig Lucas’s dark holiday comedy Reckless, Parker explains that the choice to sidestep traditional holiday plays has more to do with Kitchen Dog’s focus on producing work that asks challenging questions about justice, morality and freedom.
“First and foremost, our season selection is always mission based — regardless of when the play is slotted,” Parker explains. “Does the play raise questions about what’s happening in the world around us? Does it give insight to experiences other than our own?”
Still she thinks a production that does question and challenge in those ways can be thought of as taking on some of the ideas raised in traditional seasonal shows.
The work Kitchen Dog produce throughout the year asks audiences to “Walk in some one else’s shoes for 90 minutes and then leave thinking about how we can be better, more proactive in our own lives and/or have more empathy for our fellow human beings.” she explains. “Ultimately I think is what’s really the meaning of the holidays, no?
“Love others, live in the moment, be the best version of ourselves? Because life is too short.”
Alternate Theatrical Giving
This year, Baby Screams Miracle certainly fall within Catastrophic’s tradition of presenting plays about family with a twist, as a kind of prodigal daughter comes home to visit her religious family and seems to bring a, well, catastrophic storm that follows them wherever they seek shelter.
“I think because Baby Screams Miracle in particular does speak to prayer and faith it felt like a good fit for this slot this year,” says Cooper, who also plays the mother in the story.
“The family is using prayer to try and repair things that might need mending. It doesn’t always work, though sometimes it does work. But the fact that they’re trying felt right for this time of year,” offers Nodler who believes the plays offers many positive things we get from family relationships. “The play has so much love in it.”
Queen of Basel, which refers to the annual Art Basel in Miami, is a loose take on Strindberg’s Miss Julie and features a similar, but very much updated, kind of class and sexual power dynamics between a real estate heiress, a cocktail waitress and her Uber driving fiancé.
While the placement of Queen of Basel in their season had more to do with space and cast scheduling than holiday counter-programming, Parker explains it does now feel like it belongs as their last show of the year.
“To quote the playwright Hilary Bettis: The play has really become a story about the cycles of trauma we pass from generation to generation, person to person, and if we can face our trauma, our own pain, maybe we can heal,” Parker explains but then connects back to this most wonderful time of year. “Healing and renewal — definitely recurring themes as we all start a new year, no?”
And Parker finds that every year some Dallas audiences are ready for alternatives.
“It’s usually one of the best attended slots in our season actually. I think similarly this is when the film industry puts out the award level films- the hard hitting or challenging indies- which is right in line with the kind of plays Kitchen Dog has produced for 29 seasons,” she describes. “Patrons are also looking for unique, engaging experiences where they can take their guests or family- have an outing together.”
While Catastrophic has somewhat of a reputation of presenting absurdist plays that can run to the darkest of comedies, Nodler has another perspective on their seasons and the kinds of plays they gift Houston every November/December.
“We’re really trying to give the audience a hug, but we’re not running up to squeeze them. It’s a gentle hug that says: it’s O.K to feel all the ways you feel.”
Catastrophic Theatre’s production of Baby Screams Miracle runs now through December 15 at the MATCH. Kitchen Dog Theater’s production of Queen of Basel runs now through December 15 at Trinity River Arts Center.