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'Cheap Magic': 'Annie Jump And The Library Of Heaven' Opens To Live Audiences At The Vortex

The Vortex

During the pandemic, the Vortex has stayed connected to their audience with streaming shows and drive-through shows, but now they’re ready to bring people back into the theater with the new play Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven, a coming-of-age adventure story by playwright Reina Hardy.

“I wrote this play after reading a book about the history of scientific thought,” Hardy says. “It sounds like a really dry sort of opening to it, but it was, I think, the most magical playwriting experience I’ve ever had, to be honest.”

Hardy says she wrote the play in just three days, during the Perseid meteor shower one August. The play takes place during that same meteor shower, and involves teenagers, aliens, and an intergalactic supercomputer who manifests itself in the form of a human teen. It’s also a celebration of nerdiness, love, and hope – qualities that the cast and crew say make it the perfect show with which to return to live theater.

“It’s awesome,” says actor Dane Parker about playing the teenage character KJ. “[I] get to be this ball of energy and actual optimism, which is such a great feeling to try and bring back.”

Co-director Marcus McQuirter says he’s really missed the theater during the pandemic. “You know, I always joke that I was raised as a Baptist but theater is my religion," he says. “So it’s like not being able to go to your sanctuary. The last thing I directed on stage… closed like the weekend before the world stopped. And we were going to have a cast party! And it kept getting pushed back and pushed back…”

For McQuirter, Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven feels surprisingly personal. The play’s got a definite sci-fi bent, and the relationship between 13-year-old Annie Jump and her alien-obsessed father is key to the story. “I’m a nerd,” McQuirter says. “I like Dungeons and Dragons, I like science fiction, I like science itself… [and] I’m a father. I have a 13-year-old, so that relationship between Dr. Jump and Annie… it was in my heart. There have been a couple of times, just sitting in my living room reading it, it was tears. And it’s funny as well, so, yeah, it’s a fantastic piece.”

Oktavea LaToi, who plays Annie, says she enjoyed becoming a teenager again for the role. “I would not say it was hard, which – I don’t know what that says about me,” she says. “It was super fun just to tap into my inner child again. Especially after going, you know, a year and a half without being in live theater. Being able to come back and play so passionately as a child… it was cathartic.”

“it’s a great excuse to let yourself play and bring back that idea of just existing and loving being alive for that moment, right then, right now,” says Parker. “It’s great. I mean, I feel like it’s helped [me in] this transition, getting back into real life.”

Christina Blake also plays a teen in Annie Jump – sort of. Her character, Althea, is actually an intergalactic supercomputer, but that computer manifests itself to Annie in the form of a pretty mean human teenager. It’s a role that Blake immediately fell in love with. “She is really all that and a bag of chips,” Blake says. “She really is. She’s on top of the world. She’s this all-knowing being sent down to earth. I don’t know, when I read the script initially… I was like, ‘can I please, please, please, please, please – I want to be Althea so bad!’”

Rudy Ramirez, who co-directs with McQjuirter, says that they bonded over a shared love of low-budget stage effects. “We are both lovers of what I call ‘cheap magic,’” Ramirez says. “Like, how do you create something really powerful on stage with the resources that any of us could find if we just look through our garage or our attic or the stuff we have lying under our bed? And, you know, Reina is playwright who is so deeply invested in magic and fantasy and how we can use that to look back at ourselves. So I love the fact that I’m getting to work with somebody who, you know, believes that we don’t need a giant special effects budget to do that – we need our imaginations, we need our inventiveness, and we need to make it accessible.”

Hardy says that the crew has delivered that ‘cheap magic,’ but won’t divulge what happens on stage. “I saw this amazing sequence that I can’t really talk about because it’s a bit of a spoiler,” she says with a laugh. “But I was so thrilled to watch it.”

'Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven' runs through July 4 at the Vortex.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces and hosts This Is My Thing and Arts Eclectic, and also produces Get Involved and the Sonic ID project. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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