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After Helping the Science Museum Find Its Voice, the Longtime Artistic Director of the Carpenter Science Theatre Company Retires 

click to enlarge After nearly two decades as artistic director of the Science Museum of Virginia’s Carpenter Science Theatre Company, Larry Gard is retiring from playing famous historical figures. He helped the museum find its voice, says Director Rich Conti.

Scott Elmquist

After nearly two decades as artistic director of the Science Museum of Virginia’s Carpenter Science Theatre Company, Larry Gard is retiring from playing famous historical figures. He helped the museum find its voice, says Director Rich Conti.

The conductor checks his pocket watch.

The year is 1942 and Broad Street Station — today's Science Museum of Virginia — is still the site of train traffic on the Eastern Seaboard. A woman approaches, saying she's headed to Philadelphia but concerned about the train's 2,000-horsepower diesel engine. The locomotive can travel to a frightening 80 miles per hour, and she's worried about a derailment.

The conductor puts her at ease, explaining that technological advances can be scary at first, but people eventually get used to them. The two kid about this train one day becoming so commonplace, it might end up in a museum. The line is an inside joke, because a museum is exactly where they are.

Until this March, a walk through the science museum, past the SR-71 hanging from the ceiling and the swimming cap of Olympian Michael Phelps, often revealed actors Larry Gard and Kimberly Jones Clark enacting this scene from the short play "Catching Up on Time."

After nearly two decades as artistic director of the museum's Carpenter Science Theatre Company, Gard retired late last month. During that time, Gard acted or directed more than 200 different shows, the majority of which he wrote himself, appearing as people as varied as Thomas Alva Edison and Galileo.

A native of northern Indiana, Gard attended the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster College for theater. Following years spent performing on stage and picking up freelance gigs in radio and television, he found his way into performing theater in museums in Indiana, including the Snipe Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame. In 1998, Gard came to Richmond for a job at the Science Museum of Virginia. He learned the ropes from Tessa Bridal, who founded the theater company with Barry Hayes and Ann Easterling about two years earlier.

The years have seen Gard don a variety of different guises, including notables Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin, Marco Polo, John Russell Pope and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as more abstract roles. "The Dilemma of 9" had him portray the digit nine, musing about the number's mysterious nature. An exhibit about recycling had him play a heap of trash. Once, coming around a corner dressed as a seagull late at night, he scared museum director Rich Conti half to death. His scene partner was dressed as a crab.

In 2008, he and another actor interrupted a museum board meeting dressed as Edison and Nikola Tesla to argue about electricity. The interruption was more than a stunt: It was meant to illustrate how Conti wanted to shift the focus of the museum towards engaging the layperson.

"Larry has made theater a part of the thinking for every exhibit," says Conti, who once performed opposite Gard in a "Seinfeld"-inspired short video in the George Costanza role. "It helped us really find our brand, our voice as a museum."
One of Conti's favorite Gard roles was when he played a steampunk Father Time.

"The whole thing explored how time is relative," Conti says. "With theater in the museum context, you have to playfully explore how to make people feel good."

When Jones Clark first auditioned, she recalls Gard demonstrating what the museum does with a story about King Tut. "He just put his heart and soul into it, and he made it fun," says Clark, now a resident actor and writer with the theater company. "He combined the facts, the science, but also the humor. It just had an energy that grabbed the audience."

Carpenter Science Theater performs about nine to 12 shows in any given year, nearly all of which were researched and developed by Gard and other local theater artists. Half the shows are new, meaning they likely produce more original theater than any group in town.

"Shakespeare and Galileo," one of their most popular works, imagined a fictional meeting between the two men. The play depicted William Shakespeare trying to covertly save his imprisoned girlfriend while Galileo was trying to escape the Vatican. Gard commissioned Grant Mudge, former artistic director for Richmond Shakespeare — now part of Quill — to write the piece. Mudge, now artistic director of the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, played the Bard, while Gard played the Italian polymath.

Other notable commissions include Jon Lipsky's "North Star Light: Pathways to Freedom," a series of monologues from the viewpoint of slaves, and "Genius in the Attic: the Restless Curiosity of Alexander Graham Bell," a 50-minute show about the inventor written by Douglas Jones. "It's one of our longest-running and most popular pieces," says Gard of the latter.

Theater at the museum isn't confined to its 130-seat Barbara Thalhimer Theater, which is currently undergoing renovations. Carpenter takes advantage of the entire museum, staging guerrilla theater in the galleries. The company usually stages 15 shows a week, with three different shows taking place five days a week. Including the museum's LightPlace space, where the theater troupe performs for 1- to 5-year-olds, the group entertains roughly 12,000 people a year. "Part of the magic of museum theater is that people don't expect it," Gard says.

But retirement isn't without its sorrows, and for Gard it's that it won't be alongside his wife. Marcia Quick Gard, a former teacher who spent the last two decades of her life working in mental health, died in 2016 from cancer. "I miss her," he says, tearing up. "If she had not passed, I would not have retired. I realized I was in a forced infusion of a new life."

Earlier this year, Gard produced a revival of "A Song in the Wilderness," a one-woman show Gard wrote and his wife starred in in the mid-'90s. On Gard's dime, the show was produced locally and in Indiana after her death, starring Kerrigan Sullivan and with Jacqueline Jones directing.

"[Marcia] was a great actress, she really was, and I felt very lucky to be able to produce a show that I did for her," says Gard, who also created a theater grant in her name. "It helped me emotionally to do this. It was therapeutic."

Recently, Gard experienced an additional setback: he was hospitalized for necrotizing pneumonia, a rare illness with a high death rate. Today, he's still on the mend, and says he's about 80 percent back.

In retirement, Gard plans to visit relatives in California and New Jersey, and serve as assistant artistic director for the newly formed Sailor-Ribblett Playwrights Theatre in Indiana. He also plans to do more photography and composing, and recently purchased a house in Stratford Hills for him and his cat, Annie.

Still, he doesn't plan to stay too far from the museum, and hopes to return to volunteer.

"I love this place," Gard says. "Once it's in your blood, it's in your blood. You can't get rid of it. Who would want to?" S

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