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One of Austin's most experimental theaters celebrates its 30th anniversary

One of Austin's most experimental theaters celebrates its 30th anniversary
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

In the ever-changing landscape of Austin theater, most production companies are lucky to last several years, let alone several decades. The Vortex is a happy exception to that rule—incorporated in 1988, this year marks its 30th season in operation.

The company's producing artistic director, Bonnie Cullum, has been with the Vortex since its inception. While a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, she co-founded the Vortex Repertory Company along with fellow students Steve Bacher, Lurana Donnels O’Malley and Sean T.C. O’Malley.

As a part of the company’s year-long celebration, titled "30 Years of Truth and Thunder at The VORTEX," this Sunday sees the dedication of the Vortex's main stage theater to Eloise Brooks Cullum, Bonnie Cullum's great aunt. In 1999, Eloise provided the financial support for the theater to purchase its land and building, providing it with the ability to remain there in perpetuity (a rare occurrence in the volatile Austin real estate market).

Without having to face the overhead of leasing a property, the Vortex is able to produce daring and experimental works that provoke and challenge audiences, rather than needing to rely on steady box office favorites like classic musicals or canonical dramas. From the very beginning, the company was dedicated to challenging projects, melding political work with performance art and a commitment to non-traditional casting.

"Our first few seasons featured actors of color in any role, regardless of how it was originally written, and women in leading roles that were written for men," says Cullum. "Because so many plays were written by white men or had casts that needed a lot of men, we immediately looked beyond that box and created global microcosms on our stages."

This experimentation continued as the company aged and grew. "Over the past 29 years, we have explored many different kinds of productions—in form and content," Cullum explains. "As the national conversations about casting and writing have shifted over the life of the company, we have had more and more opportunities to feature plays that speak specifically to race and gender."

"30 Years of Truth and Thunder" continues this week with not only the dedication of The Eloise—the Vortex's main stage—but also the Austin premier playwright Isaac Gomez's The Way She Spoke: A Docu-Mythologia. Directed by the Vortex's associate artistic director, Rudy Ramirez, The Way She Spoke stars Karen Rodriguez in a one-woman show that poetically explores the stories of the thousands of women murdered every year in Juarez, Mexico.

With powerful and timely productions like these, the VORTEX shows no sign of slowing down after three decades.

The dedication of The Eloise Brooks Cullum Stage takes place Jan 14 at 5pm, with free admission. The Way She Spoke runs Jan 11-20, Thu-Sun at 8pm and Sat at 5pm; $15-$35. 

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