- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
At one time, Rob Nash was ubiquitous in Austin. Stand-up comedy. One-performer plays. Writing and acting classes.
Then he left our town and explored new options, including time as a high school theater teacher, before settling back in his hometown of Houston. Austin fans missed him and his rare sense of humor sorely.
Dec. 14-17, he returns to his Austin creative home, the Vortex, to perform “Holy Cross Sucks!” a solo play with multiple characters that returns to material about an all-boys Catholic high school, based in part on his youth at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston. He’ll record in front of live audiences and hopes to use the product to pitch a 13-episode series based on the material to cable networks.
American-Statesman: How long have the Holy Cross characters been with you?
Rob Nash: Twenty years. Before that, Mr. Smith was in my first plays, starting with “12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional You.” So he’s been around 25 years. He’s a lot like me in that he makes his grumpiness funny in the “Dysfunctional Family Trilogy.” But as a supporting character in “Holy Cross Sucks!” he’s more the ideal teacher/father figure. I’ve taught public school and found that kind of character is easier for me to create (for the stage) than to embody.
Have the characters taken on lives of their own?
Absolutely. Eight years ago, I wrote half a novel about Ben, George and Johnny and their lives before they met at Holy Cross, “Childhood Sucks!” Their back stories are rich. I wrote it at Café Caffeine. Alex Jones’ studio was across the street. If only I’d gained the notoriety he has since then.
You took your shows around the country, including New York City. Were the characters understood differently in different markets?
Well, any answer to that is going to be between a wild and an educated guess. The whole venture started out as four separate plays, “Freshman Year Sucks,” “Sophomore Slump,” “Junior Blues” and “Senioritis.” So, the characters lost a lot of dialogue and my performances of them got sharper, but their essence is much the same since conception.
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Does the current play condense what’s in the other plays?
“Holy Cross Sucks!” turned four plays that totaled 5.5 hours into 83 lean, mean minutes. Many characters and subplots were eliminated. Post-“Senioritis,” a few scenes were created to establish their meetings and their bonds. I’ve got ideas and a few pages about them from birth to death. So, we’ll see what the future holds.
Does that affect your understanding of the material?
Yes. When I created Mr. Smith, I was 25 and he was about 30. Now I’m 50. The boys were born in 1967 like me. My real life high school friends were, too. But this is their lives from 14 to 18 years of age. The world has changed immensely.
I never thought I’d live to see gay marriage, a black president or an incompetent, man-child president. You must remember that in the ’80s, being gay was a very dangerous thing to let others know about. It’s weird to be old enough to say, “it was a different time,” but it was. And geeks were not sexy. We were outcasts and hazed mercilessly.
My generation is the first one to begin school in the late ’60s/early ’70s with hippie messages about being yourself and accepting all kinds of people, but we really didn’t exemplify it until we got older and helped raise the millennial generation, which, while I’m jealous of how they were raised and how much self-esteem they have, I don’t support the whiny bashing of them. They are insanely accepting of difference and they are going to save us all from the devastating effects Reagonomics has had on the world. Also, they could easily ban Social Security in 20 years and reinstate it in 40. So Gen X and Boomers — shut up please.
You’ve said that your story in ways parallels the story arc of the characters. How so?
Mr. Fred Smith, created in 1995, was an unsuccessful writer who moved in with his mom to help raise his nephews and nieces. When I carried him over to the “Holy Cross” plays, he became the ideal cool teacher.
My father passed away before Hurricane Harvey. I live with Mom because I want her to live in her home around her friends for as long as she can.
Also, I have spent the last 16 years — especially the last six — feeling like an unsuccessful writer, because from age 23 to my early 40s, I never made it through a year without mooching from credit cards, friends, family and social services. I tried teaching and there’s too much to learn to be effective. I bored the kids and played whack-a-mole all day trying to manage their atrocious behavior.
You have to be immaculately organized to be a good teacher. The bureaucracy, the meaningful tasks, the downright hateful parents, voters and politicians who play Monday morning quarterback for a game they never saw! That takes years to manage.
Also, I went to private schools 30+ years ago and I have no kids, so I don’t know what it’s like to contain my reaction to the behavior and attitudes of kids who have no idea how much I care and what I’m doing for them. I confess I didn’t want to suffer several years of abuse and ineffectiveness to get good at it. So, I went on to be unsuccessful at waiting tables, selling gym memberships and doing social work.
Writing and acting and teaching others how to do it is all I got … everything I thought I hated about getting work to the stage or the screen is a blissful heaven compared to all the things I tried to replace it with.
You are back at the Vortex. How does that affect the work, if at all?
The most functional, long-term, professional relationship in my life is my relationship with (artistic director) Bonnie Cullum and the Vortex. We go into creative machine mold and she and the artists and volunteers of Austin support me as I write, learn, block, design, promote and perform my work. My career would not exist without Bonnie and the Vortex.
What should your new Austin fans know about your life?
I’m in long-term recovery, 13 years, from alcoholism and drug abuse and I deal with acute depression and anxiety. If you isolate and live in your room and your head, eventually these mental illnesses will convince you can’t be who you are to survive in this world. And I was convinced I had to take jobs I either was not good at or I despised to be a grown up and to stop mooching. Get out of your room, get out of your head and be in the physical and emotional worlds of people who believe in you. Be in life-long conversations. Give and take love and support every day. I know many people of my generation who isolate and make themselves more and more miserable. It does not have to be like that.