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Interview: Bonnie Cullum of The VORTEX Theatre Isn't Letting a Global Pandemic Dampen Her Spirit

The Founder and Producing Artistic Director describes The VORTEX's new drive-through performance and why theatre is an essential industry that's not going away

Interview: Bonnie Cullum of The VORTEX Theatre Isn't Letting a Global Pandemic Dampen Her Spirit

Madelyn Geyer: We're in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic. How are you doing?

Bonnie Cullum: I'm doing really well. The early part of this was very difficult because I saw that this was not a temporary situation and I knew that we were never going back to the way it was. Cancelling all my projects and cancelling things I'd been working on for years was the worst moment for me. It was truly devastating. Several months into it, I hit a point where I said, "Well, this is really hard. I've got to really re-explore my life." I think if I were a younger person, maybe I would have considered some other things. But theatre's my core. Theatre's my blood. So I'm still going to be making it. I just have to find new ways to do it.

MG: We're now about seven months into the pandemic. How does The VORTEX look different than it did in the first few weeks of this?

BC: We shut down in March and everybody went home. But when the building shuts down, there is still a level of upkeep that's needed to keep the plants, animals, and vibrancy alive. So a couple of us went every day to water the plants, check the mail, and deal with bills. But from the second week of the pandemic, we started presenting new and archival content every week online and we still are. For me, as the months went on, I felt a need and a hunger in the artists for connection. So I started thinking about ways we could make live theatre in real time and space. It was clear that people wouldn't necessarily be interested in sitting in our theatre and watching the play. That's when I start thinking about some kind of alternate form of theatre.

MG: What project is coming up next at The VORTEX?

BC: We're making THE VORTEX ODYSSEY. It's a drive-through performance installation quest people will navigate from the safety of their cars. It's a journey through the neighborhood. It's Homer's Odyssey, but post-apocalyptic, with current themes such as the pandemic and racial injustice. So people will drive through in their cars and all the sounds will be prerecorded to be listened to on a phone app. The performers are all in Interview: Bonnie Cullum of The VORTEX Theatre Isn't Letting a Global Pandemic Dampen Her Spirit little pods of three or four doing the performance over and over again as the cars come to them. Everybody in the pod is a little artistic team. Each of those pods has a director, composer, costume designer, etc; so it should be super cool. I think people are having fun and they're getting an opportunity to collaborate with new artists.

MG: Back in March, many people thought quarantine was going to be just a few months. We now know we're in for the long haul. How is The VORTEX planning for the future?

BC: What this has done is created space to explore a vision for the future. What I envisioned a few years ago was that theatre has to pivot. Not only as a place, but as a kind of art that brings people together. The way I see this moving is that we have to move towards different kinds of practices that will make the theatre an essential, viable place in a time of climate crisis. When all the theatre in the world shuts down because of a pandemic, theatre itself doesn't just go away. It just means it's not happening for the public, but the seeds of what make theatre are still growing. In this crisis, we've been told theatre is not essential. And what does that mean to me as a human being who has built my life around it? So that made me step back and question: well how can theatre be more essential? I think it's the place that it holds in community. I think it's the way that the venue is recognized as a place people can go to in crisis. I think it's the way we listen to the community and see what's needed and try to engage in a new way rather than just continue to crank out art like we have previously. And I think it's creating green practices as well. This year I'm working on creating a new, green theatre. And what does that look like going forward? How can our theatre space be more essential and how can theatre, as an institution in society, be more essential?

MG: On June 7th you made an announcement that The VORTEX was opening up its doors to protestors in a wonderful gesture of solidarity. Once people started arriving, what was it like?

Interview: Bonnie Cullum of The VORTEX Theatre Isn't Letting a Global Pandemic Dampen Her Spirit BC: The outpouring of the community for that protest support was unlike anything I've ever seen. We still have fifty cases of water sitting in the theatre that people just kept bringing. The whole first day we did it, deliveries just kept arriving all day, full of food, water, and medical supplies. All we did was just say, "We're doing this." And the community came out. People want to help people. They just need support systems to do that. It was encouraging that nobody came in seriously injured or tear gassed which is what we we were expecting. I'm happy to have The VORTEX always be a place of refuge. And I also think that's not enough. I know we're not done. I know there's more to do. I know that we can, as an artistic community, help support protesters. I think we're all going to need to be out more and more in the streets. And we have more protests in our future. This is just the beginning. We are not done fighting injustice here.

MG: The Producing Artistic Director is someone everyone looks up to to lead the charge in creative solutions for something so unprecedented. Did you feel that pressure?

BC: I don't think of it like that at all even though that's entirely true. The VORTEX is my thirty-two year old child and there's nothing I wouldn't do to keep it viable and relevant. I don't even think about it. That's just what I do. So I don't feel more pressure on me. I feel like it's the same pressure that's always been on me, except the stakes got higher. The stakes got higher because we could lose it all, and nobody wants to see the theatre go down or go out of business. So the stakes get higher when we can't be open and we can't make any revenue. The real key piece is: how do we keep enough money coming in to a nonprofit theatre organization, to make sure it's still there when we can do theatre again? So that's been my quest. It was not a conscious decision. That's what I do. I mean, I have to keep this alive.

Pictured: Allegra Jade Fox as Athena

Photo Credit: Errich Petersen Photography



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