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Drama & Tonic

Why Austin theatres are adding mixed drinks to the mix, offstage and on

By Robert Faires, Fri., July 5, 2013

Drama & Tonic

"What'll you have?"

Used to be a simple enough question to answer at a local playhouse – I mean, if you had a thirst for an adult beverage, what were your options besides a can of Lone Star or whatever jug wine was cheapest at H-E-B that week? Now, though, you look behind the bar – not a concessions counter but a bona fide bar – and you face a range of lagers, ales, and varietals, and what's that lining the shelves with them? Liquor? Sure enough, enough vodkas and gins and bourbons and tequilas to drown the cast of Cats. Maybe you'd write this off as just another sign of the ritzification of Austin – the ousting of the cheap and casual (Pearl, Liberty Lunch) for the pricey and hipsterish (craft cocktails, SoCo) – but you're at one of the established indie theatres on the Eastside.

In March, the Vortex – yes, the home to all those ritual-theatre spectacles and homegrown musicals about fairy-tale heroines, goddesses, and elementals – obtained a liquor license for its in-house lounge, the Butterfly Bar, and now you can sip a mojito or martini with your next cyberopera. Theatre founder and Producing Artistic Director Bonnie Cullum has been working toward this for several years, steadily upgrading what was originally a bare-bones lobby area into a cozy venue for enjoying libations. The idea was to create a place where patrons might arrive early enough to have a few drinks before the show or stick around afterward instead of going somewhere else. If they liked it well enough, they might even show up on nights when there wasn't a play, just to wet their whistle. "Through the years, the challenge when people finish the show is always 'Where are we gonna go now?'" says Cullum. "If they could stay here, and the actors and audience could intersect and be able to talk about the show, and some of the people come in from Salvage Vanguard and some of the restaurants on Manor Road when they close, plus the neighbors, then it starts to be this great cross-section of people."

The plan appears to be working. Cullum reports a steady increase in business over the past year, such that the Butterfly now sees action all week long. "We're looking at this year's budget being double what it was two years ago, and that's primarily because of the bar," she says. "Now we have a barback every night, because it's that busy."

And with the bar part of the theatre, when the bar does well, so does the Vortex. "It's not like we're making a ton of money [from the bar]," Cullum allows, "but if it's enough to help support the infrastructure and pay the bills, then the overhead on the building doesn't have to come out of the box-office revenue."

Elisbeth Challener knows what Cullum is talking about. The managing director for Zach Theatre has watched an uptick in her company's revenue stream since obtaining a liquor license last year. While Zach patrons are still discovering that the theatre offers cocktails, along with higher-quality beers and wines, Challener says "the financials are 60-64 percent better than where we were last year. And that will increase as people become more aware of the [bar as a] destination."

As with the Vortex, Zach had long seen a liquor upgrade as an added draw for patrons and a boost to the theatre's bottom line. "If we're able to make profits from something like a bar, then we have more streams of income that can support the art onstage, which is what it's all about," says Challener. But the investments necessary for that kind of upgrade – storage for drinks and equipment, lounge space, signage, hired staff (as opposed to volunteers) – wasn't practical for the Kleberg and Whisenhunt stages. But when the 420-seat Topfer Theatre was being designed, it created the opportunity for Zach to make the change – and the move was rooted in the experience of the patron.

Katherine Smith tends the Butterfly Bar.
Katherine Smith tends the Butterfly Bar.
Photo by Jana Birchum

"This really started when we were working with Andersson-Wiseon the [Topfer] design,"says Challener. "Arthur [Andersson] would talk about the experience of going to the theatre starting long before you're in the theatre. The experience shouldn't just be that you're enjoying yourself when you're in your seat and immersed in the production. That enjoyment and the things you look forward to are the experience beforehand, which is both your physical setting – the bars themselves – and the choices you have for a favorite beverage, be it alcoholic or not, as well as a sort of creativity."

Creativity – a quality that was paramount in crafting the new cocktail menus for both Zach and the Vortex. Cullum and her bar staff spent weeks developing the Butterfly menu. Their starting point was vintage versions of cocktails from the Twenties and Thirties, which they tasted and tweaked for distinctive tastes. For instance, bartender Katherine Smith developed the Vortex mojito using a darker rum that was spiced to give it "a little more of a kick." Cullum wanted a signature cocktail that people would come for repeatedly like "the butterfly would go back to the flower over and over again." She and the bartenders honed their vodka infusion with ginger, orange, mango, and dried peppers until it had the perfect proportions of "the sweet and the zing."

Zach developed its own signature drinks, too – can you say Zacharita? – but took that process a step further by developing special cocktails for each season show. Food and Beverage Manager Rick Ryan – the point person on the cocktail front this past season – would craft five to 10 original cocktails using a few base liquors. With One Night With Janis, the Joplin musical opening July 10, he leaned heavily on vodka and bourbon to create variations on margaritas, Manhattans, and rickeys with Janis-themed names like Summertime and Easy Rider. "When I started pulling this program together, I knew that it was an introduction to an experience," Ryan says. "If there's one thing that rings true for the theatre, you're going for the experience, and that's what I wanted to bring out."

That spirit of creativity also appealed to Hank Cathey, culinary arts coordinator for Fusebox Festival, in curating its Digestible Feats series, which teams writers and artists in the performing arts with creatives from the realms of cuisine and mixology. He and Fusebox founder Ron Berry had been exploring the craft cocktail scene together and discussing "how much creativity there was in that world. We have this whole category of creative endeavors that people aren't thinking of in that way, so how do we expose that element? And how do we create events where all of the senses are engaged? Of course, in terms of aroma and taste, food and drink are the direct path to that, and Fusebox specializes in this hybrid arts ideal, so that was just another category of creative work to bring into the fold."

In the series, Cathey has been able to provide drinks that are not just related to the show but are part of the show. Bottled-in-Bond teamed playwrights Steve Moore and Zeb L. West with mixologist Jason Stevens for a theatrical experience in which each of the five scenes included a different drink specially crafted to accompany the action and mood of the scene. Because the piece also called on audience members to assume roles in the performance, the consumption of the alcohol helped them loosen up and participate a little more freely than they might have under more sober circumstances. "It was like a party game," says Cathey. "These people who were strangers ended up going to the most amazing party, in a way – loosening up together, getting closer, talking between [scenes], exclaiming over this and that. And when they left, they left as a group. I had some people walk in a little grumpy, but no one left unhappy.

"That's something that we want to dismiss or not talk about because it's like, 'Oh, people are just getting drunk, blah blah blah.' But people go to performance for all kinds of reasons, and one reason is to leave behind their world and enter something new and to be presented with something they've never seen before, never felt before. The alcohol can help them open up a little more to those kinds of opportunities."

Ultimately, Cathey is talking about liquor's potential to bring people together, which is just what Challener and Cullum are talking about with their bars: These are places where people can gather and share experience, where they can form community. As more theatres add liquor to the mix, that's what they're doing it for. "It's not just going to get a drink," says Smith. "We try to treat [our patrons] like they're friends, like we're part of the community with them."

Not that this should be news to anybody. As Cathey notes, "Theatre, drink, Dionysus – these things go back a long time together."

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