“We haven’t seen each other in six, seven, eight months,” says Bonnie Collum, the producing artistic director of the Vortex Theatre.
The Vortex crew has produced some online streaming content during the pandemic, but they haven’t put on a show for a live audience since before the lockdown started. That’s just about to change, though – Collum and company are currently working on The Vortex Odyssey, a fundraiser and live performance piece that’ll include an online component and, in a first for the Vortex, a drive-thru theater experience.
“What I was thinking about was how could we do a fundraiser that had a live component that could be a safe experience for the performers and for the… audience members,” Collum says, explaining that The Vortex Odyssey will be performed for audience members who remain in their cars while going on a sort of neighborhood quest.
“And what if we involved other businesses in the neighborhood and what if we involved other spaces in the neighborhood that are sitting empty and aren’t doing anything or are closed? And so that’s how it evolved to being this quest that is beyond the grounds of the Vortex and out into the Manor Road business district.”
As audience members drive through the Odyssey, they’ll be listening – via their phones – to original music and audio content while watching short performances through their car windows. Since the audio portion of the show is particularly important to the piece, Vortex sound designer Yohann Solo has been pretty busy lately. “I’m just mixing and mastering a lot of the songs,” Solo says. “And I think that’s the thing I’m interested in the most to see, is how all of these different pieces that these composers made come together to make this overall story.”
The other part of the fundraiser, dubbed The Vortex Odyssey: Underworld, is happening entirely online. That piece, produced by Rudy Ramirez and Melissa Vogt, is meant to serve as both a standalone experience and a companion piece to the drive-thru quest. “It’s a great opportunity for people that maybe don’t live in Austin to participate and have an experience too,” Vogt says. “But also if you are in Austin and you’re just really isolating, you can do this experience… and also if you do both [the drive-thru and online pieces], you get like a really complete experience of kind of this upper world and underworld odyssey that we’re going on.”
The allusions to The Odyssey are very purposeful and weren’t chosen lightly. “The theme of The Odyssey is really interesting for this time, this place, right now,” Collum says. “Because we are in a moment of being kind of lost at sea and trying to get home and trying to figure out what we’re doing. And there’s such massive uncertainty.”
Collum says she’s looking forward to a time when the Vortex and other theaters can safely reopen and host live audiences again, but that doesn’t mean that she wants things to simply go back to how they used to be. “I’m not going to think of it as when it can get back to normal, because I’m hoping that this whole incident in our world is not just a blip but an actual moment to reset," she says. "And that people will be coming back to the theater with a different need than they had before, and that theater will become a more essential place in people’s lives. I don’t think we’re going back. I think we’re going forward.”