Bonnie Cullum, producing artistic director of the Vortex Theatre, calls the company’s newest endeavor, “Performance Park,” “a once-in- a-lifetime, extraordinary piece — unlike anything else we have ever made or experienced.”
As it turns out, this is not just hyperbole. “Performance Park” is a totally unique experience in Austin theater, a community event that bursts past the boundaries of the Vortex’s stage to dominate its entire complex and create a must-visit destination.
But what, exactly, is “Performance Park”?
Ultimately, it’s many things. It’s the culmination of the Vortex’s “30 Years of Truth and Thunder,” celebrating the company’s 30th season. It’s an eight-week festival so that patrons of the Butterfly Bar and Patrizi’s food truck become more aware that there’s also a dynamic theater at the Vortex complex. And it’s an immersive combination of games, scavenger hunts, interactive theater and sing-alongs within a carnivalesque atmosphere that relates a timely narrative of matriarchal empowerment.
Listen to Cullum, who conceived and directed the entire piece, describe it: “A complex hybrid of interactive game, original musical, art installation, and magical divination, ‘Performance Park’s’ immersive scavenger hunt features the major arcana of the tarot. Like an amusement park, national park, or museum, we explore as much or as little as we wish. We choose our own adventure! As we work together to disrupt hierarchies of power and restore balance, we engage in a once-in-a-lifetime world.”
It is, indeed, easy to lose oneself in the world of “Performance Park.” Upon arrival, audience members — called “citizens,” to help differentiate those participating from people present for food or drinks but not part of the games — are greeted by the Fool, who sends them on a quest to seek wisdom. Each citizen chooses a tarot suit at random and is introduced to the queen of that suit, who will aid them on their quest throughout the evening.
However, before getting their tarot suit, all citizens must don a suit of another kind — a mask and costume. This tiny gesture goes a long way toward creating a sense of immersive involvement. Immediately, participants feel like they are in a different world from the people around them who are not costumed, and through this mask they are given a bit of protection from their vulnerabilities.
Indeed, “Performance Park” demands a lot of vulnerability from its audience. Participation is required, and if the thought of that terrifies you, then you may want to come for a bite to eat and simply observe as an outsider rather than a citizen. But if you want to lose yourself in a magical carnival, made up of exploration and a personal philosophical journey couched in metaphorical games and quests, then it is truly something to experience.
Be prepared, though, to surrender to the fact that you won’t be able to experience everything. At least not in one visit. “Because so many things are happening at once, it may take more than one time to experience all 28 characters and solve the game,” Cullum says. It is certainly possible, though, to enjoy the overarching story in just one visit, a story that features a power-mad emperor growing increasingly erratic and demanding loyalty from every citizen he encounters.
“As we wrote and shaped ‘Performance Park’ last year,” Cullum says, “we watched the unraveling of protections for the wild, the erosion of human rights, the acceptance of racist and exclusionary values, and so much more in the alarmingly rapid decay of our democracy. The Emperor’s inappropriate use of power was directly shaped by the ‘lock her up’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ horrors that we were experiencing on a daily basis. ‘Performance Park’ rose up as a call for justice and balance. It raises the voices of resistance as a troubled American regime fundamentally challenges feminist, racial, environmental and artistic identities and principles.”
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There is another, quieter story to “Performance Park,” though, and that’s embodied in each citizen’s individual quest for wisdom and love. This is the game aspect of the piece, featuring 28 performers at various locations across the grounds, each of whom works to create an individual experience for every citizen.
Clearly, such an endeavor took an immense amount of effort and planning. Cullum describes this lengthy process, crediting her collaborators along the way:
“Last summer, with my notes and ideas, I teamed up with Sarah Saltwick, Lorella Loftus and Teresa Cruz to hammer out the mythology of ‘Performance Park’ and write scenes, monologues and lyrics that created the initial foundation of the script. Lorella and Sarah wrote most of the non-improvised text spoken in the show. Over several months, I compiled and tweaked the material into an initial outline for all of the areas and a rough timeline of how it would unfold. I had to create a way that time and space intersect in the story as it unfolds all around the park and plan how the games would be woven into it.
“In November and December, we had workshops to explore the material and finalize the casting. We began rehearsals in January and developed the scenes and material for each area of the park in small groups. Toni Bravo added the movement vocabulary. Chad Salvata, David DeMaris and Sergio R. Samayoa created original music. Tyler Mabry wrote songs with lyrics. We devised additional material. We had a few full ensemble rehearsals, but honestly, lack of rehearsal space for such a large group was challenging. As it came together in March, we finally worked as a full ensemble around the whole compound.”
A large part of this was enabled by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, allowing Cullum and her collaborators to fully create and explore the vision that initially came to her, quite literally, in a dream.
This dreamlike atmosphere has remained a part of “Performance Park” through to the final product. Each citizen’s quest features moments of collaborative fun and frenzy alongside moments of quiet contemplation and serious philosophical questioning. Within this giant puzzle of a game, framed inside the larger narrative of the arcana, are instances of emotional connection that can move one to tears of sorrow or laughter.
“Performance Park” is large; it contains multitudes.
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Though certainly unique to Austin, the production is not entirely sui generis. Much of its concept seems inspired by “Sleep No More,” the site-specific work of immersive theater that’s been running in New York for over half a decade now, and there’s more than a little bit of LARP-ing (live action roleplaying) to the experience, as well.
Nor is “Performance Park” flawless. Early performances have, as one might expect, encountered a few technical snags, including long wait times for specific experiences as well as confusion over some elements of the game. And to experience the entire story, both the macro-narrative and the personalized micro-journey, takes the entire evening, which can run quite late into the night.
All of these are small complaints amidst a splendor of play, in multiple senses of that word.
“Performance Park” is a piece of magic — the metaphorical magic of the tarot deck, the philosophical magic of self-discovery, and, most importantly, the very real magic of the stage brought out beyond the confines of a theater’s four walls.
Future events in Austin theater will be be measured against the magic of this moment.
When: Various times Thursday-Sunday through May 12
Where: 2307 Manor Road
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org