It’s been a long, dark year for the American stage—a period marked by stay-at-home mandates and social distancing, which, for theater folks, has meant canceled shows, unrealized seasons, furloughs, layoffs, and lots of uncertainty. Here in Vermont, our own Flynn Center for the Performing Arts appeared quiet during the pandemic, with just a handful of outdoor performances, educational programming, and abiding messages of hope to Burlington residents from the theater’s iconic Main Street marquee. But, as Vermonters emerge from the pandemic with renewed perspective (now is the winter of our discontent), the lights are also coming up for the Flynn. As of January 1, the state’s largest performing arts center welcomed big change with the hiring of Jay Wahl as executive director.
HB: You’re known as an artistic director for challenging old theater models, and your work has been described as unconventional. In your own words, how would you describe the approach to your work?
JW: It’s always interesting to hear reflected back to me how people are interpreting my work. My approach is probably unconventional compared to other approaches, but that’s not what’s driving me. I’m not really interested in things for their own sake. I’m trying to understand about people; when you listen to someone, share their story in whatever form, you have a window into their perspective. And in that moment, you’re spending your attention on their perspective, which means you’re giving value to their perspective, which is what empathy is. So, in a culture which seems to be not as full of empathy as I might like or many of us might like, I think the arts are the engine that makes that happen.
When you start by the question whose story needs to be told, then the unconventional starts to happen. So suddenly, you’re like, well, this person living in my community has an interesting story to share. And so you help them share it. And then suddenly people are like, oh my God, it’s so avant-garde. But you’re like, well, no, this is your neighbor. This is somebody whose story is legitimately worth considering. And that is not unconventional.
HB: You’re coming from the Kimmel Center in a city of one and a half million people, to the Flynn Center, located in a city of 43,000 people. How have you had to adjust to that change in scope?
JW: The scale is actually one of the things I was drawn to at the Flynn. At the Kimmel Center I was part of one of the largest arts organizations in America, serving Philadelphia—the region people were buying tickets from was about five million. So the scale was quite different. What does it mean to try to hold arts conversations in a small geographic region of many people, as opposed to an arts organization with very few people in a very large area, because actually, when you look at the Flynn’s education programs, we serve the whole state. Eighty-two percent of the schools in Vermont have attended programs at the Flynn in the last decade. That’s extraordinary, and that's a different level of responsibility in a way.
Also, in Philadelphia, there were many, many theater companies. If I just chose to do something outside or in the basement or on the roof or wherever, I added to the ecology there. The Flynn is the fundamental basis of the arts ecology here. Other artists are doing great work, but we’re really one of the few arts organizations bringing major international artists to Vermont, and that’s also a different level of responsibility.
HB: How do you plan to give Vermont communities greater access to the arts?
JW: I don’t know what that means yet. One of the things that I think the Flynn was excited to bring me on board for is my belief that the Flynn wants to be porous, that the participation of the arts goes in and out; it goes both ways. It comes to us. We go to it. The walls are not so solid.
HB: Coming out of the pandemic, do you see this moment as an opportunity to do a reset at the Flynn?
HB: Now that the Governor has lifted the mandates. What is the plan for the Flynn’s rollout?
JW: So we’re working on that now. We’re going to be doing some hiring. We want people to be a part of the team, and we will work towards our reopening. We expect to do that in the fall, and we’ll have an announcement about what that will look like very soon. The Flynn is gonna be doing shows, but like I said I think you can expect us to be a little more porous. We’re going to think differently around when we’re in a community versus when we’re asking them to come here and how we find balance in those things. And how do we welcome people with diverse perspectives? That’s really important. So yeah, we have plan. It’s a journey, and I’m part of a good team. I’m very lucky.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.