It began with a press release.
In 2008, I worked as a producer for an Austin television news station.
One day, amid an avalanche of messages in my email, I glimpsed a subject line that made me think of my daughter.
Hayley was about 15 years old at the time. She was introverted and socially disengaged. She was coasting, with some success, on autopilot in a way that didn’t cause alarm yet didn’t inspire confidence. She had, however, enrolled in a high school acting class and was showing uncommon interest in it.
“LOCAL THEATRE HOLDING AUDITIONS FOR ITS SUMMER YOUTH PROGRAM,” the subject line read.
Something stirred within me.
That emailed release changed the trajectory of Hayley’s life.
We were both nervous as I drove her to the audition at a small East Austin playhouse called the Vortex. But Hayley later received a phone call inviting her to join.
I would drive her to and from the theater for rehearsals for that summer’s production of “School for Scandal.” Watching Hayley onstage as she morphed into a wily woman called Snake was one of the most profound experiences of my life. In the more than 10 years since, Hayley has performed in over a dozen professional stage plays. She’s been nominated for a B. Iden Payne theater award, and this winter, she's taking on her first professional-level lead role in Jacqueline Goldfinger's "Click" (directed by Rudy Ramirez and opening Jan. 17 at the Vortex). She tells me she feels most herself when she’s with her theater community.
The Vortex Repertory Theatre has solidified its status as a premier avant-garde playhouse. Founded in 1988 by four University of Texas graduate students, the theater leans toward the boundless and bold — creatively and fearlessly interpreting complex social, political and classical stage themes with arthouse allure. When you walk through the gate of the Vortex, you feel pulled into a decadent den of the supernatural. All needs are met by a full-service bar, on-site food trucks and some provocative performances in its cozy main playhouse.
For lovers of community theater, the Vortex is an expedition. For many local stage artists, it’s mandatory seasoning. And for area youths, it’s a center for master class theater training.
The Vortex’s Summer Youth Theatre — referred to as SYT — was not an afterthought; the concept was core to its establishment.
“It was the summer of ’91 when we had our very first youth theater,” said Bonnie Cullum, one of the founders and now artistic director — the theater’s commanding and nurturing leading lady. “That first year we did two plays — ‘Skin of Our Teeth’ by Thornton Wilder and ‘Step on a Crack’ by Suzan Zeder. It was very aggressive and comprehensive. The feedback we got from the students was it was too much. I felt that, too. We’ve tailored it back to one show per year. And,” she said, laughing, “it’s still intense.”
SYT is not camp. It’s not child care or a distraction from devices. SYT is a serious, two-month theatrical deep-dive on a mission to expose youths to aspects of theater production projecting far beyond acting on stage.
“The first production I did was ’Madwoman of Chaillot,’” said four-time SYT member Kit Burton, a 16-year-old home-schooled sophomore. “It was the only time I felt like I was making something really cool. I’d never been a part of something so magical.”
In last summer’s SYT production of “Alice’s Wonderland” — a dark, whimsical, art-inspired interpretation of the classic “Alice in Wonderland” — Kit played the roles of the Cheshire Cat and the Lory Bird. With rehearsals generally four or five days a week, the lead-up to opening night is demanding. But just as rewarding.
“This year, I felt I knew what I was doing,” Kit said. “Instead of me learning, myself, I was teaching some of the other kids.”
First-time SYT actor Jackson Evans, a now-18-year-old Liberal Arts and Science Academy senior, played the roles of The Mad Hatter and Tweedle Dee. He also learned about the role technology plays in the production of a play.
“Putting up and taking down lighting,” he said. “Learning how to tie the cords up, how the rigs get set up for all the behind-the-stage action. We got to go back and see the boards themselves and how they were operating them for lighting and sound effects.”
This is the power of this youth program. There’s little time for coddling. Cast members receive a legitimate education about not only performing art but also executing it.
“I’ve seen what Bonnie has done here, and I’ve been amazed,” said Chris Burton, Kit’s father. “It’s very different from high school or college theater. To see Kit engage with the other kids; to watch him develop not just his skills, but his respect for the whole process — he’s painted the set, he’s built props, he’s helped make the show be what it is.”
While education is the bones of the program, diversity is its heart. Auditions are open to all youths, even those with no theater experience.
And the program is free. Parental commitment amounts to making sure children get to rehearsals and performances.
For 28 years, SYT casts have comprised kids of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, from all parts of the Austin area. There are few common denominators among the young actors; directors and adult actors are genius at getting these motley groups to be comfortable together.
“With adult actors, you’ve got a lot of egos sometimes,” said three-time SYT director Gabriel Maldonado, who directed “Alice’s Wonderland.” “There were no egos in this show. My intention was to be a mentor; to establish a safe haven and support. I worked a lot on having fun with them and being silly and goofy and letting them bond.”
Premier High School senior Sofia Villarreal, now 18, is a soft-spoken and demure bass player. She had not acted before. She played the role of Alice and found herself pushing her boundaries more than ever before.
“Gabriel told us to be fearless,” she said. “They had us get in a circle and dance. I was like, I would not be comfortable doing that in front of my family. But we were in a safe environment for everyone to just try new things.”
Pulling off this massive feat each summer is as much a challenge for the theater staff as for the actors. This summer’s production was made possible through small private contributions and a $1,500 grant from the Texas Commission for the Arts.
But more funding is needed. Adult actors receive a small stipend, Cullum said, but not nearly what their contributions are worth.
Cullum dreams of a major corporation or philanthropist fully supporting this effort. Until then, these shows will go on.
“There have been times when I thought, ’I can’t do this anymore at this level,’” Cullum said. “But there was a turning point for me a few years ago when one of the students wrote me a thank you letter. It sits by my desk at home. It talks about the ways this changed her, and all of the firsts she had at this theater. I have to keep doing this. I have to keep it going.”