Vortex vs. Coronavirus: The Shows Really Do Go On

Melissa Vogt explains the how and the why

Given the circumstances, is it surprising that the Vortex is presenting their real-life-and-virtual theatrical megashow called Odyssey and Odyssey: Underworld … or would it be more surprising if they weren’t?

The circumstances? Well, the pandemic, generally speaking. But there are Vortex-specific circumstances that have been nigh on simultaneous with Our Current Situation, and those circumstances are: relentless industry. Because, unlike the other theatre companies in town, the Vortex has been steadily offering – at least online – new productions; and they’ve been just as steadily rebroadcasting videos of old productions; and have been basically filling their node of the internet with all the wild, diverse, serious, comedic, and downright weird material they can come up with.

Melissa Vogt on the job in the Vortex (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Live episodes of Eva McQuade’s Tia Chancla, Benajah T. Baskin’s Throwback Virtual Reading Sessions, the just-wrapped CoviDecameron anthology from Rudy Ramirez, Christine Hoang’s Quarantine Haircut, Nichole Bennett’s Pierce the Veil. All the recordings of Before Times shows like Heartland, Cinema Dada, Roses and Thistles, Spirit, For Fear the Glass May Shatter, and so on. Week after week after week, and never mind those ‘ronas.

So, is the existence of this ambitious, labor-intensive Odyssey of theirs the result of lockdown-aggravated insanity? Or, considering what physics teaches us of momentum, does it make perfect sense? And, in any case, how has the Vortex been able to keep up the sort of steady production/dissemination schedule that’s proven too much for so many other groups? We figured a good person to ask would be the company’s managing director, Melissa Vogt.

Vogt, a woman who has never met an organizing spreadsheet she didn’t like and has been with Vortex Repertory since 2004, is also the head wrangler of Odyssey: Underworld. The South Texas native, a four-time B. Iden Payne Award-winner for her work as an actor and singer – she’s a lovely mezzo-soprano – is known for her roles in many of the musicals seen on the Vortex stage and screens. This is what she told us.

Melissa Vogt: We had to close the theatre back in March. You could see the writing on the wall – when SXSW was canceled, I was like, “It is coming.” We were about to hit tech week for Selfie: The Musical, and the ax dropped. The guillotine. Everything we were working on got cut off kinda mid-stride. And that was … daunting. But, you know, I’m not the type to not take action. I’m a very action-oriented person. I’m like, “Let’s make a plan! Let’s do a thing!”

Austin Chronicle: So you decided to raid the video vault?

MV: I’d already been doing this archival project in the bar, been really deep into all our video archives. And we have such a rich, deep archive of video. And I figured, OK, let’s just start streaming some of this stuff. Some of it’s better than others – the closer in time you get to now, the better the video quality is, because we’ve been hiring a professional – Joe Lozano of Magic Spoon Productions – to do our archival work. But even some of the stuff we’ve got from back in the mid-Nineties and early 2000s, as long as the sound is OK, you can kind of forgive some of the video, ah, hinkiness, right? So I started there.

AC: OK, so you happened to have these video archives that maybe not many theatres have – and you’ve been recording shows for decades. So there’s all the fuss and bother of getting those things up and ready for YouTube or whatever, but you’re also producing new shows at the same time?

MV: Well, we also have a big company of artists who are always working – and, suddenly, they were just twiddling their thumbs. Most of them were about to open a show, and then everything shut down, so where is all that creative energy going to go? We needed to make something. And Eva McQuade and Jen Jennings and Rudy Ramirez and a whole slew of other people just stepped up and were like, “Sure, I want to play, I’ll do some online stuff – interactive stuff, or improv, or script-reading, whatever it takes” and the ball just started rolling.

Melissa Vogt outside the Vortex (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
AC: And now you’ve had about five months’ experience doing this, and what’s the public reaction been?

MV: It varies wildly. Sometimes we’ll have, like, five people tune in. And sometimes we’ll have over a hundred. I noticed that it really depends on the day of the week and what else is going on in the virtual world, as well as what the content is. If it’s a classic re-broadcast of something we’ve done in the past, we have a lot of people come in. Or if it’s new work – people are really into stuff that’s being created for virtual theatre right now – that tends to get a big crowd. Ebony Stewart’s show that we did last week, that got a pretty good crowd. And Tia Chancla – Eva McQuade is my hero, my she-ro, she’s the most amazing person ever. Because every time I’ve been like, “I need something for the schedule, Eva, will you come and chancla?” She’s like, “Yes, I will!” And that show’s been super-popular. And I personally love it, I tune in to every single one to comment. [laughs.] It’s a favorite of my boyfriend, too – he’ll get a whole bunch of friends to watch Tia Chancla.

AC: And now here’s the Odyssey and its Underworld, which seems an almost crazy undertaking, and what comes after that? You’re probably going to just take a break, right?

MV: [laughs] No, I’ve been working with different companies to produce online-specific work. One of them’s an Empty Room project – which is with a bunch of Texas State students – we’re probably going to be doing a full co-production with them. And we’ve also been talking with Bottle Alley Theatre, doing some more work with them. If anything, I feel like the pandemic has opened collaborative opportunities that maybe we just didn't recognize before. It’s made co-producing things easier in some ways, because the production costs are, really, nothing but your time. But we’ve been writing grants, too. We really want to put up Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven in our January/February slot, but that in itself is still uncertain. Like, “Will we be able to?” I don’t know. Will people wear masks and be responsible? I don’t know.

AC: And what makes you – you, Melissa, and the Vortex in general – able to function at such a level of productivity in these harsh times?

MV: You know, there have been weeks where it’s been kind of a struggle. Where I think, oh my gosh, I’m gonna have a bunch of holes in my schedule and I can’t get a hold of people because, understandably, everybody has to have a meltdown or a fall-apart time or whatever. Just a I’m-checking-out-now. But, in general, just doing the work has helped to fill the artistic gap in my own soul. And also, as self-care, I take long walks in the mornings and evenings, to give myself some non-screen time – because I spend a lot of time at the computer. And I’m always making plans. It’s been our guiding philosophy through the pandemic that you have to make plans, even if the goalposts keep shifting. Because, if you’re not making plans, it’s like you’ve given up.

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Vortex Repertory Company, Austin theatre, Vortex, Melissa Vogt, coronavirus, The Vortex Odyssey, Rudy Ramirez, Eva McQuade, Bottle Alley Theatre

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