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New London's Garde Arts Center trying new ideas till the curtain rises again

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Sometimes, you've just gotta laugh.

Empty since early March and the dawn of coronavirus restrictions, the Garde's classic-style, V-shaped "coming attractions" marquee at first read, "There will be a brief intermission."

Funny but, also, at that point, hopes were that the interruption to their programming would be brief. However, as the dark saga of COVID-19 continues to ebb and flow, the nonprofit Garde, in keeping with precautions taken by similar facilities across the country, continues to extend the hiatus.

Now, the marquee riffs on that timeless "on-vacation" notification:

GONE FISHIN'

FOR DONATIONS

"Look, it's pretty simple," says Steve Sigel, the Garde's executive director, speaking by phone last week. "Until people are safe together, they're not. End of story for (staging) major live events. But this is a pandemic. It's bad everywhere and we try to keep perspective. Worrying is only good to a point, so we just try to keep a sense of humor."

The realities

Sigel says if the Garde could reschedule and book new live performance events for the spring of 2021, that would be great — but also very optimistic. "Realistically, I wouldn't be surprised to see all the 2021 dates moved to the fall."

While restaurants, museums and other businesses are following the state's step-by-step guidelines for reopening — a plan that theoretically applies to performance venues like the Garde — the physics and economics of the rules don't make such things practical for many reasons. To maintain safe distancing, officials have determined that an indoor performance space requires 150 square feet per person.

"That's what we have to go by," Sigel says. "Theoretically, we could open. But that allows room for about 20 percent of the house if you take into account the number of staff we'd need on site to ensure precautions and keep the show running. And if those numbers DID work financially — which they don't, not close — would people come without a vaccine or treatment for the virus? I wouldn't."

There's also the issue of touring logistics for theatrical productions or musical artists. If somehow a clear path to safety suddenly fell into place, Sigel says, "You don't just call Gordon Lightfoot or Melissa Etheridge —" two of the artists originally booked for this spring whose shows were canceled — "and say, 'It's OK! Let's go!' It takes months to figure out routing and scheduling."

Interim activities

This does not mean things aren't happening at the Garde. With bursts of creative ideas fusing with the "what's available to us?" Sigel and company are doing everything they can to provide programming and activities that fit the venue's mission as a non-profit home for the performing arts, cinema and education. That includes virtual performances and/or conversations with artists as well as the ongoing Garde Virtual Cinema film series that features a wide variety of art films and documentaries available for streaming at any time (see www.Gardearts.org for a complete schedule).

"We're trying to do some competitive, creative things, and I think we're doing a good job, but all of us in this business are in this situation," Sigel says. "But it's tough. Pick any artist and Google them and they're providing free download content. So we'll also try to focus on programs or the artists and personalities that we have in the region that are unique to and popular with our audiences."

Last Wednesday, novelist Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, discussed his latest novel, "The Nickel Boys," and on Thursday popular singer and Rhode Island native Billy Gilmore will perform and discuss his career in a virtual show hosted by Caswell Cooke. Also in the works are efforts to help the New London Talent Show to do a virtual version of their popular annual event — coordinated with all safety precautions, Sigel says. And, as publication nears for Jeff Benedict's new book about the New England Patriots franchise, patrons can anticipate a virtual event with the popular author, whose office is on-site at the Garde.

In addition to arts and culture programming, the Garde staff is trying all sorts of clever things. Consider all that surplus concession candy, for example. As with any in-season performance venue, they'd stocked up for a heavy spring schedule of events when the virus cancellations prompted Sigel to ask, along with admittedly heavier questions, "What do we do with all these Swizzlers and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Bud Light?"

The answer? Well, beer aside, the Garde came up with their "Cooking with Carolyn" virtual series along with "The Garde's Curbside Concessions." For the latter, the Garde will assemble all your snacking needs, available for pick-up at the theater, for an evening of at-home movie watching (Garde series or otherwise). Just email with the necessary details (see www.gardearts.org) and the precise concession items needed for the authentic caloric film experience will be ready.

For the latter, Garde staffer Carolyn Johnson offers her own popular recipes — a recent presentation showed her easy-to-make blueberry scones — and she also does custom creations a la the Garde Concessions Graduation Cake she crafted a few weeks back. The "Cooking with Carolyn" series is so popular, Sigel says, that it's inspired a spinoff concept, a new series called "What's Cooking at the Garde." The concept is for an in-house and virtual program boasting local chefs, restaurateurs and handy-in-the-kitchen local citizens creating their favorite dishes for viewers' edification and entertainment.

The first "What's Cooking at the Garde?" episode will feature Hot Rod's Cafe owner Rod Cornish and their chef Carlos Paucar. Taping was scheduled for late this week and the run date will be officially announced soon.

Keeping busy

Meanwhile, there are the perhaps odd "business as usual" considerations. As a nonprofit venue, the Garde relies on various grants, corporate funding, private contributions and financial help from state and local government programs designed to help during the virus.

"All we need is one $100 million donation from anyone and I think we'll be set," Sigel jokes.

Not counting on that, efforts continue to "keep the lights on and a skeleton crew of employees paid," says Sigel, who adds how much he and his wife, Jeanne Sigel, who handles marketing for the Garde, miss the whole Garde staff and the "wonderful volunteers" who help out with each performance.

The downtime does offer an opportunity to make some renovations and catch up with on-the-drawing-board projects. Just before the virus hit, the Garde had tabulated results from an in-depth survey to determine ways to expand their demographics and customize programming. All that data is complete and being analyzed, but it's also not possible to apply any of the information until live programming can resume.

"We learned a lot from the survey," Sigel says. "And it will come into play when the time's right."

He also hopes that long-anticipated plans to work on the theater's backstage area will happen. Now, he says, is a good time "for the state to recommit to a project they approved for those renovations six years ago. We'll be approaching them on that."

Too, Sigel is in frequent contact through online meetings, phone calls and emails with leadership at the other theaters who comprise the state's so called "Big Six" venues: the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, the Shubert Theater in New Haven, the Palace theaters in Stamford and Waterbury, and the Warner Theater in Waterbury.

"We're all facing long-term uncertainty, and we all agree we can't really open until we can REALLY open. We're in that segment of the entertainment-delivery business that relies on the shoulder-to-shoulder reality of a live audience," Sigel says. "So, you know what? We're going to hunker down and work and go forward knowing it's going to all get better. That's something to smile about, right?"

To see and hear

Who: Billy Gilman in virtual conversation and performance, hosted by Caswell Cooke.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Virtually from the Garde Arts Center

How much: Free, donations to the Garde accepted

For more information: www.gardearts.org

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