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The show must go on: Cultural landmarks join forces, welcome fans back this fall

It was March 15, 2020, and Rufus de Rham had just started his new job at the Warner Theatre in Torrington. The theater, built by Warner Brothers Studios in 1931 as a movie palace, was one of many that faced an uncertain future due to the pandemic. De Rham had his work cut out for him.

The best move, he thought, would be to ask for advice.

“I called David Fay right away,” he said. Fay has served as the executive director of The Bushnell, the largest performing arts center in the state, for two decades. That call, and the ones that followed, have created a consortium that is the first of its kind in the state.

The leaders of six of the biggest performing arts centers in Connecticut have put aside any thoughts of competition and instead, rallied around one another — and by extension, the state’s art community as a whole.

The partnership, in addition to de Rham and Fay, also includes Michael Moran, of the Palace Theatre in Stamford, Anthony McDonald, from the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Frank Tavera from the Palace Theater in Waterbury, and Steve Sigel from the Garde Arts Center in New London. 

Fay said he’s known these colleagues for years, but never to this depth.

“I have always felt that we ought to be working much closer together. This was an opportunity that was unexpected, but it was one of the few good outcomes of the pandemic,” Fay said. 

“We have way more alignment, we have similar interests and objectives, than we have any kind of competitive stuff that sometimes goes on. It’s been incredibly valuable to get to know these gentlemen and their operations through the lens of what we do collectively and what they do individually,” he said.

Sigel said that the partnership with his theater colleagues gave them the sense of confidence to ask the right questions and look for the best solutions. 

“What’s unique about the six of us is that we are the regional gathering centers in the urban hubs of our six main counties,” he said. 

“We all have a similar mission — to reconnect our downtown to the surrounding suburbs that creates the kind of economic and social activity that really connects us all,” he said. 

The Garde’s first big reopening test will be a Melissa Etheridge show in September. 

“There’s pressure on us to do it right,” he said. 

At the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Tavera said he’s cautiously optimistic, but “things change day to day.”

In terms of the partnership, he said to an extent it came down to “misery loves company.”

“We all have differently-sized venues, so it was good to look at the global perspective. We all serve different communities, so sharing ideas meant we didn’t have to go it alone,” he said. 

The six theater leaders speak on the phone every week.

Michael Moran of the Palace Theatre in Stamford said the team collectively has been able to craft messaging strategy and be a kind of support group.

“We have different levels of experience so we kind of helped each other. We paid attention to the budget session for the state. We collectively did our homework and reached out to our delegations and wrote letters to the Department of Economic and Community Development, local mayors and the governor,” he said.

Anthony McDonald of the Shubert is the newest member of the partnership, having started his position in the middle of the pandemic. Having most recently come from Broadway, McDonald says he is in awe to work in a theater that once offered performers — Gershwin, Richard Rodgers — who now have Broadway theaters named after them.

The partnership has been especially helpful to him as he is new to the state.

“I felt welcomed to the team from day one. These guys have been in their positions for some time. It’s been great to sit back and observe how they get things done.”

Currently all six theaters have upcoming shows and are evaluating reopening protocol. All are requiring masks indoors. Some are requiring vaccinations or proof of a recent negative test. The general vibe is cautiously optimistic. But regardless of the future, the partnership will be continuing, and the collaboration has now expanded to their marketing and other departments. 

And Rufus de Rahm said the art fans of the state are “hungry” to get back. 

“We provide a place for the community to get together, to experience joy and sadness together through the arts,” he said.

“There is nothing more powerful than us sharing our stories and singing songs — like those days around the campfire. This is just a continuation of that,” de Rahm said.