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Jeanne Sigel meditates on the magic of the theater

Published 02/15/2012 12:00 AM

The stage. It is a place of transformation. Of dreams incarnate and life writ large.

It allows us to travel — briefly and spectacularly — beyond our own experience. It reorients our imagination, and returns us to a time when we viewed the world with generous wonder. It encourages us to hope. It helps us to believe.

The Garde Arts Center on State Street in downtown New London is a both a cultural haven and a renaissance symbol. It is a microcosm of the spirit that development and marketing director Jeanne Sigel, at right, wants people to associate with the city at large.

She envisions the crowds that are drawn to the Garde's warm halls, stagecraft, and song, making their way to the bright windows of the cafes and restaurants that shine welcome on the city's streets. And she takes her role, as a host to visitors and ambassador for New London, to heart.

The Garde keeps a busy schedule because the city, she says, is perfectly poised to attract top-notch performers on the circuit for larger venues in Boston and New York.

"They can hop off the train," and do a show. And they are usually glad they did.

"[Performers] come here and they delight in this amazing community," she explains. "What they say about New London is — 'How funky is this?!' 'How great is this?!'"

"We see all the warts, but outsiders see the town — the ferry system, bus, train; they see the possibilities."

In return, the Garde builds its reputation as a wonderful place to book a gig.

"These musicians go back home and talk about us," she says, adding, "Word of mouth is very powerful."

Jeanne recalls the momentum that carried the theater from an ailing movie house to the thriving nonprofit performing arts center it is today. From the mid-1980s to 1999, when its renovations and restoration were complete, "everyone in the community decided that the Garde was worth saving. Those were magical times," she says.

To be clear, Jeanne would rather talk about the Garde than herself. She has worked and advocated for the theater for well over two decades but dismisses the idea that she is as much a part of its story as Vera Leeper, the artist whose murals were uncovered during the theater's rebirth, or the 1920s-era popular fascination with archaeology that informed its Moroccan design.

But some small part of Jeanne's story deserves telling. So here goes.

She believes in magic. She believes that "the mindset of the people who work there and the joy of the audiences" infuses the building with good feeling and "amazing luck."

"Since 1926, all these people have been coming and having these incredible experiences. A part of that happiness stays."

She believes the Garde is vital to downtown and should be a staunch supporter of community life.

"The theater is very philanthropic. Every dollar that is given goes back out to the community," she says.

She believes her husband, Steve Sigel, the Garde's executive director, is the hardest-working man she knows.

"The theater is his life. He doesn't 'go home' at five o'clock. He's so talented, and he blends his work with every fiber of his being."

She used to believe, a while back, that she would never be able to work with him.

"But as it turns out, we work quite well together," she smiles.

They met 20 years ago, when Jeanne was running her own marketing firm, Island Design on Broad Street.

"When Steve came into town, he heard we were generous to nonprofits. He hit us up for free work," she says, pausing.

"Quite frankly, he drove me insane," she laughs.

But only temporarily. She quickly came to admire his love for the Garde and for his adopted community.

"His passion for the theater was infectious," she says.

She joined the Garde's board of directors, and soon after, had the opportunity to sell her company. She wrestled with the decision.

"At that point, our clients were our friends. They would stop in and eat their lunch with us. It had to be a team decision."

The team said yes, but Jeanne found retirement a little bit unsettling.

"I had worked my entire life. I like to work. It's kind of scary when you think about it. I still can't believe I had the nerve to do that."

She assumed more responsibilities at the theater, most notably with the Children First Initiative, an educational and family wellness program serving New London public school students. Her organizational skills gained notice and appreciation and she was asked to take on a full-time role.

Speaking of children, another thing Jeanne believes is that they prefer stories of near-disaster over stories of successful fundraising, so she obliges them when she speaks at schools.

One of her favorites is how the world-class dancers of Pilobolus were nearly electrocuted taking their bows on a large, water-filled tarp onstage.

"Steve and I were watching the show and the audience was loving it. And we were looking around thinking it was so great - to see all these people enjoying themselves in 'our house.'"

And then?

"This big bar of lights started slowly dropping to the stage. 'Oh my God,' I thought. 'We're going to have a bunch of fried performers.' I don't know how he did it, but Steve pole-vaulted over three rows" to throw the switch.

And finally, she believes she is lucky to share her life and work with someone who has "an equal passion for something that changes the community."

"The challenges — it's all balanced by the people we meet, by the children who come to the theater. I do wake up and say — how cool is this [life]?"