Reporter’s notebook: Filmmaker finds his voice, unexpectedly

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Emily Anderson and Mark Utter at Bread and Puppet Theater. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 8-22-2012

by Joseph Gresser

GLOVER — Mark Utter knows that his inner life is vastly different than his outward appearance might suggest.  He wants everyone else to realize that as well, and with the help of his friend, Emily Anderson, Mr. Utter is on his way to achieving his goal.

Mr. Utter visited Glover Thursday evening August 16 along with Ms. Anderson to give a presentation about I Am In Here, a film that he wrote, and with help from a successful Kickstarter campaign, has seen through filming.  A big crowd filled the ballroom at the Bread and Puppet Theater’s farm.

Ms. Anderson lived at the farm for years as a member of the theater, and during that time she and I became good friends and performed together frequently.

Since then, she has moved to Burlington where she works for VSA Arts, and directs the Awareness Theater Company, a group she describes as “a dynamic theatrical group composed of people with and without disabilities.”

It was through that work that she first met Mr. Utter, and because of his persistent insistence, began working with him.

Mr. Utter does not speak easily and is prone to make broad and hard to interpret gestures.  For much of his life he was not recognized as being the intelligent person he is.

Now, by using a computer keyboard and taking advantage of what is known as facilitated communication, he has proved a most eloquent advocate for himself and other overlooked people.

As Ms. Anderson gently holds his arm at the elbow, Mr. Utter, types out words slowly with one finger.  His progress is not linear, he misses his aim often and has to go back and retype to get the word he wants.

Sometimes, he glances up at the screen and smiles at what he reads, before continuing his writing.  Even a casual observer has to marvel at Mr. Utter’s patience.  It is very clear that his mind runs far more quickly than his slow hand can move.

Ms. Anderson afterwards said Mr. Utter has told her that her touch helps him focus and wards off his otherwise uncontrollable gestures.  She said that she will gradually move her hand up his arm until it just rests on his back.  In time, perhaps he will not need her help to communicate.

Already, he doesn’t need the projector.  He has an iPad configured so that his typing is rendered into audible speech.

As the audience entered the ballroom, Thursday, a short statement written by Mr. Utter was projected on the screen above his head.

“No so long ago people thought the most advanced way to deal with the dreadfully strange members of our society was to put them away.  Twenty years ago Vermont closed its institution but Vermont, along with the rest of the world, is still adjusting to those wretches returning.  The task at hand is for everyone to surrender their wishes for perfection and embrace our different ways of being human.”

These paragraphs serve as a kind of manifesto for his current work, but do not define his ultimate ambition.  Right now, Mr. Utter is concentrated on finishing his film which, in the form of a tantalizing snippet he previewed for the puppeteer audience.

In the one scene he showed, Mr. Utter goes to a film with a friend.  As his companion orders two tickets to what from the title is a particularly gruesome horror film, snickers erupt behind the pair.

There stand a couple of snarky teenagers.  The girl mocks Mr. Utter saying that he is a “retard” who should not be allowed to attend an R-rated film.

This is the kind of insult that Mr. Utter’s difficulties with spoken language once forced him to endure.  But in the world of the film, Mr. Utter has a secret weapon.

“A wonderful actor plays my mind,” Mr. Utter types.  And Paul Schnabel does present a wonderfully idealized portrait of Mr. Utter.

The two men stand together with crossed arms as Mr. Schnabel booms, in a way that Mr. Utter can only dream of doing, “You are wrong.  I am old enough to be your father.”

Mr. Utter found his voice unexpectedly.  He had taken a class in facilitated communication and didn’t see there was much in it for him.

Then he saw a film, Wretches and Jabberers, which portrayed the travels of Larry Bissonnette and his friend Tracy Thresher.

Mr. Utter knew both men and was interested to see that they used facilitate communication in their artistic endeavors.  Ms. Anderson worked with Mr. Bissonnette, whom she had met while working with the GRACE program, and Mr. Utter decided he would like to work with her as well.

As Ms. Anderson recalls it, Mr. Utter “sort of inserted himself in my life.”

“I asked her for so long I almost gave up,” Mr. Utter said.

Knowing that he was not a speaker, Ms. Anderson asked Mr. Utter to write a couple of lines for a play she was producing for the Awareness Theater Company.

From there, Mr. Utter was on his way.

“I wrote short blurbs first and then decided to go through a day in my life and filled it with the real facts with some humor,” he told the crowd at Bread and Puppet.

Much of the cost of the funds were raised through Kickstarter, a website that helps bring artistic projects to the attention of a wide audience, and allows people to make small contributions to help them succeed.

In the interest of full disclosure I was one of the many contributors to the project.  Ms. Anderson and Mr. Utter are still looking for more people to contribute to the project.

The film is scheduled to premiere in Burlington this October.

After that?   “My wish is to address love in my next movie,” Mr. Utter said.

When asked by Ms. Anderson to expand on that comment, he said, “I feel love is a thing wanted by all and experienced by few and it need not be so.”

After Mr. Utter’s presentation I spoke with him for a few minutes.  Ms. Anderson explained that I write for the Chronicle and asked if he had anything to say to the residents of Orleans county.

Mr. Utter thought for a moment and slowly typed out:

“Oh people of Orleans I look forward to sharing our movie with you and talking about all the ways we can effect changes in how people interact with each other.”

contact Joseph Gresser at: [email protected]


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