A Thoughtful Invitation
The Flynn Center for the Arts in Burlington serves as a model on many fronts, including established and new ways of addressing inclusion. Executive Director Anna Marie Gewirtz notes that “the Flynn has really had a commitment to making the arts accessible for a very long time … it’s been central to our mission.” That commitment shows in the physical space. In addition, training for internal staff and calling on the expertise of external partners are priorities; teaching artists are well-versed in addressing multiple learning styles. The organization presents a diverse range of performers and has hosted multisensory exhibits. Anna Marie and former Director John Killacky offered a glimpse into the thinking that has backed consistent progress.
Anna Marie explains “There are so many populations with needs–but there are certain populations that art and music and theater can play a really special role in their quality of life and in their wellness.” This applies to children and adults on the autism spectrum. To that end, some Flynn matinee shows have been adapted; the house lights are on at a certain level, fidget toys and noise-cancelling headphones are available, coloring set-ups are available in the lobby, and performers are given a heads-up about anticipating unexpected noises. “We also have very well-trained staff and volunteers.”
Dallas Children’s Theater was the first presenter to try out the new format for the MainStage. “It was groundbreaking for them, and it was wonderful for us to extend that caliber of performance.” Next was Red Kite Project, a branch of the Chicago Children’s Theatre with productions for small groups of children on the spectrum, and the obvious follow-on: the commissioning of the theatre group to teach the Flynn teaching artists how to present using similar techniques.
Red Kite Green Mountain was held last fall. There were performances for families and shows at alternative and traditional schools. Now the play is ready to tour. Anna Marie adds “We feel very strongly that when there’s a need like that and we can match it up with solid programming, we want to help.”
The Flynn, Clemmons Family Farm, and the Vermont Abenaki Arts Association are in partnership to present the first Arts for Equity Educator Institute in August. This collaboration aims to help Vermont’s teacher community be more equipped to teach the new ethnic studies curriculum. Anna Marie believes “every teacher can integrate the arts into their curriculum, building the skills of creativity, communication, and collaboration that are essential to a thriving democracy and social justice. If we can use the arts as a catalyst for learning that is directly tied to equity and inclusion … that’s a good outcome.”
And the time feels right. “We’ve been developing our relationships with the Clemmons Family Farm and the Vermont Abenaki Aritst Association for several years. In looking at demographics of Vermont and the instances of hate crimes … [including] what occurred with Representative Kiah Morris, I believe it’s an urgent need for us to be having a public dialogue around racism, bias, and equity, and I think the arts and culture can play a pivotal role in that work.”
The new season has not yet been announced, but Anna Marie gave up a secret. The soon-to-be-announced lineup on the MainStage will include a show by Kinetic Light named by Dance Magazine the “Most Moving Performance of 2018.”
Performed on an architectural ramp installation with hills, curves, and peaks, DESCENT celebrates the pleasure of reckless abandon. Obliterating assumptions of what dance, beauty, and disability can be, this evening-length duet takes audiences on a transformative ride. Andromeda and Venus, reimagined as interracial lovers, claim their desire as wheels fly within inches of the ramp’s edges. Their spines soften to taste the subtle pulls of gravity and arch into the sumptuous light.
John Killacky ran the Flynn until last year. He makes the very same point as Anna Marie: Flynn leadership had a commitment to accessibility before he got there. John also knows disability first-hand. He entered a 1996 surgery expecting to be in the hospital three or four days and to have a sore neck. He was sent home in a wheelchair, was told he would not walk again, and was advised it was time to learn to adapt. He now walks with a cane.
Regarding projects under his guidance he notes “We weren’t doing it alone. We weren’t the experts; we were the learners.” He offers a shout-out to VSA Vermont and cites work with the AXIS Dance Company. (He and Judith Smith share insights and resources in this conversation at the American for the Arts 2017 Annual Conference.)
He recalls inquiries preceding the sensory-friendly shows. “We were overthinking it. We made it so complicated.” In reflecting on the process he offers “Don’t tie yourself up in knots. And you know what? It’s O.K. to fail. Not everything’s going to work for everybody.” He has found:
- you don’t find [all the ways to address inclusion] within your own organization. You have to get out and learn. And listen to people
- people get very daunted about access, thinking it’s so hard to do. But, just start where you are … even just hanging art at lower than sixty-one inches!
- the way some organizations present work may not be the same way communities want to be seen. We cannot make a top-down decision what culture is, we can’t say this is good for you or this represents your community
- in all of our efforts, we continue to make mistakes. But they’re learning mistakes.
He’s also got a great tip on how to get started. “Go to your local senior home and talk to the person who’s coordinating activities.” Age and time change the bodies and abilities of everyone. This is one place you will see “the slippery slope of the temporarily abled.”
—The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts is one of the Vermont Arts Council’s Arts Partners.