Garde's 'banned words' marquee generating response

The marquee on The Garde in New London is seen Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (Benjamin Kail/The Day)
The marquee on The Garde in New London is seen Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (Benjamin Kail/The Day)

Over the decades, the marquee at the Garde Arts Center in New London has spelled out big-time attractions from Bob Dylan and Buddy Guy to Itzhak Perlman and Melissa Etheridge.

But the signage that went up Tuesday afternoon on the iconic theater's sign has elicited astounding response in a way that has nothing to do with impending Broadway productions, rock stars or sky-kissing arias from mezzo-sopranos.

While the right side of the curved sign promotes upcoming attractions, the left side spells out:

FINAL APPEARANCE: TRANSGENDER, FETUS, VULNERABLE, DIVERSITY, SCIENCE-BASED, EVIDENCE-BASED and ENTITLEMENT.

These are not bands.

Rather, it's the list of words and phrases, presented last week by the Trump administration to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, that the health organization no longer can use in preparing official documents for its 2018 budget.

Garde Executive Director Steve Sigel insists the message, which is garnering plenty of traffic on social media, doesn't reflect either his own personal views or those represented by the nonprofit Garde.

"There's nothing incendiary or political about it," he said Wednesday. "It's just words taken off of newsfeeds. It's a statement. If we were putting 'God Bless America' on the marquee, people would react, too. The message to me is that we are all highly attuned to visual signaling and we react. What I hope is that the message is a reminder that one of the great levelers in a democracy is levity."

To that end, Sigel acknowledges a satirical aspect. "It's also a public service — a form of notification to people. Finally! We're getting rid of the words that infect the public discourse!" he said.

"Or I guess you could respond by saying forbidding those words is outrageous and censorship. Either way, my thought was that, 'Damn, let's help get the word out. Let's start thinking now of other words that we can use instead.' It's truly a public service to let people know that some words aren't good and we have to come up with some better ones," he said.

When asked why, at this point, Sigel chose this precise message, he laughed and said, "This is actually our first foray into marquee public art." He then quoted from "Hamlet," the line about "holding a mirror up to nature."

"What's great about public art is that it's a reflective surface," he said. "People will read into it whatever it is they want, and hopefully, as in all good art, it will inspire conversation."

Sigel also is frank about adjunct motivation. "We had one side of the marquee filled with upcoming shows, and we need to generate a lot of attention for those. On the other side, then, instead of a generic 'Buy Garde gift cards,' we tried this. If it builds social media traffic and inspires conversation, and, yes, boosts ticket sales or brings people to New London and the intersection of State and Huntington streets, that's great, too."

While Sigel said he hasn't directly heard from citizens or Garde ticket-holders, there has been a welcome and unexpected national response.

"We're getting donations ... and online gifts from across the country," he said, adding that there seems to have been a grass-roots movement among locals that created the initial buzz on social media. "That's been an interesting benefit, particularly as we get to the end of our annual fundraising drive. Hey, if people want to give money to us because of what it says on our marquee rather than maybe the programming, well, who are we to say no? It all goes to a great cause."

r.koster@theday.com

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