Drink Drank Drunk – Drama & Tonic: Why Austin Theaters Add Mixed Drinks To The Mix, Off And On Stage – Arts


“What will you have?”

It used to be a pretty straightforward question to answer at a local performance venue – I mean, if you were thirsty for an adult drink, what were your options other than a can of Lone Star or the wine in a pitcher. cheapest at HEB that week? Now, however, you look behind the bar – not a concessions counter but a bona fide bar – and you face a range of lagers, beers, and varietals, and what’s covering the shelves? Alcohol? Indeed, enough vodkas, gins, bourbons and tequilas to drown the cast of Cats. Maybe you would consider this to be another sign of Austin’s ritzification – the crowding out of the cheap and the casual (Pearl, Liberty Lunch) for the pricey and hipster (craft cocktails, SoCo) – but you’re in. one of the independent theaters established in the Eastside.

In March, the Vortex – yes, the home of all those ritual theater shows and local musicals about heroines, goddesses, and fairytale elementals – got a liquor license for its in-house lounge, the Butterfly Bar. , and now you can sip a mojito or martini with your next cyber opera. The founder of the theater and artistic director of production, Bonnie Cullum, has been working in this direction for several years, gradually transforming what was originally a minimalist lobby into a comfortable place to enjoy libations. The idea was to create a place where customers could arrive early enough to have a few drinks before the show or stay after instead of going elsewhere. If they liked him enough, they might even show up on nights when there was no room, just to wet their whistles. “Over the years, the challenge when people finish the show is always ‘Where are we going to go now?’” Says Cullum. “If they could stay here, and the cast and audience could cross paths and be able to talk about the show, and some people are from Salvage Vanguard and some of the restaurants on Manor Road when they close, as well as neighbors, so it’s starting to be this big sample of people. “

The plan seems to be working. Cullum reports a steady increase in activity over the past year, so the Butterfly is now seeing action all week. “We think this year’s budget is double what it was two years ago, and that’s mainly because of the bar,” she says. “Now we have a barback every night because it’s so crowded. “

And with the bar part of the theater, when the bar is working well, so does the Vortex. “It’s not like we make a ton of money [from the bar]”admits Cullum,” but if it’s enough to help support the infrastructure and pay the bills, then the overhead on the building shouldn’t come from box office revenue. “

Elisbeth Challener knows what Cullum is talking about. The CEO of the Zach Theater has observed an increase in her business’s income since obtaining a liquor license last year. While Zach’s patrons still find that the theater offers cocktails, as well as better quality beers and wines, Challener says, “Finances are 60-64% better than last year. And this will increase as people become aware of the [bar as a] destination.”

As with the Vortex, Zach had long seen an alcohol upgrade as an added attraction to customers and a boost to the theater’s bottom line. “If we’re able to make a profit with something like a bar, then we have more revenue streams that can support the art on stage, that’s what it is about,” Challener explains. But the investments required for this kind of upgrade – storage for drinks and equipment, lounge space, signage, hired staff (as opposed to volunteers) – were impractical for the Kleberg and Whisenhunt stages. But when the 420-seat Topfer Theater was designed, it gave Zach the opportunity to make the switch – and the movement was rooted in the boss’s experience.

Katherine Smith runs the Butterfly Bar.

Katherine Smith runs the Butterfly Bar. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

“It really started when we were working with Andersson-Wiseon on [Topfer] design, ”explains Challener. “Arthur [Andersson] would talk about the experience of going to the theater long before being in the theater. The experience shouldn’t just be that you are having fun when you are in your place and immersed in the production. That fun and the things you look forward to is the prior experience, which is both your physical setting – the bars themselves – and the choices you have for a favorite drink, whether alcoholic or not, as well as some sort of creativity. “

Creativity – a quality that has been paramount in developing the new cocktail menus for Zach and the Vortex. Cullum and his bar staff spent weeks developing the Butterfly menu. Their starting point was vintage versions of cocktails from the 20s and 30s, which they tasted and tweaked for distinctive tastes. For example, bartender Katherine Smith developed the Vortex mojito using a darker rum that was spiced up to give it “a little more oomph”. Cullum wanted a signature cocktail that people would come to over and over again like “the butterfly would return to flower over and over again”. She and the bartenders refined their vodka infusion with ginger, orange, mango and dried peppers until it had the perfect “sweet and tangy” proportions.

Zach has also developed his own signature drinks – can you say Zacharita? – but took this process further by developing special cocktails for each show of the season. Food and Beverage Director Rick Ryan – the go-to person on the cocktail front last season – would make five to 10 quirky cocktails using a few basic liquors. With A night with Janis, Joplin’s musical opening on July 10, he relied heavily on vodka and bourbon to create variations on margaritas, Manhattans, and rickeys with Janis-themed names like Summertime and Easy Rider. “When I started organizing this program, I knew it was an introduction to an experience,” says Ryan. “If there’s one thing that rings true for theater, it’s experience, and that’s what I wanted to bring out.”

This spirit of creativity has also won over Hank Cathey, the culinary arts coordinator of the Fusebox Festival, by organizing his Digestible Feats series, which pairs writers and performers in the performing arts with creatives in the fields of cooking and mixology. He and Fusebox founder Ron Berry had explored the craft cocktail scene together and discussed “the amount of creativity there is in this world.” We have this whole category of creative activity that people don’t think of that way, so how do we display that element? And how do we create events where all the senses are called upon? Of course, in terms of aroma and taste, food and drink is the direct path to that, and Fusebox specializes in this ideal of hybrid arts, so that was just another category of creative work to bring into the bosom. “

In the series, Cathey was able to offer drinks that are not only Related at the show but are part a spectacle. Bottled teamed up with playwrights Steve Moore and Zeb L. West with mixologist Jason Stevens for a theatrical experience in which each of the five stages included a different drink specially crafted to accompany the action and vibe of the stage. Because the play also invited audience members to take on roles in the performance, the drinking helped them relax and participate a little more freely than they might have under more sober circumstances. “It was like a board game,” Cathey says. “These people who were strangers ended up going to the most amazing party, of sorts – chilling out together, getting closer, chatting between [scenes], exclaiming over this and that. And when they left, they left as a group. I made some people walk a little cranky, but no one was unhappy.

“It’s something we want to dismiss or not talk about because it’s like, ‘Oh people are just getting drunk, blah blah blah.’ But people go to the show for all kinds of reasons, and one of the reasons is to leave their world and step into something new and be presented with something that they’ve never seen before, ever. felt before. Alcohol can help them open up a little. more to these kinds of opportunities. “

Ultimately, Cathey talks about the potential of alcohol to bring people together, which Challener and Cullum talk about with their bars: They are places where people can come together and share their experience, where they can form a community. As more and more theaters add alcohol to the mix, that’s why they’re doing it. “It’s not just about having a drink,” says Smith. “We are trying to process [our patrons] like they’re friends, like we’re part of the community with them. “

Not that it should be news to anyone. As Cathey notes, “Theater, drink, Dionysus – these things go back a long time together. “


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