BWW Interview: Bonnie Cullum and The Vortex
Continuing our series of articles about Austin performing companies and the artists behind them, we caught up recently with the very busy Bonnie Cullum of The Vortex to ask her about the past, present and future of the popular East Austin venue.
BWW: What is the history of The VORTEX?
BC: Widely-recognized as the pioneering leader in Austin's alterNative Theatre scene, VORTEX Repertory Company was founded in 1988 by University of Texas at Austin graduate students Bonnie Cullum, Steve Bacher, Lurana Donnels O'Malley, and Sean T.C. O'Malley. Forged to create relevant theatrical work and push boundaries of form and content, The VORTEX helped change the palate of what was possible in Austin's theatre scene.
In 1989, The VORTEX produced its first season at Mexic-Arte Museum in downtown Austin. After several devised, political plays, and performance art works, we had tremendous success with our adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and Václav Havel's Temptation, and we decided to continue our experiments. In January 1990, we opened our own venue in an enormous movie triplex on East Ben White Blvd. We became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit, tax-exempt theater in 1991. The VORTEX operated a thriving compound with three theaters and spacious lobby until 1994, when the property was torn down for redevelopment.
After a long, hot search of Austin's available properties, The VORTEX moved to an abandoned warehouse on Manor Road and began an endless, heroic transformation of the dilapidated space into a theatre. We opened in October 1994 as Planet Theatre, a grand vision of the multi-use artistic harbor that we desired for the space. We rented scaffolding and installed insulation. We battled with the challenges of the old mid 20th-century tin building. We began with no air conditioning or heat and porta-potties for restrooms, as we built The VORTEX one small step at a time. In 1999, after five years of progress and improvements to the venue, a family LLC purchased the property, and we changed the venue's name to The VORTEX.
The VORTEX was the first theatre to establish a home on Austin's historically-underserved Eastside, laying the foundations for a blossoming arts and entertainment district. In 2005, we obtained a beer and wine license to support the theatre experience and generate revenue to pay for the facility. In 2011, we transformed The VORTEX's Café into The Butterfly Bar. In 2013, we obtained a full mixed beverage license, and Patrizi's Italian food truck joined our compound, providing a long-awaited addition of food. In 2016, Sno.Co began serving shaved ice in our parking lot. Open seven nights a week in East Austin, The VORTEX continues to anchor a cultural hub, a butterfly sanctuary, dynamic theatrical productions, and a comfortable environment for deepening our conversations surrounded by fresh Italian dinners and top-notch cocktails.
BWW: What is your mission?
BC: The VORTEX Mission Statement - We conjure and navigate the storm of imagination with urgent, unashamed art that dares to dream the world in which we want to live. This magic emanates from our cultural harbor, embraces diverse communities, breaks down barriers, and opens channels for vital exchange.
BWW: What are your goals?
BC: My personal goals include dancing, swimming, acting, being outside, visiting beautiful places, laughter, making potent magic and ritual, rest, and cultivating joy.
BWW: What is your background in theatre?
BC: MFA in Directing, University of Texas at Austin, 1989
Founded The VORTEX in 1988
BA in Theatre, University of Kansas, 1983
Study abroad with Temple University in London, 1981
Extensive training in acting, directing, ballet, choral music, voice, classical guitar, ceramics, photography, swimming, fencing, German, and French.
Work with University of Texas at Austin, McNeese State University, Hyatt Hotels, Kansas Repertory Theatre, Seem-to-Be Players, Summer Youth Community Theatre, and Mime Troupes.
First acting role was at age 5: The Little Red Hen in The Little Red Hen.
BWW: Is this the first venue you have run?
BC: We previously ran The VORTEX Performance Café on East Ben White Blvd. from 1990-94.
BWW: What is your goal with The VORTEX?
BC: We started out to make new theatre that wasn't being made in Austin in 1988. Over these many years, we have challenged artists to create new work in new ways and invited audiences to share the experience. I am proud that we have continued to push the envelope of possibilities and engage in transforming the world.
BWW: Are you a producing entity as well as a venue? How many companies are/have produced their shows here?
BC: Yes. Hundreds. Current and recent artistic partners include Ethos, Electronic Planet Ensemble, Diverse Space Dance Theatre, Renaissance Austin Theatre, Generic Ensemble Company, Gale Theatre, Different Stages, Shrewd Productions, Sky Candy, La Fenice, Séance, Pop up Markets, Tejas Web, Theatre en Bloc, Outsider Fest, Ashé Arts Collective, Drum the Program.
BWW: What challenges have you encountered bringing a theatre to life?
BC: There is really no way that this theatre could have survived. We are a testament to creativity, resourcefulness, patience, and perseverance.
BWW: Where do you see The VORTEX in 10 years?
BC: The VORTEX will remain in its current location on Manor Road with facility improvements including solar panels, a new storage building (for costumes, props, tools, and bar supplies), expanded office space, new seating, murals on the buildings, and art on Manor Road. Artistically, we will continue to increase artist pay, hire more full-time and professional artists, tour our best shows nationally and internationally, and continue advocacy for Austin artists.
BWW: Is there anything else you'd like to tell the readers of Broadway
BC: At The VORTEX, our patrons may have the Complete Experience: High-quality, professional theatre that generates dialogue, superior hand-crafted cocktails from The Butterfly Bar, and fresh-pulled pasta with the best Italian food in town from Patrizi's. The VORTEX is an East Austin jewel and, some say, very "Old" Austin. We are active players in the Manor Road Merchants Association and Austin's New Works Community as well as the Austin Creative Alliance. Nationally, we are members of the Theatre Communications Guild and the Network of Ensemble Theatres. We are funded by the City of Austin and the Texas Commission on the Arts, and have received 5 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, including a recent award for Performance Park in 2018. We just received a grant from the John L. Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies at The University of Texas for the support of the work of Lisa B. Thompson, Ebony Stewart, and Tyler English-Beckwith.
BWW would like to thank Bonnie for her time and for continuing to be a shining example of great theatre in Austin!