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Flynn Center Blog

Breaking Down Barriers

by Kat Redniss, Student Matinee Coordinator

As part of the Flynn’s continuing efforts to break down barriers of participation for individuals with disabilities, the Flynn and Chicago Children’s Theatre welcomes young people on the autism spectrum into a world of wonderand innovation with Red Kite, Brown Box (October 4 & 5). Inspired by the book Not a Box by Antoinette Portis,
Red Kite, Brown Box is a unique multi-sensory theatrical experience that brings participants into the world of Papa Nick and his kids as they explore the space filled with cardboard boxes and simple props.

Red Kite, Brown Box gives audience members a series of events with alternating intensity—soothing and calm following raucous and high energy, from creating the night sky to replicating popcorn popping. Everyone is welcomed gently into the performance, and encouraged to interact and respond organically. Kids can sing, laugh, talk, clap, dance, and help create this magical world; no one is expected to remain silent or in their seats. Each participant has their own cardboard box as a home base, made cozy and safe with personal items provided by the individual’s family. Each performance welcomes a maximum of fifteen young people and their parents, teachers, or caregivers into our Hoehl Studio; the small number of participants further contributes to the intimate and supported feel. These promise to be days filled with joy, laughter, and creative innovation, enveloping young people on the spectrum with support, and hopefully reinforcing the sentiment that the Flynn is a place for all people.

As we enter the second year of our Surdna Foundation-funded disability and inclusion initiatives, it’s a thrilling time to look back and reflect on what we’ve done to increase access for our community, and to anticipate the impact that lies ahead as we continue working to further lessen barriers and increase awareness.

So, what adaptations make a show “autism-friendly?” Schoolhouse Rock Live! was our first show of this sort, which we presented in February 2015. Here are some of the ways we made the Flynn inviting and safe for those on the autism spectrum:

• A Flynn Social Story: A visual story that walks a person through what they might expect during their visit to the Flynn, helping to reduce anxiety of the unknown.

• Character Guides: A visual guide to the four main players in the show with discussion prompts and activities for families to explore together after the show.

• Training for our Volunteer Spirits: Pascal Cheng, longtime Flynn volunteer and education and communications specialist at the Howard Center, presented training on best practices with the input of a young woman on the autism spectrum, who shared her experience as an audience member with autism. One parent reflected in a post-performance survey, “The ushers were very accommodating of my ASD kiddo—they were fine with letting us hang on in the back behind the seating with them, and were great about suggesting how best to help our kiddo get comfortable!”

• Technical Adjustments: The house lights remained on at a low level; sound levels were reduced through consultation from a Howard Center Autism Interventionist and our production staff.

• Coloring Station: Themed coloring pages and markers, attended by special educators and Flynn staff and volunteers, who interacted and colored with families.

• Fidgets, Comfort Items, and Sensory Materials:
Koosh balls, tangles, small beanbags, weighted blankets and wraps, noise-reducing headphones, stress balls, and sunglasses available to any audience member.

• Quiet Space: Our gallery was furnished with beanbag chairs and yoga balls, tucked away from the commotion of a packed lobby.

Often, the biggest barrier to entry is feeling unwelcome and ashamed of behaviors that are atypical in an audience setting. Providing an inclusive autism-friendly show like Schoolhouse Rock Live! helped break through some of that anxiety, as one parent noted, “If there were more supports and accommodations like these in other public venues, my child and family would be much more integrated into our community. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for an afternoon where my child was safe and supported, where his needs were not seen as exceptional or inconvenient.” Gigi Weisman, Autism Program Consultant for Chittenden East SU said, “Even those who had gone to shows before reported they were so much more relaxed knowing their family member or friend would be accepted rather than judged.”

We’ve been able to offer many of these accommodations for every family matinee, and for students in our school matinee series. These small considerations, increased staff awareness, and continued dedication to learning and growing have strengthened our inclusive practices, and demonstrate the need and importance of this work in our community.

And this is work we plan to continue! In addition to Red Kite, Brown Box, the Flynn is offering two other shows that promote inclusion from different angles. On March 8, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, the zany tale of a cat transforming a dull rainy day into a zany adventure, is presented as another autism-friendly performance, giving us opportunity to revisit our practices and takes steps towards an even deeper level of inclusion. As part of our student matinee series, we’ll present Celestial Being on January 12. The story of Celeste, a young girl with Asperger’s who loves outer space but has trouble connecting with those from her own planet, provides a powerful opportunity for students to develop empathy and understanding regarding the experiences of the character on stage and those of their classmates and friends.

It is with great pride and excitement I look ahead to next season. As Temple Grandin stated, “the most important thing people did for me was to expose me to new things.” So here’s to breaking down barriers of shame, and replacing them with inclusive, welcoming opportunities to expose members of our community on the autism spectrum to new, exciting, engaging things!

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Supporters Go ‘Over The Edge’ To Raise Money For Flynn Center

by Kathleen Masterson and Mitch Wertlieb, Vermont Public Radio


If you happen to be in downtown Burlington on Sept. 5, don’t be alarmed if you look up and see scores of people rappelling down the side of a tall building. It’s not a SWAT team, it’s a brave and dedicated group of ordinary folks taking part in a fundraiser for the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

Called “Over the Edge,” this flashy fundraiser has been done in other U.S. cities, but it’ll be the first time the Queen City has seen the event. The Flynn Center, which only garners about 60 percent of its budget from ticket sales, is embracing the new idea to raise money.

Volunteers sign up to rappel down the Courtyard Marriott Harbor Hotel, donate $100 and then enlist others to support their daring effort. The money raised will support the Flynn Center’s operations, including a range of education programs for kids.

Former Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling, Mayor Miro Weinberger, and beloved Lake Monsters mascot “Champ” are braving the descent for the cause, too.

“We were looking for a fundraiser that was a little bit different,” says Leigh Chandler, the Flynn Center’s director of marketing and communications.

“I think the hope is that this becomes a yearly thing,” she says. Because there’s already a waiting list this year to rappel down the 9-story building, “we’re hoping that the people that come to us after we take a pass to be will be interested in doing it next year.”

Going ‘over the edge’ is the scariest part

Chandler says Petra Cliffs, a local rock climbing gym, is offering a free course for Flynn Center volunteers so they can learn how to rappel beforehand. But the national fundraiser is run by an experienced organization so even people who show up the day of with no prior training can descend the building safely.

Still, Chandler says she won’t be going over the edge of the building this year. “It’s not that I’m chicken, I have to work the event!” she says with a laugh.

Around the country the event has been conducted on 30-story buildings with glass walls, so the 9-story brick descent isn’t too crazy, says Flynn Board Member Chico Lager, who helped bring the event to Burlington.

“I’ve been up on the balcony, and there are great views of Lake Champlain,” he says. “I’m sure it’s going to be a great adrenaline rush when those hundred people take that first step off the balcony.”

Flynn Center supporters agree.

Scared of heights

“I’m rappelling because I’m afraid of heights,” says Nichole Magoon, who works at Champlain College. “But I love to do anything that challenges and scares me. And the Flynn is such a great cause … that when I saw this happening I just said, ‘You know, whatever it is, I’ll do it.’ “

Lisa Getty from Champlain, New York, feels the same way; the first-time rappeler will be going over the edge on her birthday.

“I’ve decided the scary part is looking over the edge,” she says. “I feel like it’s going to be scary but not hard.  So if I can somehow get over the edge without looking down … I’m going to be fine.”

“My husband, meanwhile, is using it as an excuse to buy a Go Pro camera, which he wants to attach to my helmet so that he can watch me screaming and crying the whole way down,” she says.

Magoon chimes in that her financial backers want video proof as well: “I had friends donate who said, ‘The video of you must be amazing, I expect tears!’ ”

Andrea Charest, who co-owns Petra Cliffs Climbing Center & Mountaineering School, says the event organizers have double protections for the rappelling volunteers, so even an inexperienced person will be able to descend safely.

“But having a little bit of experience just helps you sleep the night before,” she says. Her school is offering free training to volunteers who want to learn and practice rappelling in the gym first.

Volunteers who have named their team the “Wobbly Knees Brigade” practiced recently at Petra Cliffs, and are gearing up for the big day. They even filmed a dramatic video with a drone swooping off the edge of the 9-story Marriott building to drum up more financial support for their big descent.

This story first appeared on Vermont Public Radio.

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Inclusion for All

by Flynn Executive Director John R. Killacky

Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandated equal access for people with disabilities. Most arts groups, as does the Flynn Center, provide architectural accommodations: accessible parking spaces, accessible and companion seating, hearing assist systems, accessible restrooms, accessible elevators, and power-assist buttons at entries. Our new box office features a shelf 33 inches from the floor to facilitate transactions from a wheelchair. However, architectural accommodation does not equate with full inclusion.

Flynn Center patrons’ access needs can be requested online, in person, and through a voice/relay system. There is work to be done with our online access. An ADA audit found audio descriptions are needed for images so that people with visual impairments who use screen readers can “hear” an image.  Further, ADA recommendations include adding captions to videos for people who are hard of hearing.

Programmatically, the Flynn, like our peers, offers American Sign Language (ASL), as well as large print and braille programs. The wonderful women’s acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, has traveled with its own ASL interpreter for years.  On their last visit to the Flynn, we had a request for audio description from patrons who were visually impaired. This was a first for the group, and they were thrilled.

To better understand the needs of individuals on the autism spectrum and their families, the Flynn worked with Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative, colleagues from VSA VT, HowardCenter, and an advisory committee. Artistic, program, education, administrative, box office, and front-of-house staff learned to be more welcoming and not frown upon or curtail fidgeting and sounds. In this process, we had to challenge our own misconceptions, working with advisors to explore and learn about what we didn’t know.

We found that visitors on the autism spectrum have different needs, so adaptations are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Our initial ideas were complex and varied, and the community urged us to simplify and understand that the biggest barrier is feeling unwelcome and ashamed of behaviors that are atypical in an audience setting.

We worked with the Childsplay ensemble to implement a new audience approach with the presentation Schoolhouse Rock Live! in a sensory-friendly manner. Online, we posted social stories, giving those on the autism spectrum a preview of what to expect. No changes were made in the script, but light levels were increased in the house, while sound was lowered. We created activity and quiet spaces in the lobby and gallery, and made character cards, fidgets, and noise-canceling headphones available for use. After the show, the actors met excited kids in the lobby.

One parent wrote: “If there were more supports and accommodations like these in other public venues, my child and family would be much more integrated into our community. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for an afternoon where my child was safe and supported, where his needs were not seen as exceptional or inconvenient.” Afterward, we decided to adapt all family matinee shows in this manner, testament as to how “special needs” benefit all patrons and enhance everyone’s user experiences.

For a performance of Thodos Dance’s A Light in the Dark about the lives of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, we provided braille study guides and the company led touch tours on stage so audience members with a visual impairment could better access contextual elements of the production like costumes, props, and scenery. We also had a Flynn teaching artist collaborate with a VSA VT teaching artist, storyteller and comedian René Pellerin, who is both deaf and blind for pre-performance workshops in various classrooms.

As part of our in-school arts education work, the Flynn partners with VSA VT and Burlington City Arts at the K-5 Integrated Arts Academy to provide professional development for teachers and teaching artists in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a set of curriculum development principles that considers multiple learning styles. These are particularly relevant for students with physical and cognitive disabilities, but also assist kinesthetic learners, paving the way for rich learning experiences in the arts for all students.

Many galleries and museums are still hanging artworks centered at 58 inches from the floor. But whose “eye-level” is being considered?  The average eye height for a person is a wheelchair is 48 inches, as opposed to 61 inches for those standing. We’ve lowered the center for artwork to be 56 inches from the floor. Wall labels are printed in 18 point high-contrast type centered 54 inches from the ground.  And if there are pieces protruding from the wall, we build a small barrier on the floor as a tactile guide for people using a seeing-eye cane.

Folios of larger-font labels, braille versions of artist statements and biographies are available, as well we offer audio description and ASL tours of exhibitions. With our learning with the autism community, we created social stories online for exhibitions and make headphones with soft music and fidgets available – simple augmentations to provide a more welcoming environment.

Perhaps most complex of all, is marketing for artists with disabilities.  Many do not want to be defined by their disability. Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts was presented for his genius to a mainstream audience of jazz lovers, but since he is blind we were able to do some incredible outreach with the Vermont Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired. Visual artist Larry Bissonnette, although a world traveled spokesperson for autism, did not want his exhibition framed entirely within a disability context. We reached out to art aficionados and critics, as well as to the autism community.

There is a fine line here, as how to appropriately promote artists’ work. All too often artists with disabilities are given empathetic reviews, replete with their heroism overcoming tribulations, but ultimately they are not taken seriously as artists.  Aesthetic validation is far more important than sympathy. After all, the Flynn is presenting them for their artistry, not their disability.

In disability circles, we are reminded to always lead with the person first – it’s better to say “a person who uses a wheelchair” vs. “a wheelchair user.” (The only exception is in the deaf community, where many want to be referred to as a “deaf person.”) With artists, I am reminded to always lead with the person and art form, and then add an identifying contextual tag when and where appropriate.

Along this journey, ongoing staff training has been important, and community input from people with disabilities essential. This work is ongoing, there is still much to do. Yes, inclusion is a civil rights issue, but as important, we view it as an organizational asset.

This article was originally published in the Burlington Free Press.

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Experience Your True Self

by John Killacky, Executive Director

Single tickets for the Flynn’s 2015-16 season are now on sale. Visit to see the full line-up.

When over 500 people turned out for the season preview event in July, I was once again reminded about the tremendous support this community gives to the Flynn. Our ongoing efforts to foster the enjoyment, understanding, and development of the arts in Vermont through diverse and engaging artistic experiences cannot exist without your patronage. Thank you.

The Flynn’s evolution from a 1930 Art Deco movie palace into a nationally-recognized performing arts center was only possible with this community’s unwavering commitment and perseverance. This support has kept the Flynn vital, accessible, and responsive throughout every chapter of our growth. For the last 34 years, people like you have made it possible for the Flynn to help ensure the arts remain alive for future generations. I can’t guarantee you’ll like everything you see here at the Flynn–there is no aesthetic hierarchy here other than excellence. Let’s celebrate the familiar and dive into the unknown together. The arts are a safe place for diverse ideas, expressions, and experiences to intermingle.

We believe the arts touch people’s lives in profound ways, provide enrichment for children, stimulate creativity and transformation, and strengthen overall community. This was reinforced for me a few years ago while watching some of our teen performers in our FlynnArts summer youth theater production of the musical Shrek. The show has a wonderful song of affirmation and celebrations of individuality: “Let your freak flag wave/Let your freak flag fly/Never take it down, never take it down/Raise it way up high!”

The kids had a blast performing it, the audience cheered, and I was so glad I work here. But I was also a bit wistful, and wished I had a community like the Flynn while I was growing up. There is a lot of discussion these days about how arts organizations can become the “third space” in people’s lives. (The first space is the domestic sphere with family, the second involves civic engagement in school and work, while the third is where our authentic selves can be nurtured and thrive.) This is our aspiration; we hope each of you experience your true selves more deeply here. And let your freak flag fly!

Give me a call (802 652-4504), email (jkillacky[at], or say hello in the lobby. This is your theater and I am honored to steward it on your behalf.

My Freak Flag Recommendations

Arlo Guthrie
Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour
October 7, MainStage

Bang on a Can All-Stars
Brian Eno’s Music for Airports
February 19, FlynnSpace

Samuel Beckett Trilogy
Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby
March 23, MainStage

Ana Moura
Portuguese fado reimagined
April 29, MainStage

Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Natural soundscapes, sinewy dance
May 4, MainStage


Tanya Tagaq
Throat singing/industrial/metal
May 14, FlynnSpace


Buy Tickets

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Broadway World Reviews FlynnArts’ “Once on this Island”

by Lindsey Grutchfield

FlynnArts Summer Youth Theater opened Once on this Island  on Thursday, July 30 at the FlynnSpace at Burlington’s Flynn Center for Performing Arts.

Once on this Island is a Caribbean interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and is based on a novel by Rosa Guy entitled My Love, My Love. The show touches on the great power of class and societal differences and, through the lens of a love story, explores the very real harms that those kind of imagined divides can cause a community.

The storyline of Once on this Island is much the same as in The Little Mermaid. However, in this case, the two different worlds inhabited by the characters are not the worlds of merpeople and humans, but of the French ruling class and the native underclass. A native orphan girl named Ti Moune, born into the lower class, is sent on a journey by the gods of the island that is designed to test the power of love over death and her own personal strength. When a boy from a wealthy French family is in a car wreck before her eyes, Ti Moune believes it is her destiny to save him, in the process trading her own soul for his life. When the boy returns to his family Ti Moune follows him there but encounters greater societal and godly forces than she ever could have imagined.

With music written by the TONY-winning Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Once on this Island had its Broadway debut in 1990 after premiering off-Broadway earlier that year. In 1995, the show won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Now, in the FlynnArts Summer Theater Program’s 8th summer, it is being put on by youth ages 13-19, although it does feature three younger actors in cameo roles.

The most overwhelming and immediate impression of FlynnArts’ Once on this Island is one of color. In a small performance space with audience members on three sides, the lush color and detail of the set and the costumes fills the theater to its brim. The audience is awash in waves of color and movement, and the effect is spectacular.

The actors, too, fill the space with their characters and voices. The quality of each cast members performance is very high, and it is incredibly easy to forget that these are young people. Quite simply, there is not an actor who takes the stage who does not belong in a highly talented cast like this one.

Leading the cast is a sparkling Victoria Fearn as Ti Moune, whose delicate demeanor and childlike innocence onstage belie a stunningly powerful voice. She lends real emotion to her role and manages to stand out even among her talented peers.

In the cosmic realm, each of the four god characters of the show lend gravitas and skillfully keep Once on this Island from getting out of hand under the steam of its joyful energy. Khadijah Bangoura exudes strength in persona and singing voice as the earth-goddess Asaka. Zoe Olson lends grace and self-assured elegance to the role of the love-goddess Erzulie. She and her counterpart, Tim Lewis as the death-god Papa Ge, have excellent chemistry as they orchestrate the plot together and in harmony. Lewis embodies the skulking Papa Ge with great authority and malice, and Max Chlumecky also does well as the water-god Agwe.

Back on earth, Once on this Island gets a strong dose of heart and a little humor as well at the hands of Emma Jarvis and Owen Leavey, who play Ti Moune’s adopted parents Mama Euralie and TonTon Julian, respectively. They each steal the heart of the audience, and convincingly show both wisdom and pain at their daughter’s growing up, adult emotions difficult for any young actor to portray.

A great supporting cast and ensemble rounds out the show, which also showcases tight choreography and professional presentation. Once on this Island is well-acted, well-produced, achievements that are all the more impressive for the fact that it is a youth production.

This review first appeared on Broadway World.

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Five Shows You Can’t Miss

by Steve MacQueen, Artistic Director

The 2015-16 season is now on sale to the general public. Buy tickets for three shows and save up to 15%

Perhaps the greatest part about seeing dance or music or theater performed live is that thrill of discovery, that shock-of-the-new happening in the moment. Here are five artists coming to the Flynn this season who you may not have heard of—and if you have, you already know how great they are—but who can most certainly provide that thrill.

Lisa Fischer
September 12

The most in-demand back-up singer in the world, Fischer has toured/recorded with Sting, Nine Inch Nails, Tina Turner, Lou Reed, Beyoncé, Laurie Anderson, Chris Botti, and most notably the Rolling Stones, with whom she’s toured since 1994 (her feature on Gimme Shelter is a nightly high point). She was a focal point of the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE HER: She is simply one of the great singers of today, and an opportunity to hear a voice like this finally take center stage should not be passed up. With her backing trio Grand Baton, Fischer mines a deeply soulful, jazz-inflected R&B groove with plenty of rock & roll in there, too.

Henry Butler with Steven Bernstein & the Hot 9
October 23

Henry Butler is quite possibly the greatest living exponent of the New Orleans piano tradition. No less an authority than Dr. John calls Butler “the pride of New Orleans.” Blind since infancy, he has mastered that complex, percussive piano style while putting his own stamp on it through endless invention and improvisation. Few pianists are as thrilling and visceral as Butler.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE THEM: Hurricane Katrina drove Butler from New Orleans
and he ended up in Brooklyn, where he hooked up with valve-trombonist/bandleader Steven Bernstein. Viper’s Drag, their recording from last year, is an ebullient re-imagining of New Orleans “Hot Jazz” of the ‘20s as played by new millennium musicians. The horn arrangements are fantastic, while Butler’s pianistic flights are indescribable—you need to see them to believe them. And you should.

Dorrance Dance: ETM: The Initial Approach
October 29

Michelle Dorrance is “the brightest choreographer working in tap today” says the New York Times. Her entertaining, visual, musical explorations of “percussive dance” have earned her the Alpert Award, Jacob’s Pillow Award, Princess Grace Award, and a Bessie Award all in the past three years. Prior to running her own company, Dorrance served a high-profile apprenticeship with Savion Glover and Stomp!, and performed at the Flynn with each company.

WHY SHOULD YOU SEE HER: Dorrance balances entertainment with high concept. Her new piece ETM uses technology that allows the dancers’ movement to trigger different sounds while dancing, so the performers move while simultaneously playing a written musical composition. Crazy stuff! And there’s Dorrance herself, a mesmerizing mover whose mix of athleticism and grace comes honestly: her mother was a ballet dancer, while her father is the most successful women’s soccer coach in NCAA history.

Beckett Trilogy: Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby
Starring Lisa Dwan
March 23

These brief and brilliant one-acts by Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett each feature a single actress, made legendary by Beckett’s muse, actress Billie Whitelaw. The most famous of these plays, Not I, consists of a single pair of red lips suspended in the darkness, speaking deeply poetic lines at an almost incomprehensible speed to shattering emotional effect. Now, Scottish actress Lisa Dwan has claimed these plays, drawing insane rave reviews on both sides of the pond.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: Beckett’s plays are a high-water cultural mark of the 20th century, and Dwan nails them. The New York Times said, “In this harrowing and beautiful production . . . Ms. Dwan is an instrument of Beckett, in that way saints and martyrs are said to be instruments of god.” The Guardian raved, “There is no questioning the breathtaking virtuosity of Lisa Dwan.” Major non-musical theater rarely makes a stop in Burlington, but it will most certainly be here when Ms. Dwan hits the stage.

Tanya Tagaq
May 14 (FlynnSpace)

The Inuit throat singer has been making waves with her incredibly powerful live performances, as well as her Polaris Prize (Canadian Grammy) for album of the year, beating out Arcade Fire. Mixing traditional throat singing with punk, performance art, Yoko Ono, Bjork, and Diamanda Galas, Tagaq has come up with something that is entirely her own and, quite honestly, not for everybody. Rolling Stone called her one of the “10 Artists You Need To Know” in 2015, calling a typical Tagaq performance “a shamanic ritual during which she exorcises demons in real time.” True enough.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE HER: The Tagaq performance I saw in January in NYC is one of the greatest live shows I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve seen a few. Tagaq’s bone-deep commitment to the act of artistic discovery is evident from the first downbeat. These wordless shows—“We’re going to make some sound for you now,” she told the crowd—somehow create waves of emotional response, whether during an almost unbearably intense quiet part or a full-scream purge. If you come, be prepared.

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The Self-Taught Art of Larry Bissonnette

by Bill Ellis, Saint Michael’s College Assistant Professor of Fine Arts: Music

See LOOKING OUT: The Self-Taught Art of Larry Bissonnette, in the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery June 5 through August 29, 2015. 

Larry in the studio.

Larry in the studio.

Larry Bissonnette’s art is many things: colorful, playful, energetic, and visceral. Context is as thick as the layers of paint he smears with his hands. His work can be viewed through the spontaneous, untutored aesthetics of the self-taught, or at the interchange where autism and art meet. His multimedia creations find kinship with contemporary art, offer social discourse coupled with incisive humor, and mediate the gap between disability and ability. Not least, they place him in a select vernacular of Vermont artistry.

Just don’t call what he does “autistic art” explained away as a byproduct of disability. Instead, his art speaks past autism to share the humanity of a person whose diagnosis inhibits typical communication of feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Historically, singular abilities in the arts have countered the conventional narrative of disability, such as the technical brilliance of many blind musicians. To that end, Bissonnette provides his own explanation of what he does: “Love to look at my art as intuition driven not ordered by my disability.”

Autism does feed his routine, which involves daily drawing and weekly painting, the latter at workshops sponsored by G.R.A.C.E. (the Grass Roots Arts and Community Effort).  “Yes, used to certain habits of doing things,” says Bissonnette, 57, who types responses via facilitated communication. His assistant, Pascal Cheng, places a gentle hand on the artist’s shoulder to keep him focused as he types – no such assistance is required when Bissonnette makes his art. “Upending the routine would be good.”

Some traits in his work are common to art made by people on the autism spectrum, such as thematic repetition, interest in the past, transportation imagery, and a compulsion to create for its own sake. Indeed, the understanding and appreciation of art by those classified autistic has grown in recent years. This includes an ever-expanding list of books on the subject and as well as studios, exhibition spaces, and representation for autism-related art (California’s Art of Autism collective – – lists more than 50 such organizations). Yet given that autism exists on a spectrum – i.e., no two people with the diagnosis show exactly the same symptomatic behaviors – it follows that work by visual artists with autism is just as varied, existing on a creative spectrum that ranges from the hyperrealism of Stephen Wiltshire to the ethereal pop art of Jessica Park to the Lego compositions of Alex Masket.

As for Bissonnette, recurring motifs, gestures, themes, and ways of doing things in his art can – and should – be attributed as well to personal style. Some distinguishing elements in his work are: memory-based subject matter; preference for multi-media; recurring iconography and symbols including hyperlexia; motion imagery such as wheels and circles; faces, both painted and photographed; marginalia; handmade frames; and commentary on disability issues, for which he is a well-traveled advocate.

Visually arresting, Bissonnette’s larger works take the form of oblong, multi-media panels layered with acrylic paint, marker, colored pencil, Polaroid film, tape, wood, and nails.  As the book, Loud Hands, points out, people with autism often rely on their hands to break the “language” barrier – and by extension the deflating stereotypes – that accompany autism. How fitting, then, that his art relies on bold, tactile gestures that could only be made by engaging one’s hands in a direct dance between paint and panel.

The frames are their own marvels, thick blocks of wood that usually hide or obscure part of the painting, which may be the point. Here is an unrevealing element between art and viewer that hints, perhaps, at the impasse autism can inflict on social interactions. Then again, “the frames add a formality that lifts the work into a realm of intention and public communication,” as art scholar Lyle Rexer writes. Put another way, the frame gives purpose to the act of viewing and to what is being viewed, which would explain why Bissonnette refuses to call a work finished until it is framed.

Many of his works are memory based, recalling more often than not his institutionalized childhood at the since-closed Brandon Training School. Far from the nostalgic, rural vistas of, say, Grandma Moses, or the whimsical recollections of fellow Vermonter Gayleen Aiken, Bissonnette’s paintings and sketches bear witness to a time when he was most misunderstood and mistreated. And yet the young boy – who first learned to draw as a nonverbal child – nurtured his love of art at Brandon, where he would sneak off in the middle of the night to the padlocked art room, break in, and get about to the business of making art.

Such burning single-mindedness can spill over into the constant revisiting and refining of a theme, such as many drawings he has made of a school playground. This form of perseveration locks in the rhythms and patterns of a scene or scenario, a quality that may well equip children on the autism spectrum with the kind of practice-instilled discipline necessary to create art. Still, his paintings are atypical of “systematizing tendencies” by so-called savants and artists with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in which recreation of a scene or experience is rendered in painstaking detail and accuracy, such as the aforementioned work of Stephen Wiltshire.

Bissonnette’s style and content – which has consciously shifted and adapted over the years and contains an abundance of self-reflective humor and social critique – leaves no doubt that the autism-classified artist is auteur, not automaton. One only has to compare his earlier works, tightly conceived and executed, to his late style full of impromptu swirls of color and a looser command of materials. “Wilder and more movement driven, paint is thicker,” says Bissonnette of his current approach. Stuart Murray sums up the Vermonter’s art, calling it “a supreme example of autistic intelligence at work in a portrayal of disability…His individual version of autism and his chosen working method represent a unique version of autistic expression.”

Like many artists with ASD, Bissonnette revels in an obsessive iconology, one packed with allusion and autobiography. Numbers figure prominently in his work, including the numeral 3, which refers, he says, to the age when he started to do art. Even his numbering system for dating works becomes, a la Howard Finster, part of the painting (“It’s like popular magazine timeline of regular issues,” Bissonnette says). So too do the walls, rooms, windows, play park swings, and zip code of Brandon Training School make frequent appearances, as does an anonymous painted face that, Bissonnette explains, is no one in particular, just the same face in different scenes. Still, the hyperlexia and fanatic pervasiveness of certain shapes and objects in his work, I would argue, is no less compulsive and artful than Jasper Johns’ fixation on flags, maps, and numbers.

Even more defining is the other face that shows up in nearly every painting as a photograph attached by bands of tape. These photos – initially taken with a Polaroid camera though he has since switched to a Fujifilm Instax 210 – are of family, friends, and those he meets at conferences. He likens the method of placing photos on his canvases to adding “a topping on an ice cream sundae” and says he will sometimes wait years before he matches an image with the right painting (this explains why the dates on the front and back of a painting frequently disagree). More than a mere topping, these photos anchor the paintings in complex, associative ways. If the human face has been at the forefront of modern art, as Lucienne Peiry contends what to make of the instant camera headshots that give weight, balance, completion, focus, and human connection to the background abstractions of Bissonnette’s paintings. It’s almost as if the painting becomes activated or inspirited once he tapes on the face, a post-modern Janus figure moderating two worlds, the autistic and non-autistic, who now share a space of recognition.

Many pieces as well have the recurring catch phrase, “No Parking,” stamped in stencil-like lettering almost as a kind of graffiti politik. It is the artist at his most political, suggesting the socially imposed limits of inclusion and presumption of competence for the disabled. The way he explains it, anybody can park where you like unless you happen to be disabled, in which case you are met with “no parking” at every turn.

There are other aspects to the Milton native’s artistic identity. His color palette, nature-imbued sensibility and sense of line, and rootedness of location confirm his ties to the Green Mountain State. And he embraces his “outsider” status, though the label risks marginalizing him further than disability has already tried.

True, he experienced relative isolation at Brandon when he was developing his artistic voice, and his autism can be misread – to the uninformed, at least – as severe disengagement. But the self-taught tag is relevant only in that he has not let the absence of tradition or formal art training dampen his desire to create. The G.R.A.C.E. program he partakes in is a community, after all. Add his family, his Howard Center relationships and interactions, his ongoing presence in academic and disability rights circles, and his sundry travels abroad, and he is more of a global citizen than many of his neighbors.

In 1949 French artist Jean Dubuffet put together the first exhibition of art brut, which championed the creativity of children and the institutionalized as an alternative to schooled, conventional art. In the show’s catalog, he wrote, “Where is he, your normal man? Show him to us! Can the artistic act, with the extreme tension it implies and the high fever that accompanies it, ever be deemed normal? … artistic function is identical in all cases, and there is no more an art of the insane than there is an art of dyspeptics or those with knee problems.” We have come a long way since Dubuffet’s time in understanding the complexities of the mind and in cultivating a culture of empathy and inclusiveness for those with disabilities. But his argument holds true. Bissonnette’s dazzling work, which resides, aptly enough, in Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut, uses color, form, and line – the capacity of any and all visual art – to make us see the world in ways previously unimagined.



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Three Picks from the 2015-16 Season

by Steve MacQueen, Artistic Director

This season is diverse, with a truly fabulous breadth of performances: modern and post- modern dance, ballet, and tap; jazz, soul, classical, Americana, Portuguese fado, Jamaican, Brazilian, Haitian, and Irish music; Broadway; historical drama, tragedy, Beckett, Shakespeare, and the downright unclassifiable.

Here are a few that I’m especially looking forward to:
• Guitarist Ry Cooder makes a rare appearance on the concert stage and we’re lucky to have him, along with Ricky Skaggs, and Sharon WhiteCooder-White-Skaggs play on the MainStage, Monday, November 16.

Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White, Ry Cooder

Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White, Ry Cooder

Lisa Dwan’s reputation as one of the world’s finest actresses stems from her work in an evening of notoriously difficult Samuel Beckett one-acts. Amazingly, this big-market production is coming to the Flynn on one of this tour’s final stops. The Samuel Beckett Trilogy of  Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby is on the MainStage on Wednesday, March 23.

Samuel Beckett Trilogy

Samuel Beckett Trilogy

• Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, a fully committed deep-end dive into a world of pure sound and overwhelming emotion. See her Saturday, May 14 in FlynnSpace.

Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq

While the Flynn is best known as a performance venue, its impact stretches beyond what you’ll see in this brochure—our collaborations with Vermont artists and other regional arts organizations, for instance, and our deep commitment to arts education, which includes masterclasses, school visits, and student matinee performances for 35,000 K-12 students.

We also offer funds and resources to help artists create new work. This year, the Flynn is commissioning dance (Lucky Plush’s The Queue), music (a new work by multiple Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider), and theater (local actor/director Seth Jarvis’ multi-collaborator work Transitions . . .).

See you in the lobby this season.

Tickets go on sale at 10 am on July 10 to Flynn members and July 28 to the general public. Tickets for individual performances go on sale Thursday, August 13 to members and Monday, August 17 to the general public. Visit to order.

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Thrill Ride at the Flynn with Chris Botti

by James Gamble, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Chris Botti at Burlington Discover Jazz Festival on June 14, 2015.

When I told my wife we were going to see a trumpet player at the Flynn Sunday night she was a little dubious. She didn’t know anything about Chris Botti. She’s not that into the trumpet. But I told her he’s supposed to be amazing and, as a music lover like me, she was willing to give it a shot. I had never seen him either. “Trust me,” I said. Yeah, she’s heard that one before.

Settled in our seats with an excellent view, her body language was still telegraphing “I’m here just so you don’t have to sit alone.” But I was confident. A few minutes later Botti took the stage in a somewhat unassuming fashion. Of course the crowd exploded, but he rather nonchalantly crossed the stage, horn tucked under his arm, and started playing along with his full band. Beautiful tones, nice little bit of syncopation.

At the piano, Geoffrey Keezer ran up and down the 88 a couple times. Solid base line from Richie Goods. Artful drumming by “new guy” Lee Pearson. Ben Butler interjected a number of dazzling riffs on the electric guitar. Andy Esrin, positioned almost surreptitiously upstage left, glued it all together with synthesized orchestration. All very cool sounding. All what you might expect in a professional jazz performance.

And then the first car of what was to be a rollercoaster of a night began to scream down the tracks. Next thing you know, Botti is slaying high C and then some. The band is rockin’ and the audience is visibly stirred. My wife leans over and says, “Okay, that was really good.” Progress.

Our heart rates effectively elevated, Botti slows things down a little, bringing out violinist Lucia Micarelli. She immediately charms everyone with her melodious sounds and virtuoso bow work. And then, gradually, he builds up speed again. Throughout the night Botti mixed it up with some contemporary numbers and original compositions, as well as standards and pieces from his Italia recording. I glance over—My wife’s got that immersed look on her face and I just get right back into the performance.

What I found particularly remarkable was when Botti took a break while someone in the band soloed, he didn’t just stand idly by. He was fully engaged with his fellow performer—watching, tapping his foot, bobbing his head, really into it. In fact, on more than one occasion he started clapping for the soloist before the audience, as impressed as all of us.

Just when you think you’re in a groove for the night, he switches it up again—this time bringing out vocalist Sy Smith. Smith is vivacious with a voice that’ll have you eating out of her hand one minute and begging for mercy the next. She kills it on stage and then descends with Botti into the audience, making us all part of the show. You could feel the electricity. Turns out this was just the beginning of the full charge to come.

After thoroughly wowing and wooing us, Smith exits and Botti brings back Micarelli. He introduces her with a brief commentary on the life of a concert violinist and then sets her loose, no horn required. She leads us through some spectacularly beautiful classical-sounding piece (I couldn’t tell you what it was, but it was beautiful). Slowly but surely she builds up speed and volume to the point I was sure she’d break a string. Then, just when you’re certain either the instrument or the whole stage is about to burst into flames, she lays down a heavy chord in perfect synchronization with the band (sans Botti) and they blast into Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Totally didn’t see that coming. Needless to say, she took the house with that one. Wife is speechless.

Change of pace again to bring this ride to an end. Botti brings out singer George Komsky for a couple of Italian numbers, including the theme from Cinema Paradiso. Botti, like all successful leaders (musical or otherwise) really knows how to surround himself with greatness.

Finally, after a leaping ovation Botti and his band returned to the stage for the encore. He closed the night (aptly I think) with “My Funny Valentine,” the song that inspired him to take up the trumpet when, at the age of twelve, he heard Miles Davis play it. Very nice. At this point my wife is leaning her elbows on the seat in front of her, chin in hands, completely smitten. Success.

The evening was perfectly formed, and for this audience member at least, rolled by all too fast. Of course that happens when you’re completely immersed in a performance. Something tells me we’ll be listing to a lot more trumpet in our house now.


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Review of Richard Thompson Electric Trio

by Jeffrey Lindholm, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Richard Thompson Electric Trio at the Flynn on June 21, 2015.

The Flynn crowd on Sunday, June 21, is ready for an electric trio show from Richard Thompson, so it’s a bit of a surprise when Burlington-based singer-songwriter Caroline Rose walks up to the microphone wearing her acoustic guitar (and black-and-white saddle shoes with knee-high athletic socks). Her short set opens with droning Eastern-sounds guitar strums and includes a non-band, jam band jam and an acoustic punk song about her Long Island heritage that features some sailor-worthy cussing (not often heard at the Flynn)—all propelled by her strong, bell-like voice.

Richard Thompson’s career has been charted along a sliding continuum, from sensitive balladry to full-bore amplified freak-outs, but when a show is billed as the Electric Trio Tour, you know what to expect.

So it’s not really a shock when Thompson takes the Flynn stage with six string blazing, as he and his rhythm section rip through the first few songs: two from his new album, Still, and one from the one before, Electric. Drummer Mich

Rael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk are loud enough to match Thompson note for note, but also nimble enough to dance through the decibels—not to mention skilled enough to keep up with Thompson, which is no small feat. Jerome, especially, offers quite varied rhythms throughout, using drumsticks, mallets, brushes, and, once, his hands.

After the first few tunes, they ease back a bit with “For Shame of Doing Wrong.” It’s still slow and mournful, like the ‘70s-era original recording, but almost completely rejiggered as if done by the Who, with absolutely no accordions on this version—but exquisite in its own way.

Then it’s back to rough stuff; “Hard on Me” from Mock Tudor sounds like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, so it’s a bit of a respite when Jerome and Prodaniuk amble off the stage and the roadie hands Thompson his acoustic guitar.

We’re then graced with an absolutely stunning version of what is perhaps Thompson’s best song, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” He effortlessly delivers the seemingly endless cascades of notes driving the melody. As his voice rises to tell the story of the dying motorcyclist and his love for Red Molly, shivers run up my wife’s spine and tears creep from my eyes. We’ve both heard him do this song live multiple times, but never to this level of emotion.

The two acoustic songs seem an interlude too short, but the rhythm section comes back to swing into the loping pace of “Beatnik Walking,” a song about Amsterdam from the new album, and the jazzy nostalgia of “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” before Thompson dons his electric guitar again for the rest of the show.

When they play “Guitar Heroes,” another new song, in which Thompson drops in notable homage to, well, his guitar heroes, including Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry, Les Paul, and others, I figure that was the big production number and the show is over. Nope. There’s more!

In fact, it’s the only major misstep of the evening, a hard left from the goofy exuberance of “Heroes” to the creepy, menacing vibe of “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed,” probably my least favorite of his songs.

But of course, there’s more as we careen into the life-affirming wonder of “Wall of Death,” which I again figure will be the “final song.” Nope. We get one more song, and then the band bows off to a standing ovation.

And of course, they come back and do a two-song encore, including a rousing extended version of “Tear-Stained Letter,” thankfully without any Cajun accordions.

As the guys leave the stage again, some of the audience trickles out, but the rest keep applauding, and the Thompson band reappears for yet another two-song encore, finishing with a surprise bit of fifties retro rock.

So after a show this varied, with peaks and then more crescendos, and not one but two encores, we are surprised that Thompson and his band had only played for about an hour and a half. They really pack a lot of musical value (and notes and bashes on the drums) into a totally rocking evening.

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Flynn Center for the Performing Arts

Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
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