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Vortex takes a kid-friendly turn

Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Chad Salvata would be the first to tell you he's the last theater creator in Austin who might be expected to write a show for all ages.

For years, Salvata has been penning fantastical musical fairy tales for the stage. But the complex shows — typically staged with lavish costumes and lighting — are usually reserved for grown-ups, the storytelling rife with adult situations.

Yet with "Sarah Silver Hands," Salvata's newest play that opens this weekend at the Vortex Theatre, the playwright hopes to please a younger audience. A very specific audience, in fact.

"I have younger family members — nieces and nephews — who have always heard about ‘crazy Uncle Chad's' shows but who have never seen one," says Salvata, who is dressed entirely in black on a recent morning while taking a break in the colorful lobby of the East Austin warehouse-turned-theater. "I wanted to write something for them."

What he wrote is a story of the young Princess Sarah of the Autumn Kingdom who, on the eve of her 13th birthday, must find a way to save her kingdom from the evil Winter Witch. Salvata based his two-act musical loosely on a tale by the Brothers Grimm. And like any of the Grimm fairy tales, "Sarah Silver Hands" has its dark themes and frightening situations. But it also has a happy ending and the example of a young girl using her wits to triumph over adversity.

"Sarah Silver Hands" has the backing of the National Endowment for the Arts, too.

The Vortex received $20,000 from the NEA to produce the show — only the second time the theater group has received one of the highly competitive federal grants. Vortex netted its first NEA grant in 2010 for "Sleeping Beauty," an original musical adaptation of the fairy tale, co-authored by Content Love Knowles and Bonnie Cullum, who is Vortex's artistic director, founder and Salvata's wife.

The NEA recognition is a long time coming.

With a few fellow artists, Cullum began Vortex in 1989 as a way to nurture experimental theater. The company moved into its current space — a former warehouse on Manor Road — in 1994. And though the East Austin thoroughfare now boasts a line-up of trendy restaurants and another art theater a few doors down, at the time Vortex first put out its shingle, Manor Road — and East Austin in general — was hardly the hip arts and eats destination it is now.

Wisely, Cullum purchased the warehouse, large side yard and generous parking lot in 1999 before East Austin's real estate boom. And since then she has fleshed out the venue's offerings. Now, there's something going on every day of the week.

The leafy yard has become the site for children's shows, artist markets and free movie screenings. Yoga and pilates classes occupy the empty theater during the days.

Cullum built an expansive deck off the inside lobby to create "The Butterfly Bar," a cafe with free Wi-Fi that opens several hours before each show for drinks and snacks and general hanging out. She's even hosted her father, Jim Cullum, San Antonio-based Dixieland musician and bandleader, for gigs. In fact, the "Butterfly" features the actual historic carved wood bar that the elder Cullum had for years in the Landing, a San Antonio jazz club he owned.

The widening of its scope hasn't meant that the Vortex has altered any of its indie vibe. The former warehouse still sports metal siding, and the venue's sign on Manor Road is hardly machine-made.

And on its stage, Cullum and crew still spin out their singular style of fantasy-themed theater ensconced with a kind of progressive-minded magical realism that's always found in audience in Austin.

Just like Calvata's "Sarah Silver Hands" — re-imagined Brothers Grimm, except with music and a positive role model for girls.; 445-3699

'Sarah Silver Hands'

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Oct. 30

Where: Vortex Theatre, 2307 Manor Road

Cost: $10-$30

Information: 478-5282,