The idea came in a dream. Bonnie Cullum, VORTEX Repertory Company’s producing artistic director, had been looking for a way to involve the Austin theatre company’s whole compound in one theatrical event when she dreamed of audience members filling the VORTEX yard, a continuing bastion of East Side theatrical activity following the relocation of Salvage Vanguard Theater and Rude Mechs. Now, after years of planning ways to weave together game theory, immersive performance techniques, and audience-participation concepts, the company is bringing more excitement to its campus—always a lively space thanks to the food trailer Patrizi’s and the troupe’s own Butterfly Bar—with the world premiere of Performance Park (March 23-May 12).
“I felt like it was Performance Park, like ‘amusement park,’” says Cullum, who conceived and directed the work. “Like a museum, like a national park, like a place that you could go and kind of dabble on the surface or you could dig deep. Like if you went to a museum, you might look at one gallery and have a very satisfying experience and leave. You might not take in the whole thing.”
Part performance, part interactive game, Performance Park invites attendees (or “citizens”) into an empress’s park as conflict arises between her and the emperor. Serving as a kind of narrator is the Major Arcana of the Tarot. “When I first thought about it, I thought it might be a fairy tale that people knew,” Cullum explains, “but the characters became so Western and kind of known, they didn’t hold as much mystery as I explored it.” Sticking around from those fairy tale beginnings, and joining the Tarot in the storytelling, is Baba Yaga, a character from Eastern European folklore.
VORTEX managing director Melissa Vogt is taking on the role of Baba Yaga, a character she describes as a keeper of occult wisdom as the High Priestess of the Tarot. “As the audience participants enter the park, there is a sense of rush, excitement, and yet also of unbalance,” Vogt says. “Baba Yaga is a symptom of this, and also a way out. She is quick to point out a fool, to remind you to slow down, to make you think about what you really want and how to best achieve your goals. And she might eat you.” Stepping into Baba Yaga’s hut, Vogt continues, offers daring attendees a one-on-one experience.
Aiding in these individualized experiences are the varied start times and “tool kits” offered as part of the show’s entrance process. Citizens are required to purchase tool kits for $15, $25, or $35, for the novice, expert, and oracle levels, respectively. While the basic tool kit provides a map and chips needed to start playing in the park, the more advanced kits provide hints and VIP perks such as the opportunity to go to the head of some lines.
Performance Park offers check-in times every 15 minutes between 7:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m., with limited admission slots available at each time. Cullum staggers the performance times to allow each citizen to receive an initiation at the gate without long lines. Those who take the latest time slot, however, risk missing the opening song of the night. Earlier slots also allow more time for games and settling in. “I noticed that’s what they’re doing with Sleep No More too,” Cullum says. “The show starts at a certain time, but you can continue to come after the show starts.”
While the VORTEX show follows in the footsteps of immersive productions like Sleep No More, Cullum notes that she actually hadn’t seen that long-running piece from U.K.-based company Punchdrunk until this past November, when she traveled to New York City to do research on immersive theatre. She saw Sleep No More and Then She Fell, the interactive take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories created by Brooklyn’s Third Rail Projects. Cullum had already written her show’s mythology and conducted five workshops before her trip, but she was “particularly interested in how they were dealing with audience.”
In Performance Park, attendees have “an important role to fill as citizens of the park,” Cullum continues. “I’m hoping that the people who sincerely play the game and really go after meeting all the characters and getting all the information and all the clues will solve the puzzle and win the game.” Within the park, characters form alliances and some even have their own side plots. Characters also reveal additional information about the mythology, making every moment spent talking to them crucial.
Outside of Baba Yaga’s hut is the lab of Temperance, a forest resident who’s also an alchemist, healer, and eyewitness to the shifts of power that occur in the park. Patricia Wappner, who has been working with the VORTEX since 1991 and plays Temperance, sees Performance Park as an exciting opportunity to draw in patrons of local businesses. “In an era in which it has become too conservative and too expensive to ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ I’d like to think we’re still doing it, at least a little bit,” Wappner says. “Anybody—everybody—coming in through the gates will be caught up in the performance.”
When discussing the composition of the work, Cullum admits that the aspect that both excites her and challenges her is the sheer volume of it all. “I haven’t usually done a piece that I couldn’t watch all at the same time,” Cullum says, noting also that the production will be meticulously controlled, like other immersive works such as Sleep No More and Then She Fell. “I’ve got assistant directors and assistant stage managers who are going to help me tend different parts of the park, because I can’t be in nine places at once.”
Performance Park will feature nine sets, non-traditional outdoor lighting fixtures (including battery-operated and solar-powered lights), a large fountain, and some of the favorite costumes from 30 years of VORTEX performance revitalized. “It’s really utilizing so many of the skills, the people, the treasured talents that we’ve been cultivating for 30 years,” Cullum says of the play, which she considers the showpiece of the troupe’s season.
Cullum sees this performance as not only a game, but also as a work of art that resonates with the political times in the country and the world. Cullum hopes “people can take a step back and think with a kind of social consciousness about some of the constructs that they experienced in the Performance Park,” finding parallels in their own life or in the wider world. “Even though we don’t stay in balance, we can try to come back to balance.”