Every year the Flynn Theatre invites members of the media to a “sneak preview” of its new season — an illustrated sales pitch, with free food, designed to generate interest in upcoming arts events. The Seven Days invitation always arrives attached to some sort of attention-getting prop. One year it was a work boot announcing Tap Dogs. Another year it was a metal garbage can lid, promoting the return of Stomp. Last week the invitation came with a bowling pin — a possible nod to the Flying Karamazov Brothers, but more likely an archaeological reference to the spectacle that has been unfolding beneath, behind and alongside the scenes. You won’t find it on the “Mainstage” series, but the hottest ticket in Burlington this fall promises to be the opening of the new, flexible FlynnSpace. Once occupied by a bowling alley, then the notorious Last Chance Saloon, it is the funky black-box theater that Burlington audiences — and performers — have long been begging for.
Arts empire-building may be overstating it slightly, but on a summer day in July the level of industry on Main Street is, well, Romanesque. Workers are all over the newly configured cultural complex — a warren of offices, education labs, dance studio, catering kitchens and gallery space that now occupies three buildings adjacent to the main theater building. For the first time since the scaffolding went up, you can see the plan beyond the particleboard. When they blow through the wall, the main lobby will curve around where the old concession stand used to be — soon to be replaced by a cherry and “verde marble” job. From there, a corridor leads directly to the gallery, formerly the old Chicago Bike space. Along with local art, it will host pre-performance discussions and post-performance parties.
Next door is the education building, with a dance studio on the ground floor and a “studio lab” on the third. Together, they are headquarters for a wildly expanded curriculum of classes for children and adults in dance, voice, storytelling, poetry, theater and circus arts in what can only be described as a multi-generational Church Street Center — for the arts. You can realize your vocal potential with Jody Albright, or spend a weekend writing plays with Dana Yeaton, while your kid learns the “Elements of Jazz,” “West African Drumming” or “Designing for the Theater.” Instead of roaming the streets, high school kids can spend Wednesday nights for 12 consecutive weeks making “original collaborative performance” under the direction of Champlain Valley Union High School drama teacher Robin Fawcett.
For once, they’ll have a place to show their stuff, too. One of the functions of the FlynnSpace is to have an in-house spot “where creativity can be nurtured,” says Flynn Artistic Director Arnie Malina. For all its glory, the main hall has always been on the large side — too large for intimate and adventurous acts. The Flynn attempted to accommodate those by creating the “On-Stage Series,” wherein both audience and performers were placed on the proscenium, with the curtain closed. But technical challenges made the individual shows expensive to produce, and it was tricky fitting them in between larger full-theater acts.
“We want to try those things down here,” Malina says of the new “modular” space, which can be arranged in any one of a number of ways, from cabaret-style to in-the-round. A full-service bar will add to the club-like atmosphere. “This will be a home, you know, to experiment,” he adds. On behalf of the Flynn, Malina promises “at least eight jazz events,” including a confirmed gig with jazz vocalist Patricia Barber, and fall appearances by Lincoln actor Deborah Lubar and performance artist Paul Zaloom. A number of outside artists, including Vermont Stage, has also booked the space. Rental, complete with tech support, will run between $100 and $225 a day.
“We’re deliberately taking it very slowly,” Malina says of programming the new space. But construction-wise, the project is right on schedule — it may even come in under budget, which would free up money for other improvements in the main hall. Look for four new toilets in the ladies’ room, freshly painted walls and new carpeting in the aisles, for starters. Preservationists also want to restore a pattern of fiddlehead ferns that runs the length of the aisles above the wooden wainscoting on both sides of the big theater.
Back down in the new space, the acoustic tiles are in and the chairs are being selected, but workers have yet to put in the floors, install the bar and attach the lighting grid to a low-slung ceiling. You can still see the outline of the old stairs that led down to the yeasty bowels of the Last Chance, but soon all the walls will be painted dark gray. A number of weight-bearing supports threatens to compromise at least a few sight lines, but Malina jokes, “They’re essential for good art. All the best spaces in New York City — they all have poles.”