Among the many aspects of life affected by the coronavirus pandemic, live theater has taken a particularly hard blow. Though many companies around Austin have created online events to fill in the gap that the lack of theater has left in audience’s hearts — such as livestreamed readings, original radio plays and broadcasts of previous productions — the simple fact is that live theater has been absent from this city for over half a year now.
Enter the Vortex, the longstanding East Austin theater, with "The Vortex Odyssey," a complete reimagining of how live performance can survive, and even thrive, in difficult times. Rather than bringing audiences into their Manor Road performance space, which remains closed, this production will send them out into the surrounding neighborhood for a drive-thru experience. In addition, a companion piece called "The Vortex Odyssey: Underworld" will reside entirely online and exist as an independently accessible performance.
Vortex artistic director Bonnie Cullum, who created and curated the production, says "The Vortex Odyssey" provides an outlet for the artists involved to create new and energizing work that comments on the important issues of our precarious times.
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"It’s so good for the artists to have something to work on that matters," Cullum says. "That’s been really rewarding to see people just get so excited and inspired."
Though Cullum might have conceived of the project, each individual performance has its own creative team, primarily featuring the work of people of color: "I pulled out the scenes that I wanted to realize and started to place them in locations around the neighborhood and kind of flesh out what the action would be. Then I gave it to directors, writers and composers to create the pieces. Because of wanting to shift the conversation in this pandemic time of COVID, racism and climate change, I gave the opportunity to performers, writers and artists of color first and gave them first crack at the opportunities."
The narrative thread of literary classic "The Odyssey" unites these disparate pieces, which come together to "create all these individual island voyage experiences that are loosely tied together," Cullum says.
Audience members will arrive at a specific time to travel through the neighborhood in their own vehicles; they then will be guided by both performers and traffic managers through and between the installations. Tickets are available per car, meaning that entire families can experience the production together. (Cullum notes that, "while it’s not for children, it is family friendly.")
What’s more, the audio for each installation is prerecorded and accessible to audience members via an app that they are asked to download before arrival. This allows the performers to remains masked at all times, building the experience of social distancing into the very nature of the entire production.
"The Vortex Odyssey" also is meant to serve as the company’s big fundraiser for the year, Cullum says: "Hopefully it is a big financial support to the theater, which we really need since we haven’t had any revenue since March." However, she also hopes that this production helps build a stronger connection between the Vortex and its residential and commercial neighbors, "giving the Vortex space to figure out where we want to go as a place that serves (the) community and is not just for artists, but for everyone who lives nearby."
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With "The Vortex Odyssey: Underworld," that sense of community expands beyond the physical area surrounding the theater. Curated by Vortex managing director Melissa Vogt, the online production can be experienced separately from the drive-thru performances: "The themes are a handshake, but you could do the drive-thru and also experience the Underworld and feel like you’ve had a completely original experience."
Upon logging into the website created specifically for the event, audiences will be able to create their own experience out of a mixture of prerecorded material and unique live performances that rotate throughout the run of the production — featuring guest performers from across the country, including nationally renowned performance artists as Annie Sprinkle and the World Famous Bob).
As Vogt explains, it is this mixture of the live and the virtual that makes the project so exciting: "Doing this hybrid live Zoom interaction also with prerecorded material and puzzles and games and portals, it’s new, uncharted territory to us, so we’re excited to dive in."
Both halves of the production ultimately use the narrative of "The Odyssey" to seek out hope during bleak times. For Cullum, that hope is both extremely necessary and deeply personal.
"The reason ‘The Odyssey’ became so poignant to me when I was working on this arc was about that homecoming," she says. "It’s about what it means to have a home that you want to get back to. I’ve put 32 years of my life into making the Vortex, which now can’t be open, and it’s very, very painful. By taking this ‘Odyssey’ journey, people are keeping the home fire lit for the Vortex, so that when we can come back together again, and we can make art in space again, the Vortex will still be there."