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While waiting to reopen, the Garde is upgrading the venue, doing creative fundraisers and even hosting a funeral

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As the Garde Arts Center moves closer to reopening, there have been other things going on at the New London theater: a wide range of small renovations; fresh fundraisers; and, most surprising, a funeral.

Lives theatrically celebrated

On April 3, more than 300 guests came to the Garde to honor the life of Laurie Lewis, who died at age 54 after a battle with cancer. Byles MacDougall oversaw the funeral for the Mystic resident, following COVID guidelines. The Garde had a team of 28 volunteers onhand, with socially distancing protocols enforced.

Laurie’s husband, Mace Lewis, says that his wife grew up in this area and knew many people, through Bishop Seabury Anglican Church, through her work at schools and a local law firm, and more. Before she passed, he recalls, “She said, ‘If you could just find a way to get the most people who want to come to the service to be able to come.’”

Considering COVID restrictions, of course, that was a challenge. The family looked at various locales before a friend of the Lewises’, Missy Cavanaugh, suggested the Garde. (Cavanaugh had been an usher and bartender at the site, and the Lewises had attended many shows there over the years.) 

Lewis talked about the idea with Garde Executive Director Steve Sigel, who said he could envision a way to make this work. Their main goal was to keep everything safe. They followed all protocols: masks, family pods sitting at least six feet from other groups, and so on. It was invitation-only, and folks had to RSVP.

The event went off beautifully, and Lewis remembers telling Sigel afterward, “You don’t know how much of a blessing this was to us, to our family.”

Pastor Jay Cayangyang from Bishop Seabury Anglican Church officiated the two-hour-plus service, which featured a 12-piece band that combined Mace’s worship team and son Aaron’s Boston-based band.

Sigel says he thinks the Garde will probably have more “lives theatrically celebrated” now that it has shown it can do so safely.

“We can clearly do more safe private invite-only events the spring and summer and fall,” he says.

Green Room gets an overhaul

When the Garde reopens — perhaps in the fall — audiences and artists will notice some improvements.

While the theater has been closed to its usual shows and audiences for over a year due to the pandemic, Sigel says, “We’re just making the modifications we can with whatever dollars we’re able to secure because we have the time now. We’re trying to do things that we really couldn’t do without shutting the theater down.”

One of those things: repainting and making other changes in the Green Room, where artists can hang out before and during the show. A giant oil tank has been removed, opening up about 40 square feet of space. A kitchen counter, cabinets and appliances have also been relocated. The area will now have ultraviolet air purifiers.

The Green Room has long needed some work.

“The backstage is almost 100 years old. It’s a typical vaudeville house backstage. Back in the day, there weren’t a lot of amenities offered for traveling performers in these movie palaces — very tight quarters. It’s been that way for 95 years,” says Sigel.

The Garde is also going to announce a campaign soon to raise money to upgrade the theater’s lighting system by installing a ceiling lighting truss high above the audience to provide moving lights at a near-45-degree angle. That will help reduce the time it takes to change the lighting from one event to another and will increase the safety for the Garde crews, who won’t have to climb as much, according to Sigel.

Air quality

The Garde recently got back a study it commissioned from Sustainable Engineering Solutions in Berlin, Conn., about the air quality inside its theater, lobby and storefronts. The results show that they all have excellent air exchange rates, Sigel says. Inside the theater auditorium, for instance, totally new air cycles through every 20 minutes.

“We’re going to be letting our audiences know just how safe the space is as we move closer to being open,” Sigel says.

In addition, as part of its reopening campaign that will fund the new lighting, the Garde plans to raise funds to install electrostatic filtration and an ultraviolet sanitization lighting in all HVAC units. 

Cut-outs and marquee messages

Sigel says that donations have kept the Garde’s part-time staff working over the past year. They have been busy planning for the future, applying for grants, and managing the Garde’s properties.

As far as other fundraising efforts, the Garde has devised some theater-based ideas.

Patrons can send in a photo of themselves, and that picture will be transformed into a life-sized cutout that will be place in their favorite seat in the auditorium. The cost is $150 for one photo, $250 for two. People who buy a cut-out will get to see the expanding “cut-out audience” and to come in and get a photo of themselves alongside their cut-outs. Orders have just begun for that, and the cut-outs can be purchased through the summer.

The Garde has also been offering marquee rentals. Folks can rent the space for $150 per day per side for, say, wishing a relative a happy birthday or a friend a good retirement. Jeanne Sigel, the Garde’s development director, says the theater has raised over $10,000 through that, with submissions from as far afield as Boston. Steve Sigel jokes that it’s like Times Square and that people come by to see what’s up on the marquee.

Shows for fall?

As for the Garde finally reopening, Steve Sigel says that can’t happen until full capacity is allowed, simply because it would be too expensive to put on a show with a significantly smaller audience.

Certain other institutions might have the kind of programming, audience, or funding to enforce restrictive attendance requirements, which can get quite expensive, he says, but “the Garde can’t economically survive with less than full occupancy. The costs of reduced capacity and social distance protocols are unfeasible. These same conditions are not feasible for the touring artists either.”

In addition, Sigel says, “We don’t want to open the theater until there’s a sense of indoor spaces like the Garde being a safe space. If you have to have some social distancing, if you can’t have intermission, if you can’t have concessions, if you have to leave in a different door than you came in, that’s not what theater’s about.”

The Garde folks are, like everyone, keeping an eye on what is happening with everything pandemic-related and realizing that the situation could always change.

“It’s like the stock market. Right now, here’s the value. What going to be like in two months?” Sigel says. “But we can say it looks like the economy is getting better. But what we’re really tracking is people’s confidence and the recovery. So the fact that we’re able to have shows on sale because the artists are saying that’s the target date for them … is just a measure of our confidence that that will happen. I would say most of the agreements (with artists) are premised on the notion that, if a month or two before the date, there are any restrictions for occupancy, either side can choose to reschedule.”

Sigel notes that the Garde has a no-questions-asked exchange policy for ticket holders.

As of now, the first show on the schedule is a Sept. 5 concert by Melissa Etheridge. That is a gig that had been planned for April 3, 2020, but the pandemic has pushed it back more than once. Despite all that, about 950 tickets are currently sold. (The Garde auditorium seats about 1,400 people.)

“Before we decide whether to do a show, it’s the artists (who decide) because they have to put themselves in all kinds of situations when they’re traveling,” Sigel says.

Etheridge’s tour, for instance, takes her through Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, Jeanne Sigel notes, and those are states that aren’t as thorough in enforcing COVID protocols right now.

The Sigels are as anxious as audiences for the Garde to host performances in front of audiences again.

“We can’t wait to see everyone back,” Jeanne Sigel says.



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