Jeanne Ruddy discusses challenges at the Performance Garage

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

The Performance Garage, a Philadelphia hub for dance performances, rehearsals, and classes, is marking its 20th anniversary this year. Due to the COVID-19 shutdown, the organization was forced to postpone its celebratory gala, as well as the rest of its spring performance series, until late summer or fall. The lost revenue, from the fund-raising gala in particular, is a blow to their budget. Despite the setbacks, Jeanne Ruddy, Executive Director of the Performance Garage, told me in a recent telephone interview, “We’re not going anywhere.”

After closing the doors on March 15th, Ruddy lamented that she had to make the difficult decision to furlough three-quarters of the Performance Garage’s staff. Although the organization applied for a loan as soon as possible through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, the money for the first-round ran out before they were approved. Now with the second-round underway, they are desperately hoping to secure the funds that will allow them to bring back their staff. “We’re holding on anxiously awaiting news,” said Ruddy. “It’s very stressful.”

There are several bright spots for the Performance Garage that Ruddy said she and the staff are focusing on. Although delayed, the organization’s DanceVisions residency program is still on track. This year’s featured artist, duende, a music and contemporary dance collective, is scheduled to perform on August 28th and 29th – dates for which Ruddy says they are “holding fast and hoping for the best.” Ruddy is also thrilled that next year’s DanceVisions artist has been selected and will soon be announced.

The Performance Garage is in the midst of the second phase of an ongoing renovation project. Active construction work has been paused since mid-March. Fortunately, the funding for the project was not affected by the shutdown. Ruddy was pleased to share the news that Pennsylvania regulations will allow construction to resume in the next few weeks.

When it comes to reopening the Performance Garage, Ruddy said, “I’m thinking late Summer, and I keep saying that.” But the reality, she admitted, is that all arts organizations must follow the guidelines set by Governor Wolf and Mayor Kenney regarding permitted crowd gathering sizes. Currently, Pennsylvania guidelines stipulate that there must be a 14-day average of less than 50 cases per 100,000 residents before gatherings of 25 or less persons will be allowed. Even then, theaters will be specifically required to remain closed. Governor Wolf told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week that Southeast Pennsylvania “will almost certainly be among the last places in the state to see an easing of business closures and social distancing orders.”

When dance studios and theaters do get the go-ahead to reopen, Ruddy said she believes that proper cleaning of the facilities will be one of the most important practical considerations. Everyone who uses the space – staff, artists, and audiences – needs to have confidence that management is keeping the premises clean. To that end, Ruddy said the Performance Garage has purchased a disinfectant fogging machine for cleaning, and they are planning to use it every night. Adding to the challenge, she noted that these increased cleaning expenses will have to be included in the budget going forward.

Ruddy said she wonders when artists and audiences alike will feel safe returning to theaters. She and a colleague from the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. have chewed over the idea of maintaining a 6-foot radius around each chair in the audience – however the economics of running at 30% capacity are dicey. Furthermore, she is concerned that while the audience may be safer in terms of social distancing, the performers would inevitably still be in close contact with each other.

In the meantime, Ruddy is thinking about ways to increase online programming, but this will only be possible if the organization is able to bring back staff members who are currently furloughed. The Performance Garage hosts a panel discussion series on dance topics, HubChats, that could be expanded and offered virtually. Ruddy also mentioned that they hope to invite their teaching staff to come back in and use the studio to produce online dance classes. Another possibility is streaming performance content through their website – an option Ruddy said she’s considering “especially if the shutdown is going to be for 18 months.”

Yet, the internet is not a satisfactory substitute for live performances, rehearsals, or classes. Ruddy said she is looking forward to reopening, anticipating that “there is going to be such a blossoming of demand for all of our programs.”

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