We had the good fortune of connecting with Bonnie Cullum and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Bonnie, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
As an artist, my entire career was based on risk. But what was amazing, was that the farther the risk, the bigger the success. The public wanted me to reach beyond “safe” and into the realm of urgent and unashamed. This has affirmed my choices. When I have made less “risky” theatrical art, it has rarely been successful artistically or financially.
What should our readers know about your business?
The VORTEX creates and presents new, innovative performances—world premiere plays, operas, musicals, ritual theatre, and devised collaborations. The VORTEX transgresses conventional theatrical forms with multidisciplinary performances from diverse traditions. Music, film, dance, opera, aerial arts, puppetry, and performance art contribute to our vibrant theatre. We are an artist-owned and operated theater and have produced over 350 productions. We are proud to have always engaged in non-traditional casting. The VORTEX has presented work by dozens of famous cutting-edge artists and is internationally renowned as a haven for alternative performance. Our work has received more than 100 major awards and hundreds of nominations for artistic excellence in production, design, acting, performance, directing, playwriting, choreography, and musical composition. The VORTEX fosters educational programming, including our award-winning Summer Youth Theatre. For almost three decades, The VORTEX’s Summer Youth has teamed teenagers with adult professionals in a fully produced play from a diverse cannon of exceptional dramatic literature. This free program has impacted the lives of students and artistic mentors for more than a generation. Internships and work-study jobs integrate university students into The VORTEX, providing them with valuable theatre experience outside of academia. The VORTEX anchors a dynamic and cherished home for the arts of the 21st century, located in East Austin and open year round. Co-productions and rentals support many theatre companies, artists, musicians, and service organizations. The Butterfly Bar @The VORTEX is open seven nights a week and provides a cultural harbor and distinct destination for community events including arts markets, librarian happy hour, TGQ meet-ups, trivia, dance and fitness classes, fundraisers, local music showcases, and gallery art openings as well as some of Austin’s best handcrafted cocktails. The VORTEX contributes to the vitality of Austin’s economy, creating dozens of full-time jobs and paying artists. We are a leader in the Austin New Works Community and the Austin theatre community and have been recognized as a Platinum Level Green Business leader—we have always recycled are now composting. Widely-recognized as the pioneering leader in Austin’s alternative theatre scene, VORTEX Repertory Company was founded in 1988 by University of Texas at Austin graduate students Bonnie Cullum, Steve Bacher, Lurana Donnels O’Malley, and Sean T.C. O’Malley. Forged to create relevant theatrical work and push boundaries of form and content, The VORTEX helped change the palate of what was possible in Austin’s theatre scene. In 1989, The VORTEX produced its first season at Mexic-Arte Museum in downtown Austin. After several devised, political plays, and performance art works, we had tremendous success with our adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and Václav Havel’s Temptation, and we decided to continue our experiments. In January 1990, we opened our own venue in an enormous movie triplex on East Ben White Blvd. We became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit, tax-exempt theater in 1991. The VORTEX operated a thriving compound with three theaters and spacious lobby until 1994, when the property was torn down for redevelopment. After a long search of Austin’s available properties, The VORTEX moved to an abandoned warehouse on Manor Road and began a heroic transformation of the dilapidated space into a theatre. We opened in October 1994 as Planet Theatre, a grand vision of the multi-use artistic harbor that we desired for the space. We rented scaffolding and installed insulation. We battled with the challenges of the old mid 20th-century tin building. We began with no air conditioning or heat and porta-potties for restrooms, as we built The VORTEX one small step at a time. In 1999, after five years of progress and improvements to the venue, a family LLC purchased the property, and we changed the venue’s name to The VORTEX. The VORTEX was the first theatre to establish a home on Austin’s historically-underserved Eastside, laying the foundations for a blossoming arts and entertainment district. In 2011, The VORTEX’s Café was transformed into The Butterfly Bar. In 2013, we obtained a full mixed beverage license, and Patrizi’s Italian food truck joined our compound. In 2016, Sno.Co began serving shaved ice in our parking lot. Open seven nights a week in East Austin, The VORTEX continues to anchor a cultural hub, a butterfly sanctuary, dynamic theatrical productions, and a comfortable environment for deepening our conversations.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
The artists who have shaped and sculpted The VORTEX since 1988 are the ones who have created the fabric of who we are. So many brilliant folks have moved in and out to create the tapestry of the artistic work of The VORTEX. From new plays, musicals, and dance works to experimental devised works, performance art, and ritual theatre, to community supported events and educational opportunities like our award-winning Summer Youth Theatre. I also want to give a Shoutout to Patrizi’s that supports the food for our compound every day! Food sustains our work and our lives.
Kimberley Mead Errich Petersen