Thursday, July 4, 2013

Theatre Bars in Austin -- an essay by Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle

Robert Faires looks at selling alcohol at the Vortex Repertory, the Zach Theatre and Fusebox Festival

Austin Chronicle

Drama & Tonic

Why Austin theatres are adding mixed drinks to the mix, offstage and on

By Robert Faires, Fri., July 5, 2013

Drinking illustration Austin Chronicle"What'll you have?"

Used to be a simple enough question to answer at a local playhouse – I mean, if you had a thirst for an adult beverage, what were your options besides a can of Lone Star or whatever jug wine was cheapest at H-E-B that week? Now, though, you look behind the bar – not a concessions counter but a bona fide bar – and you face a range of lagers, ales, and varietals, and what's that lining the shelves with them? Liquor? Sure enough, enough vodkas and gins and bourbons and tequilas to drown the cast of Cats. Maybe you'd write this off as just another sign of the ritzification of Austin – the ousting of the cheap and casual (Pearl, Liberty Lunch) for the pricey and hipsterish (craft cocktails, SoCo) – but you're at one of the established indie theatres on the Eastside.

In March, the Vortex – yes, the home to all those ritual-theatre spectacles and homegrown musicals about fairy-tale heroines, goddesses, and elementals – obtained a liquor license for its in-house lounge, the Butterfly Bar, and now you can sip a mojito or martini with your next cyberopera. Theatre founder and Producing Artistic Director Bonnie Cullum has been working toward this for several years, steadily upgrading what was originally a bare-bones lobby area into a cozy venue for enjoying libations. The idea was to create a place where patrons might arrive early enough to have a few drinks before the show or stick around afterward instead of going somewhere else. If they liked it well enough, they might even show up on nights when there wasn't a play, just to wet their whistle. "Through the years, the challenge when people finish the show is always 'Where are we gonna go now?'" says Cullum. "If they could stay here, and the actors and audience could intersect and be able to talk about the show, and some of the people come in from Salvage Vanguard and some of the restaurants on Manor Road when they close, plus the neighbors, then it starts to be this great cross-section of people."

The plan appears to be working. Cullum reports a steady increase in business over the past year, such that the Butterfly now sees action all week long. "We're looking at this year's budget being double what it was two years ago, and that's primarily because of the bar," she says. "Now we have a barback every night, because it's that busy."

And with the bar part of the theatre, when the bar does well, so does the Vortex. "It's not like we're making a ton of money [from the bar]," Cullum allows, "but if it's enough to help support the infrastructure and pay the bills, then the overhead on the building doesn't have to come out of the box-office revenue."

Read more at the Austin Chronicle. . . .

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