Flynn Center vows to bounce back after COVID-19, but may be forever transformed

The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts would have started its new season this month. Between September and May, more than 50 shows would have been presented in the 1,411-seat main theater and a 180-capacity basement venue, FlynnSpace.

The Flynn, however — like arts venues across the country — didn’t even get through its 2019-20 schedule, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in mid-March shut down large-scale gatherings until who-knows-when. The 2020-21 season, which had been fully booked before the pandemic, has officially been delayed through at least Dec. 31.

Now the state’s largest performing-arts organization is looking not toward who will next take the stage, but how the Flynn itself will survive. Will the Burlington arts center still be there for the thousands of Vermont arts lovers who rely on it to feed their heads, fill their hearts and uplift their spirits?

“This place means something. This is a significant part of the community,” said Steve MacQueen, who as artistic director books shows at the Flynn Center. “There’s a responsibility to keep it going.”

And if the Flynn Center does survive, what will it look like on the other side of the pandemic? Part of the Flynn’s transformation, those who run the organization say, will inevitably be in response to the social- and racial-justice movements taking place right now in America.

The Flynn Center presents "Hurly Burly" featuring the Ray Vega Quintet at Roosevelt Park in Burlington on Aug. 15, 2020.

Tumult before COVID-19

The year got off to a shaky start at the Flynn with the sudden departure of Anna Marie Gewirtz — only the third executive director in the organization’s 39-year history — following 18 months in the Flynn’s top job. She cited family issues in announcing her departure.

“We came back from Christmas,” MacQueen said, “and she wasn’t here.”

Enter Charlie Smith as interim executive director. He was a regional president for KeyBank and served as secretary of administration for Gov. Jim Douglas. Since then he has become something of a fixer for organizations such as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Vermont PBS, stepping into the breach after the abrupt departures of leaders. 

“Everybody was kind of surprised, caught off-guard, thrown off a little bit,” Smith said of the time he joined the Flynn in late January. “When I arrived it was necessary to kind of rebuild a sense of teamwork and how to go forward.”

The COVID-19 pandemic came a few weeks later. Suddenly the Flynn had to cancel shows through the spring.

With the loss of income from ticket sales and corporate sponsorships of shows, Smith had to oversee the trimming of staff, which went from approximately 36 people to 24. That doesn’t include the 250 or so employed by the Flynn on a part-time basis to do backstage work for shows; with no shows to present, there was no work for those employees.

“I think we did all the right things,” Smith said. “We acted very quickly. It was a hard time.”

Steve MacQueen, artistic director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, stands outside the Burlington venue Sept. 2, 2020.

MacQueen was upset about the loss of the remainder of the 2019-20 season. Even more so he mourns the loss of a dozen beloved co-workers.

“That was traumatic for me,” he said. “It felt like for a week I was moving in Jell-O. It just dropped out of the sky, the enormity of it.”

Steve MacQueen, artistic director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, introduces Saboyouma at the Flynn's Hurly Burly concert Aug. 22, 2020 in Burlington.

Burlington Discover Jazz Festival yields to Hurly Burly

Smith has employed his banking background to address the Flynn’s financial situation. The arts center operates on a fiscal year cycle from July 1 to June 30 and normally brings in about $7.2 million via ticket sales, sponsorships, donations, grants and concessions. For fiscal year 2020-21, Smith said, the Flynn has budgeted a loss of more than $1 million in revenue. 

“It’s very significant,” Smith said. “We are fortunate to have incredible, generous donors, individuals and corporate sponsors, many of whom keep working to sponsor smaller shows outside or find ways to help.” Federal and state money has also stanched some of the financial bleeding, Smith said.

With no paid-admission shows happening inside the theater — the 10-day Burlington Discover Jazz Festival that annually puts an exclamation point on the Flynn season in early June was canceled this year — the Flynn has turned to free outdoor shows to serve its patrons.

“Performance is what the Flynn does,” MacQueen said.

The Flynn dipped its toe into live performance in an era of social distancing in August when it began a series of free, outdoor pop-up concerts called Hurly Burly, featuring local musicians including jazz trumpeter Ray Vega and West African-influenced group Sabouyouma.

Sabouyouma performs Aug. 22, 2020 as part of the Hurly Burly concert series presented in Burlington by the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

Smith said the Flynn decided the public deserved a few concerts to make them feel good about something in this lost year.

“Our community needs fun activities, number one, and number two, we had sponsors who were willing to back it up,” Smith said. “Number three, we really liked the idea of being able to provide employment, so to speak, to musicians, to give them a gig to do.”

MacQueen saw people in tears after the first concert, by Vega. Listeners were moved, he said, from feeling the music and the vibrations from the live-arts community coming back together.

A sign on the box office of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 2, 2020.

Shows planned for Shelburne Museum

The Flynn is looking to potential ticketed performances this fall. MacQueen is booking a few outdoor shows at Shelburne Museum in October, including one Oct. 16 with the group The Queen’s Cartoonists performing live musical soundtracks to classic animation.

Another would have featured the Quebecois circus act Flip Fabrique, but with the border between the U.S. and Canada essentially closed and the U.S. death rate from COVID-19 continuing to climb, that show is now highly unlikely, according to MacQueen. (Flip Fabrique was at the Flynn preparing for its March 15 show when it became the venue’s first event canceled because of COVID-19.)

MacQueen and Smith aren’t sure when or if the 2020-21 season will resume. The next still-scheduled show in what would have been the full season is a Feb. 5 concert by the jazz supergroup Artemis, featuring musicians including Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen and Allison Miller.

“I would say the odds of it happening are less than 50-50,” MacQueen said. “My big fervent prayer is we are back for Jazz Fest 2021” in June.

Smith said the immediate hope of live performance resuming as before depends in large part on a vaccine to combat COVID-19. He said “we’re a long, long way” from having events for sold-out crowds of more than 1,400 people.

“I’d be very pleasantly surprised if we felt it was safe and appropriate to reopen for March,” he said.

Time to ‘look in the mirror’

The downtime gives the Flynn the chance to consider and revamp its identity.

“It’s incumbent on organizations like us,” MacQueen said, “to stop and look in the mirror.”

How, he asked, should the Flynn address “the twin crises” of COVID-19 and race relations in the U.S.? How should the arts center that has long made a point of presenting artists from a diverse collection of backgrounds make sure it’s reaching audiences from similarly diverse backgrounds?

Daniel Bernard Roumain, a violinist of Haitian descent, was the Flynn’s artist-in-residence for the 2019-20 season who staged a 24-hour musical protest on Church Street last fall against U.S. immigration policy. MacQueen is bringing Roumain back Oct. 1 for a two-year stint as creative chair, a position in which he will influence not only programming at the Flynn but equity and how the organization is built from within. 

“I think we’ll come back differently,” MacQueen said. “We’ll see what that looks like.”

Christal Brown is a Flynn board member, a choreographer, dancer and associate professor of dance at Middlebury College. She sees opportunity arising for the Flynn out of the struggles of 2020.

“Right now we’re in a real moment of growth,” she said. The Flynn, Brown said, can assess how it wants to be seen locally, regionally and nationally; what it means to be an anti-racist organization; how it can create a sustainable financial model; and how members of the Flynn community can nourish each other in the same way artists nourish communities.

Christal Brown performs her solo dance work "What We Ask of Flesh."

The need for human connection

The Flynn can and will bounce back, according to MacQueen. “I choose to be optimistic,” he said of the arts center’s long-term health. “I don’t think anybody knows. At the moment we are surviving with the staff that we have.”

The winter, he said, is key. If there’s a massive outbreak of COVID-19 and no shows happen in 2021, that would be bad for the Flynn’s future. “We’re a business,” MacQueen said of the nonprofit venue. “We have to generate revenue in some way.”

The Flynn is in “sound shape,” according to Smith. “There’s no question in my mind that the Flynn is going to bounce back,” he said. “If we have to see this thing through for two years, we could do that.”

He said three years is doable. “For now it’s really about conserving resources, being ready and able to have the right staff and the right skills to bounce back fast,” Smith said. “The thirst for live performance is always going to be there. I don’t doubt the audiences will be back once the confidence is rebuilt.”

Before live performance returns, Brown would like to see the Flynn expand its virtual offerings. The Flynn scheduled some online educational sessions but very few performance livestreams after the pandemic arrived. 

One of those performance livestreams involved Brown’s work-in-progress “What We Ask of Flesh,” which the Flynn presented in conjunction with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the New England Foundation for the Arts.

That presentation broke down the production to show viewers how performances are assembled. Brown thinks the model can be expanded moving forward, with aficionados contributing money to help productions develop while building literal and figurative investment in an artistic project.

Brown thinks after all this is over, live performance will be more popular than ever, that people will want to see performers in a theater exhaust themselves, displaying sweat, fatigue and passion in service to the arts.

“We swing in pendulums,” Brown said. “This kind of swing in terms of digital-everything is going to try to swing back in the opposite direction, and we’re going to crave human experience.”

If you go

The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts continues its Hurly Burly series of free, outdoor pop-up concerts in Burlington, with time and location to be announced day of show on social media and at www.flynncenter.org:

  • Sept. 12, KeruBo
  • Sept. 13, Burlington Taiko
  • Sept. 19, Mal Maiz
  • Sept. 20, Dwight & Nicole

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at bhallenbeck@freepressmedia.com. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.

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