Working Beauty

In spinning a fairy tale of gifts, outsiders, and thorns, Bonnie Cullum's own story gets told

Working Beauty
Photo By Bret Brookshire

At this moment Bonnie Cullum probably envies Sleeping Beauty. The artistic director of the Vortex has had a very heavy week, laboring over a big grant proposal for the Rockefeller Foundation, organizing and producing the Dark Goddess Ball to raise funds for her theatre, and rehearsing a new original musical based on the Brothers Grimm tale of the slumbering princess, a project for which she's not only the director but also co-author. The prospect of 100 years of uninterrupted rest must sound mighty appealing, but Cullum has miles to go before she sleeps. While the ball is behind her and the grant's in the mail, she still has 10 days to go before Sleeping Beauty opens, which means she's just heading into the nightmare part of the process known as tech: long days that stretch deep into night as all of the production's technical elements – lights, costumes, set, sound, music – are brought together for the first time and slowly, laboriously integrated into the show.

On the surface, the world of Bonnie Cullum doesn't look much like that of a fairy tale. No tiara adorns her brow as she sits in rehearsal. No jeweled sceptre extends from her hand as she directs her actors. When a piece of equipment wears out, no fairy godmother pops up to transform it into top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art techno-gadgetry. And the rehabilitated tin barn that houses Cullum's theatre in no way resembles the castles in which princesses may be found. And yet a deeper look at Cullum's world reveals risks and dangers, courage and perseverance, charms and transformations, and liberating triumphs – in short, the same qualities of character, mythic challenges, and dramatic choices facing its heroines and heroes, as in those old tales of enchantment.

Okay, so viewed in such broad terms, we can all be said to live in a fairy-tale world. It's Joseph Campbell 101: We're all on the hero's journey. But more than most of us, Cullum has a deep appreciation for the way life and myth intersect, and it has informed much of her stage work. In fact, one of the things that's distinguished her most in our arts scene is her exploration of myth and ritual in a theatrical context. In the earliest years of the Vortex Repertory Company, when it was housed in an abandoned three-theatre cinema on East Ben White, Cullum was tapping the power of myth in works such as Metamorpheus and Kassandra, and she's kept at it for 16 years and counting, right through 2003's Holy Well, Sacred Flame and the phenomenally popular Dark Goddess series. In some ways, Sleeping Beauty is simply the latest walk into these woods, but as much as any before it and maybe more than most, this new family-friendly musical spins the story of the artist leading the way.

The Gifts

In the Grimm Brothers' telling of Sleeping Beauty, the king is so delighted with his newborn daughter that he hosts a feast, to which he invites all the wise women of his land. Well, almost all. There are 13, and he only invites 12, which provokes the one who was snubbed to crash the party and lay a curse of death on the innocent girl, a curse that's softened to a centurylong nap through the intervention of another wise woman. Before they'd been so rudely interrupted, the wise women had been bestowing gifts on the princess: virtue, beauty, riches, and, the Grimms say, "everything in the world that one can wish for."

Last year, Cullum was invited to lead a workshop on Sleeping Beauty at a women's camp near Bremen, Germany, so she began studying the story for underlying meaning. For her, the bestowing of gifts held significance, as every one of us receives gifts from wise ones among us – parents, teachers, mentors – and it's worth noting what they are and how they've affected our lives.

Cullum is very conscious of the gifts she's received from her parents. "They're both really gifted, both incredibly brilliant artists, and big free thinkers," she says. They divorced when Cullum was only 4, but both have contributed much to her character. Her mother, playwright and educator Susan Kelso, "is very compassionate and emotional," Cullum notes, "and from her I get wisdom, intelligence, and organizational skills." These are at the heart of Cullum's artistry, the qualities that enable her to feel and understand what a play is saying and then get it on a stage, collaborating with different artists and staying on top of the thousand details that go into a production.

Her perseverance and drive Cullum credits to her father, Jim Cullum, the Dixieland musician and bandleader who became a legend on the San Antonio Riverwalk. He's able, she says, "to succeed against almost all odds, to do it consistently and repeatedly." Those qualities have been invaluable to Bonnie Cullum as she's fought to keep a theatre running for 17 years, especially one that's typically ventured far afield of mainstream fare and courted controversy with outspoken political and cultural material. Without perseverance and drive, how likely would it be that the Vortex would have survived the loss of its first space and made a new home out of a dilapidated old barn?

Emma McNairy as Princess Briar Rose in <i>Sleeping Beauty</i> at the Vortex
Emma McNairy as Princess Briar Rose in Sleeping Beauty at the Vortex

Her history with Vortex is spangled with other gifts, one of the first and certainly the biggest being that space on Ben White – 17,000 square feet, upstairs and down, with three theatres and a big lobby. It was more or less given to Cullum and Vortex co-founder Steve Bacher by developer Trammell Crow to play in until the property was bought and razed. ("We didn't have any resources when we moved into that space," Cullum recalls. "We didn't own a lighting instrument or a chair. We had no business taking that space. [But] we were like, 'The building's cheap, the economy's in bust, they'll let us go in there and make theatre on a month-to-month basis, you know, what the hell? Let's try it.' We opened Beirut and took the proceeds from that opening weekend and bought more folding chairs. We kept taking the money we were making and were like, 'Okay, we can buy some more clamp lamps, so we can have more lighting.' It was crazy!")

Ever since, numerous artists and friends have given of themselves to build sets, hang lights, take tickets, perform, design, turn an old barn into a working theatre, contribute a few bucks, to do whatever they could to help the theatre. When Cullum revisits the history of Vortex, their names come quickly to her lips. They are a living part of this creative enterprise of which she is the steward, and she can't forget their contributions.

The Outsider

It's said that every figure in a dream represents the dreamer in some way. So it is in fairy tales, where we're reflected not just in the heroine or hero but in the darker figures, too. Thus, we're Sleeping Beauty and the 13th wise woman (or faery, as she is in the Vortex play). After all, Cullum says, haven't we all known the pain of not being invited to the feast, of being cast out, rejected?

Certainly, Cullum and her company have. From the outset, Vortex has taken on social injustice, the religious right, and repressive conservatism in a steady stream of politically charged productions from the reign of George the First (1000 Points of Light, Beirut, In Chains, Killers) through the Clinton years (Khafji, Dirty Money) and the reign of George the Deuce (Shopping and Fucking, The Uncle Cuddles and Spiccy the Clown Show). It's also opened its doors to artists outside the mainstream, providing a place for them to speak their minds, whether the subject is porn (Annie Sprinkle), being gay (Quentin Crisp, Tim Miller, Jade Esteban Estrada, Jim Chappeleaux), being disabled (Greg Walloch), opposition to the Iraq war (Kathryn Blume), or other leftist, bohemian points of view (Penny Arcade, Karen Finley). Such unrepentant radicalism in the face of a national mania for "family values" led to the Vortex being branded as sinful faster than Hester Prynne (who's seen life on the Vortex stage) and made it that rare arts group in town to merit a mention on talk radio. It's also led to some empty seats at the Vortex, even for shows that weren't so provocative.

But it isn't just the politics that's fed the Vortex's outsider status. There's the company's experimental streak, playing with form and dishing up such envelope-pushing fare as cybernetic operas (The X&Y Trilogy, Elytra) and pagan ritual dramas (the aforementioned Holy Well, Sacred Flame and Dark Goddess) that leave some theatregoers cold and alienated. And there's the nudity, the topic of much chatter (and exaggeration) through the years but which nonetheless has figured into many Vortex shows and does still make some folks uncomfortable. Look at the theatre's locations for a symbol of its place in the community: far beyond where people are used to going for theatre. The Vortex home on Ben White was farther south and east than any theatre in its day, and even when it moved to Manor Road, it was the Eastside's only stage at the time.

Vortex has been marginalized for its positions on the fringes and not just from the right. It's gotten short shrift from the theatre community and, yes, critics in terms of recognition for its work. It took many years for Vortex's name to show up with any regularity in nominations for the B. Iden Payne and Austin Critics Table awards. That's changed of late, but some of its experiments are still dismissed by theatre insiders, some of whom still restrict the Vortex to a sex-and-violence pigeonhole. When Cullum told the Texas Commission on the Arts that she'd be doing Sleeping Beauty, she was asked "if it was Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty. They assumed it was the S&M, vampiric take."

Over time, however, the things that have kept the Vortex on the outside have become its strengths. The Eastside has become the place for hot theatre, and a loyal community has rallied around Vortex's championing of new work, political views, and artistic home for those without. "I've seen many, many people make a home here," says Cullum. "And other groups and events come here and feel affection for it – the space, the place, the vibe of the Vortex work. You sensed this at the Dark Goddess Ball, these people who were like, 'Well, you're not doing Dark Goddess, but at least we're together doing this.' This is part of their tribe, part of their reality. And these aren't people that I know really well. They just have this passion for this place and the energy and the work. That's something that I didn't see coming. But then one day I woke up and there was this big extended family that feels like this is part of their community space."

The Hedge

In the tale of Sleeping Beauty, after the princess and the spinning wheel have their inevitable rendezvous with destiny and everyone and everything in the castle, even the flies on the wall, nod off, there grows around the castle a hedge of thorns that eventually covers every inch of the castle. This proves quite impenetrable for the young princes seeking a glimpse of the sleeping Briar Rose, as the princess was named, and in fact, most of them got stuck in the thorns and died "a miserable death."

Cullum with members of Vortex Repertory Company 
and Teatro Libertad upon the opening of Planet 
Theatre (now the Vortex) on Manor Road, fall, 1994
Cullum with members of Vortex Repertory Company and Teatro Libertad upon the opening of Planet Theatre (now the Vortex) on Manor Road, fall, 1994

That hedge of thorns makes for a mighty powerful metaphor in life, too. Prickly little problems rise up around you until they're all you can see, or they stand as an obstacle to whatever you're seeking, and you have to figure out a way through them without letting them completely hang you up. "What happens when the hedge grows?" Cullum asks. "How do you deal with it?"

She laughs. For her, the hedge has been more than a metaphor lately; it's been a very literal problem, "quite the challenge of the production." Visually showing the growth of the hedge may be no trouble when you're Disney and can draw it, but it's quite the trick to show live on stage for a theatre company on a limited budget. What Cullum has done here to deal with this hedge of a hedge is what she's commonly done at the Vortex through the years: work it out with others.

It's no coincidence that you see the same names in the programs at the Vortex year after year. Cullum fosters an environment of collaborative creation, where artists are encouraged to contribute and know their work is valued. Like the folks at the Dark Goddess Ball, they develop a "passion for this place and the energy and the work."

The names on the Sleeping Beauty production team are familiar: Content Love Knowles, co-writer, composer, musical director, performer; Ann Marie Gordon, scenic designer; Jason Amato, lighting designer; Kari Perkins, costume designer. They've established the look, the sound, the rhythm, the feel of many a Vortex production. "If I can have Jason and Kari and Ann Marie on a show, I'm in great shape," says Cullum. "We know how to work together. We have a good, deep, long, tumultuous, fabulous history. Makes problem-solving easier. I know what to expect from them. They know what to expect with me." Knowles and she have a relationship of 10 years, from which they draw on a shared love of the work, a sense of each other's likes and dislikes, and that common language of process that makes collaboration move smoothly. "We know how to communicate," says Cullum.

Now, as the Grimm Brothers tell it, timing also makes a huge difference in dealing with life's hedges. The prince who awakens Briar Rose (unnamed in the fairy tale, but in the play Cullum authoritatively christens him Dave) shows up at the castle 100 years to the day after Briar Rose fell asleep, and the hedge's thorns turn to large flowers, which part for Dave and let him pass unhurt.

When Vortex had to leave the Ben White space, Cullum proposed putting the company's stuff in storage and being itinerant for a while, but the company members all told her that it was really important to them to get another space. Hedge. So Cullum spent that summer driving a pickup around town late at night looking at every odd little space that was available and writing down phone numbers, which she'd call the next day. But nothing was right. Then she took a trip to New York and saw some theatre performed in some "horrible places" that led her to think she was "looking for the wrong kind of space." She'd been to the barn on Manor before, but it was just thorns, in awful condition and full of junk. But after New York, she looked at it again and, well, it was more like flowers through which she might pass unhurt. "I was like, 'Maybe this would work,'" she says. Apparently it has. Vortex is now in its 11th year in that space.

Happily Ever After?

We've grown accustomed to hearing fairy tales end with those three little words that assure us that all threats have been dispelled and that promise eternal sunshine for at least a couple of spotless minds. But as our world has grown increasingly skeptical of, if not outright cynical about, all things bright and beautiful, we've found it harder to take comfort from those words. We find it easier to believe in dragons and ogres than everlasting bliss and marital harmony. So with our contemporary sensibilities in mind, Cullum has tweaked her fairy tale's ending somewhat; instead of closing the book on her princess' history with that unrealistic note of permanent happiness, she leaves it open for other adventures, other dangers, possibly even sorrows and tragedies. She makes the change from past to future tense; "lived" becomes "may live." It enables the just-awakened beauty to relish her newfound freedom and to make her own choices, some of which will no doubt defy the expectations others have of her.

That's certainly in line with how Cullum lives her life. There are always new choices to make. First, it was whether or not to take the Ben White space. When they took it and, against all odds, built it into a real theatre, that might have seemed time for "happily ever after," but then that space was gone and there was another choice: new space or no space? When Vortex found a new space and made a new home of it, you might have thought it time for "happily ever after" then, but every year has brought new choices, about renovating the cafe area, about artists to bring in, about which shows to do. Making the decision to do Sleeping Beauty was a choice (and one that defied a few expectations). But now she's created a musical that is as traditional and family-friendly as anything she's ever done: melodies, dances, comic relief, a sweet romance, and a happy ending. And the experience "has been particularly joyous," she says. For Cullum, it's been "a pleasure to come and make a show with these people every night."

The collaborative process, the making of theatre, makes Cullum happy, even when there are hedges. "Even amidst the frustrating technical this or that, it's not working right and gee, that costume is falling off of that girl or whatever, it doesn't matter. There is great joy for me in the rehearsal. It's the joy of seeing it come together. I like seeing the work come together. I like the excitement and the energy of making the production. I like making the art. I like directing. If I didn't like those things, I think I'd be crazy to be doing this."

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Bonnie Cullum who had the idea of making a musical about Sleeping Beauty for her theatre in the land of Austin. And she wrote some words and gathered some friends and they wrote some more words and some songs and made costumes and lights and sets and sounds, and in a very little time, against all odds, they got it together and performed it for the people of their city. And the woman named Bonnie Cullum, who, if she was not a true princess was the next best thing, was pleased. "I love the show," she said. "I like the cast. I love the songs. It makes me happy."

And that's the right place for this story to end. end story

Sleeping Beauty runs through March 26 at the Vortex, 2307 Manor. For more information, call 478-LAVA or visit

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