Performance Park Takes Over the Vortex
Bonnie Cullum's dream wakes the Tarot into life in her company's immersive theatrical experience
The Vortex Repertory Company, that provocative and often ritual-inspired theatre group helmed by Bonnie Cullum for three decades now, is not being kicked out of its longtime home on Manor Road. Damned unusual that, given the current trends of this growth-wracked city. But that same theatre company is something of a stranger within the very compound it owns – a space it shares with Patrizi's Italian restaurant and the Butterfly Bar.
"A lot of people who come here now," says Cullum, "they never go through the doors into the theatre." A lot of those people, in fact, may not even realize that the theatre exists. Patrizi's, the Butterfly – those are destinations in and of themselves, regardless of a person's other cultural interests, and the surrounding grounds have become a popular Eastside neighborhood hang.
Performance Park, a theatrical event that will encompass all the areas of the Vortex compound in its eight-week run, is what will bind these disparate elements together.
"We were trying to figure out how we might intersect these different audiences," says Cullum. "How could we make an experience that bar patrons could engage in kind of superficially, that people waiting in line at Patrizi's could be entertained by? So that someone who's experiencing it even tangentially will enjoy, ah, that really kickass song, or they'll marvel at the roaming performers. There'll be this edge of entertainment where, even if you're not playing, even if you're just there having a sangria with your girlfriend, the whole thing is happening around you."
The whole thing is immersive, partaking of theatre and dance and improv and script and sculptural installations and an overarching mystery to be solved piece by piece.
"It's theatre with embedded game layers," says Cullum, who came up with the idea while she slept. "I started working on it a few years ago, when I had this dream where the audiences were out here in the yard, singing and dancing and dressed in costumes, everybody a part of the show. And after I'd already created the Performance Park structure, I did go to see Sleep No More and Then She Fell in New York," she adds, referring to two of the most popular immersive works today, the former being Punchdrunk Theatre's production inspired by Macbeth in which audiences wander through a hotel, following scenes and characters at will; the latter being Third Rail Projects' production in which a three-story hospital becomes a dreamscape for Lewis Carroll's tales of Alice in Wonderland. "I wanted to see how many good ideas I could steal from them about audience control, crowd control. How were they handling the people? How were they informing the people? What kinds of containers did they have on that work? That was what I was most interested in exploring – because those shows are really, really different from what I'm making – but it was very good for me to go."
And when you go to Performance Park, reader, what will that be like? Cullum's created some phantasmagoric shows for the Vortex over the decades – The X and Y Trilogy and other cybernetic operas with Chad Salvata, her own Holy Well, Sacred Flame; Dark Goddess; Sleeping Beauty, and more – and she remains unafraid to bring her personal predilections to the fore in what's being staged now. Esoteric mythologies, diverse cultural representation, the intersections of ritual and spectacle: All of it figures into the mix of this production.
"It's an interactive scavenger hunt involving the major arcana of the Tarot," says Cullum. "And then we've got the Celestials – the Star, Gaia, the Moon and Sun – and they're doing a lot of the dance. And we've got Melissa Vogt, who's an amazing Baba Yaga. And Content Love Knowles is Death. And – it's a lot of people, it's a cast of 28 performers. We're pulling out a couple dozen vintage Vortex costumes, things from the operas, from my fantasy work, and amazing gowns that were built and worn for just one show, and we're modifying these pieces into the clothes of the Tarot. So, in a way, Performance Park is a Vortex deck – the deck of cards is perfectly suited to belong right here. These major arcana grew up in the Vortex, and that creates an interesting meta-layer to what's going on in the show."
Producing theatre for 30 years – first, wherever possible in Austin; then, for four years at an abandoned multiplex cinema on Ben White; since 1994, in the increasingly busy compound on Manor Road – yes, that will provide an artist many layers, basic and meta, with which to work. Hell, Performance Park is a new, unique creation; but its construction and execution could also serve as a condensed, funhouse-mirror version of the company's own history.
"We've got nine different sets," says Cullum, "and the map will show you all the places you might go over the course of the evening. So you'll come to the gate, and you'll basically be initiated into the Performance Park – as a citizen. The Fool and the Lovers will be there to help get you started, and everybody will get a tool kit when they come in. There are different prices, $15, $25, and $35, and if you get the more expensive one, you'll get more head starts on the mystery – but each kit will contain a map with a check-off card where you can note which characters you've met. Ideally, you'll try to meet everybody, but some people won't, they'll get stuck somewhere and end up playing longer than they planned. Maybe they'll be on the Midway. Or they'll get trapped in the Devil's Lounge – like ya do."
Cullum smiles, looking out over the Vortex yard where several crews are building sets, revamping the former greenhouse known as the Pony Shed, constructing the iconic Tower that will center the Midway. Much of the production team consists of longtime members of the Vortex family. Ann Marie Gordon and Griffon Ramsey are designing the sets; Patrick Anthony is doing the lighting; Pam Fletcher Friday is designing the costumes. Including the performers, the stage managers, the technicians and composers and designers and everybody, there are around 70 artists collaborating on this project. Maybe knowing how good their work can be is part of what's got Cullum smiling; maybe it's imagining the delight of an engaged audience.
"It's a choose-your-own-adventure," she says. "So you're running around with your tool kit, interacting with the characters, having fun, trying to solve the mysteries and gather tokens and tools and keys. And once you get enough stuff, you can finally advance to that more intimate experience – which is happening in the Magician's Sanctum."
Uh, hold on, now. The Magician's ... what?
Cullum smiles a different sort of smile this time. It's a smile that says we'll just have to attend and, if we can, solve the mystery for ourselves. If – among the complex textures and tropes of this roamable Performance Park – such a discovery is, you might say, in the cards.
For an expanded look at Performance Park, visit austinchronicle.com/photos.