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Off stage: Garde buildings in New London are buzzing with activity, even during the pandemic

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On a recent Monday morning, the Garde Arts Center’s stage and its 1,400-seat auditorium were empty, but the venue in New London still had pockets of bustling activity.

A half-dozen students from the ISAAC School were gathered in a Garde storefront space on State Street, a spot that has morphed into a socially distant classroom. The desks were placed appropriately far apart, and the students were all masked. They listened to a teacher explain the day’s plan — about the history of false race theories that propped up slavery — and they had laptop computers open on their desks.

Next door, another Garde space was being used by ISAAC dance and physical education teachers, who connect virtually to students at home.

Up in the Oasis Room, New London middle school students were studying on their computers. This was one of the ongoing sessions supervised by The Drop-In Learning Center for students who don’t have the computer or internet access at home they need for virtual classes, or whose parents can’t be at home to oversee them.

While those students were focused on learning in one half of the Oasis Room, the other half was filled with instruments and the music studio equipment that Carl Franklin uses at night. Franklin is a musician and producer who rented studio space across the street — until COVID hit. He now uses the Garde for his work, in exchange for his helping the Garde with its ever-burgeoning video and streaming work.

These activities and collaborations — and more — are a combination of ideas that had been percolating before but were pushed to the forefront during the pandemic, and of ideas that developed directly from the pandemic.

In addition, as Garde Executive Director Steve Sigel says, “It also means that we’re not just shutting our doors and hiding under our desks until we can reopen. We’re trying figure out how we can safely use the facility.”

The Garde’s main source of revenue, of course, had been tied to live shows — tickets and concessions — and to facility rentals. That all disappeared in mid-March.

Without all the live performances that were scheduled for 2020 but couldn’t take place, the Garde will have lost $1.8 million in tickets sales compared to 2019. And events that are being rescheduled are in limbo — with 45,000 ticketholders waiting on the new dates as well.

Beyond that, the Garde had to refund about $98,000 in tickets.

The venue has received some financial help from foundations, corporations, sponsors and donors, but the earliest the facility might be able to reopen in its former capacity seems to be this autumn.

So the Garde, like so many other organizations and businesses, has had to pivot. Its leaders figured out ways to continue to be open in some way and to continue to be part of the community during the COVID-necessitated shutdown. The Garde is calling its community outreach initiative with other organizations PACE (Partners: Arts. Community. Education.).

A few examples of collaborations:

— The Garde let Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra use its stage gratis for rehearsals of ECSO’s summer concerts around the region and for part of its taping of a virtual holiday concert.

— Flock Theatre, too, got complimentary use of the theater for parts of its virtual productions of “Romeo & Juliet,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Jane Eyre.”

— The Garde’s stone cottage has become home to a pop-up Bank Square Books site, the office of author Jeff Benedict, and site for Writers Block InK’s administration.

— There is the newly established Garde Media Group, a network of filmmakers, engineers, social media and webcasting professionals who are helping the Garde expand its digital creative output. Franklin is part of this group.

And coming up in February, the Coast Guard Band is scheduled to hold its auditions for a percussionist at the Garde, since the band’s usual locale, Leamy Hall, is being used for COVID-19 testing. (Sigel notes that the Garde also housed the Coast Guard Band concerts after 9/11, when the Coast Guard Academy grounds were closed to the public.)

ISAAC School

ISAAC School Executive Director Nicholas J. Spera says that he and Sigel started talking last winter about the fact that ISAAC (which stands for Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication) needed space and the Garde had some available. Their discussions were originally arts-related; “When you have the Garde right next to you, what a magical relationship that should be and is,” Spera says.

After COVID hit, the concept changed to using part of the Garde’s buildings for socially distanced classrooms. Spera says that helped ISAAC open on time, with enough room for any students who wanted to be in school in person. He says that it has worked out great, the spaces are spectacular, and ISAAC has been able to do some upgrades, such as remodeling the bathroom near the classrooms and adding technology and wireless access.

Once the pandemic is over, ISAAC plans to expand its arts offerings and continue to rent the Garde space.

ISAAC Principal Denise M. Dunning says the relationship with the Garde is a good selling point, something that will help interest students who want to be part of a unique opportunity. Students will have the resources of the Garde.

“I think it’ll be a great part of our promotion,” she says.

Drop-In Learning Center

When schools had to move online or go to a hybrid model, that left some kids in a tough spot. Their parents were working, and the kids couldn’t be home alone; or they didn’t have the computer or internet access at home that they needed.

New London’s Recreation Department established a Hybrid School Support Program to provide spaces where those youths could do remote learning school work. As part of that, the department partnered with The Drop-In Learning Center, and the groups approached the Garde to see if it could provide a site for some students.

“We’re in the neighborhood of a lot of students, so it made a lot of sense,” Sigel says.

Reona Dyess, executive director of The Drop-In Learning Center, notes that it’s not just access to the internet that the students need; they also need adults around to help them and encourage them, and The Drop-In Learning Center provides that.

Carl Franklin

Franklin says that his studio had seen a decline in use because of COVID. The studio wasn’t a revenue stream in any case, but his decision to give the space up had more to do with his ability to pay rent with funds from his job as a software contractor. “If I have a contract, I can pay for (the studio), but if I don’t, it’s a real albatross,” he says.

Franklin and Sigel had been discussing collaborating for a long time. When, over the summer, one of Franklin’s daughters (both of the daughters had danced in Eastern Connecticut Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at the Garde) said to Franklin, “Dad, I heard the Garde is going under,” Franklin told her that’s not going to happen. She said, “Dad, if they close, I don’t know what I’d do.”

And, he says now, he realized “I could help them, and I knew they could help me.”

Franklin says he doesn’t remember if it was his wife or himself who came up with the idea of moving out of his old studio and joining forces with the Garde and using space there.

Franklin has helped the Garde with projects like the virtual book launch of Jeff Benedict’s “The Dynasty,” and a Billy Gilman event where the singer was interviewed and performed several numbers on the Garde stage during a live Garde webcast.

Franklin says that he has seen an increase in interest from bands wanting to come in to do videos on the Garde’s large stage where they can spread out.

Sigel says, “We’re working on projects to bring in revenue for both sides as well as to assist artists who want to get more deeply involved in recording or streaming.” 

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