Six Stories That Shaped Vermont’s Arts and Culture Scenes In 2021 | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Six Stories That Shaped Vermont’s Arts and Culture Scenes In 2021

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Ray Vega - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Ray Vega

2021 was a year of two extremes. For the first six months, Vermonters remained hunkered down, bracing against the coronavirus as they had through most of 2020. Especially in the cold winter months, that seemingly endless isolation forged a cultural void that even the best livestream shows couldn't fill.

But as the weather eased, so did the pandemic — at least for a time. With a vast majority of Vermonters vaccinated, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and theaters reopened in the summer after being shuttered for more than a year.

If anything, that was the story of the year in Vermont arts and culture: the return of live, in-person music, theater, comedy and dance to local stages and performance spaces. So the following recap of stories that shaped the arts focuses largely on that theme. And it begins with events that took place in June, because, frankly, we'd rather not think about anything that happened — or rather didn't happen — before then.

— D.B.

Return Engagement

Burlington Discover Jazz Festival thrilled music-starved crowds in June

The 2021 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival didn't feature headliners such as Sonny Rollins, Mavis Staples or any of the other iconic names that local audiences were used to seeing on the Flynn marquee every June. Hot jazz and cool bebop didn't spill into the streets from every nightclub in town. There was no reggae tent at Waterfront Park.

No, this year's BDJF was not the biggest or best in the fest's storied 38-year history. But it was almost certainly something else: the most significant.

After a long pandemic year, the 2021 BDJF marked the triumphant return of live music in Burlington. It was almost entirely free, was held mostly outside and featured primarily local talent. Though necessarily scaled down, the festival drew huge and ecstatic crowds to outdoor stages throughout the city for 10 straight days.

As Flynn artistic director Steve MacQueen put it in June, "It feels metaphorically outsized."

Held on the cusp of summer and just as the state and city lifted pandemic-era restrictions following Vermont's initial vaccine rollout, BDJF did indeed feel like much more than just a music festival. It was a brassy, blaring symbol of hope — however ultimately short-lived — that a return to something like normal lay ahead.

— D.B.

State of Play

White River Junction's JAG Productions shone in a changing theater landscape
The Maine Attraction - COURTESY OF KHOLOOD EID
  • Courtesy Of Kholood Eid
  • The Maine Attraction

As live theater returned this year, many companies used pandemic-era workarounds, such as site-specific performances, masked audiences and reduced attendance capacities. But White River Junction's JAG Productions, the only Black theater group in Vermont, found a particularly elegant solution: It erected a temporary outdoor stage for a run of plays at King Arthur Baking's Norwich campus.

Dubbed Theatre on the Hill, the series treated audiences to four diverse shows. The play a curious thing; or superheroes k'aint fly centered a queer couple working through trauma and pondering parenthood. Presented concert style, the Broadway musical Next to Normal focused on mental health. Life in Sepia: Vermont's Black Burlesque Revue spotlighted Black women's long history in the art form. And a staged reading of For the Love of Jazz, a brand-new period play, recounted an early-20th century female journalist's experiences with love and relationships.

In the months preceding its fifth anniversary this year, JAG received two grants totaling $250,000.

"I think [that] sort of put us on the map in a way that we hadn't been on the map before," JAG Productions founder and producing artistic director Jarvis Green told Seven Days in August.

In its recently released annual report for 2021, the company laid out its plans for the New Year. These include the return of JAGfest, a playwrights' workshop that develops new work; JAG Musical Lab, a new program that reimagines American musicals through Black people's experiences; and the return of Theatre on the Hill next summer.

— J.A.

Feeling It Out

Local nightclubs paved the way for vaccination requirements as live music returned
(vax card) - FILE: CHRIS FARNSWORTH ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Chris Farnsworth ©️ Seven Days
  • (vax card)

For the performing arts in 2021, nightclubs were the coal mines and concertgoers were the canaries. Largely shuttered since March 2020, indoor music venues began reopening this summer. With COVID-19 variants popping up faster than Pete Davidson could remove his tattoos, the process of opening clubs — and keeping them open — was never going to be a smooth ride.

In mid-August, Radio Bean became the first Burlington-area music venue to require that patrons provide proof of vaccination to enter, following the lead of nearby bar the Three Needs Tap Room & Pizza Cube, which enacted a similar policy earlier that week. In a social media post announcing the policy, Radio Bean owner Lee Anderson wrote, "Hopefully, we can get over the hump within a few weeks, start trending downward, and this requirement can be short lived."

It wasn't. But the requirement did open the door for other venues to follow suit.

On August 13, the area's marquee music venue, Higher Ground, announced that it, too, would require proof of vaccination for admittance. Richard Thompson's show at the Higher Ground Ballroom on August 24 was the first at the club since March 2020. It was also the first test of the vaccination policy.

"We have a plan in place to enforce the new policy that aims to keep it as simple as possible," Higher Ground marketing director Amy Wild explained by email.

Concerns about confusion and chaos at the doors of shows were for naught; it didn't take long for fans to adjust to the new normal and have their vax card, or a picture of the card, ready to show with their ID as they queued up. From Swan Dojo to the Vermont Comedy Club, proof of vaccination quickly became the norm at nightclubs and performance spaces throughout the state.

Those protocols are likely to remain in place well into the New Year, and shows may be canceled over COVID-19 concerns. It'll be another year of caution in the clubs.

— C.F.

Art and Soul

Bread and Puppet Theater matriarch Elka Schumann died at 85
Peter and Elka Schumann in spring 2021 - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Peter and Elka Schumann in spring 2021

Audience members at Bread and Puppet Theater witnessed a moving sight last summer in the moments before the company started its shows.

Elka and Peter Schumann, partners in life and art, walked arm-in-arm in their white performance attire to take their seats on the grassy stage. In their mid-80s, the Schumanns were in tender tune with each other as Bread and Puppet marked the 50th anniversary of its Domestic Resurrection Circus.

At the July 31 performance, Elka played "The Internationale" on her recorder. Playing the socialist anthem on woodwind would be her final appearance with Bread and Puppet. Elka died the next day, on August 1, at age 85.

Elka Schumann profile with sculpted portrait, 1958 - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Elka Schumann profile with sculpted portrait, 1958

"The Bread + Puppet theater has ceased to be a matriarchy because the matriarch who made it so is buried in the pineforest," wrote Peter, Elka's husband of 62 years.

Elka was born in Soviet Russia and lived in several places, including Germany and New York City, before she, Peter and their five children settled in Glover. Peter founded Bread and Puppet in 1963 in Manhattan's Lower East Side, before transplanting the theater to Vermont — first to Plainfield in 1970, then to the Northeast Kingdom four years later.

Elka was Peter's principal collaborator and the "heart and soul" of Bread and Puppet, in the words of a longtime puppeteer. She managed the theater's finances and ran the printshop; she booked shows and practiced shape-note singing. Elka welcomed NEK neighbors and folks from around the world to her table.

"She loved motion and action and enterprise," Tamar Schumann, her oldest child, told Seven Days last summer. "She loved engagement with animals and people and projects. That's why Bread and Puppet is possible, because there was somebody like that, centrally, within the theater."

— S.P.

Turning the Page

Montpelier author Kekla Magoon's breakthrough nonfiction title nabbed National Book Award nomination
Kekla Magoon - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Kekla Magoon

In October, Kekla Magoon was named a 2021 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature. While she didn't take home the top prize in that ultracompetitive category, the Montpelier author triumphed on another level. Her YA nonfiction book for which she'd been nominated, Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People, closed the loop on work she'd begun well over a decade earlier.

Her first novel, 2009's The Rock and the River, is set in the 1960s with characters involved in the burgeoning Black Panther Party. Though that work of fiction was itself somewhat educational, Magoon wanted to pen an in-depth, historical account of the Oakland, Calif.-based political organization for young readers. No such tome existed, she found, and countless school librarians whose students read The Rock and the River told her their kids were eager to learn more.

"I was trying to bridge those [gaps] by writing something more accessible for a young audience that hopefully could be read by people of all ages," she told Seven Days in September.

After poring over histories and biographies and conducting research in libraries, museums and historical archives around the country, Magoon constructed a comprehensive guide to an important political movement. Beyond that, she said the book makes connections to the broad history of Black America and examines systemic racism that endures today.

— J.A.

The Curtain Rises

Flynn Grand Reopening Celebration marked the return of the performing arts
Angélique Kidjo - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Angélique Kidjo

As pandemic angst eased in the summer, Vermont nightclubs and music venues began to reopen. By late September, the Barre Opera House, Rutland's Paramount Theater, Middlebury's Town Hall Theater and Burlington's Vermont Comedy Club were offering live events with varying COVID-19 protocols. But the Flynn Grand Reopening Celebration on October 23 marked the symbolic return of the performing arts in the Green Mountain State.

A dazzling evening of music, poetry, animatronic displays and a mural premiere, it brought community members together in a joyous affirmation of life and art. Vermont storyteller Ferene Paris Meyer recited a love letter to the Flynn. The local Resistance Revival Chorus performed rousing songs, inspiring the audience to clap and cheer. Violinist and Flynn creative chair Daniel Bernard Roumain joined local trio Dwight & Nicole in dance-inducing soul and blues numbers. And the headliner, four-time Grammy Award-winning Afro-pop superstar Angélique Kidjo, kept the audience hoofing and hollering with her electrifying show. 

Even the lobby came to life, literally, with an animatronic water fountain and two actors dressed as trees. In the Flynn gallery, the U.S. premiere of the mural "A Portrait Without Borders," a composition of hundreds of faces drawn in black and white, underscored the interdependence of art and community.

The Flynn has been open ever since, offering everything from tap dance to circus arts, burlesque to bluegrass, regularly adding shows to its lineup. The mural remains through the end of 2021, signaling that the performing arts are back.

— E.M.S.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Half Full"