CORNWALL — Grumbling Gryphons founder Leslie Elias, exhausted after her first day of summer theater camp, still had enough energy to do her lesson plan for the following day, cook dinner for a houseful of guests and talk about her group’s 40th anniversary.
The year 2020 hasn’t been a normal one for anyone, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the state in March. As businesses reopen and municipal functions slowly return to modified schedules, summer camp programs have had to reevaluate their schedules, and many have been canceled.
But not Grumbling Gryphons.
“It’s our 40th year, and we were working on a program with Naugatuck Valley Community Cllege’s early childhood program, which was going to bring in performances by the Grumbling Gryphons. It was postponed, supposedly until the fall, but we really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Elias said. “We had programs planned in New Milford; we were going to go to Cape Cod to perform our environmental musical at the Cape Cod Playhouse. But that didn’t happen. So we started brainstorming on how to keep going.”
Elias was the winner of Connecticut Office on The Arts 2018 Arts Hero Award and The Northwest CT Arts Council's 2018 CultureMAX Award for Arts Educator.
A playwright, actress, storyteller and theater director who has been teaching drama in schools, theaters and public venues for more than 40 years, she established Grumbling Gryphons in 1980 and was recipient of the 2003 Connecticut Governor’s Arts Award. In 2011 she was recognized as a Teaching Artist and Solo Performer in the Directory of Connecticut Office for the Arts. As a playwright, Elias has written numerous plays based on history, poetry, environmental themes and folklore from around the world.
This summer, campers are taking part in the premiere of “Ananzi the Trickster Spider: A West African Folk Tale,” which she wrote.
Two camp sessions went ahead; the first held the week of July 13, and a second scheduled for Aug. 3-8. The first week drew nine children, ages 5-13. Elias held her summer program at her own home in Cornwall.
“Every year, I’ve held camp at the Cornwall Town Hall,” Elias said. “It’s a beautiful stone building, perfect for our performances, and the town loves it. Kids from anywhere can come, not just Cornwall. I was all excited about it, and then I realized, ‘We can’t do it.’ So we’re having it at the house.”
She contacted the state for permission to hold the camp, and got the rules straight — small groups, no food allowed, and sessions could last no more than three hours.
“That’s what I decided to do,” Elias said. “So we’re following pandemic guidelines. The kids don’t have to wear masks, because I was told by the state that the kids are a ‘pod’ meaning they’re not interacting with anyone but each other during each day. So we’re following pandemic guidelines, washing our hands, making sure we’re not overstepping ... and so it’s a hybrid of the regular camp, and it’s charming and adorable.”
Since traveling to NVCC in Waterbury or Cape Cod isn’t possible this year, Elias sought other venues for her theater group to give their traditional end-of-the-week performances, which include masks by Ellen Moon, fantastic, colorful costumes and live music. She reached out to libraries around the state and was invited to the Cos Cob Library in Greenwich and the Edith Wheeler Memorial Library in Monroe, to present virtual shows.
“At the libraries, we’re doing ‘Ananzi,’” Elias said. “We needed better technology, so I wrote a grant to the Cornwall Foundation, and got a new computer, a Macbook Pro, that’s hooked up in my studio, and it can stream the show live to the libraries. The kids at camp are learning their parts for the show, and ‘Ananzi’ is premiering at these libraries.
“In Greenwich, we’ll also have a pre-performance workshop so kids can connect on Zoom and participate with the kids at camp,” Elias said. “That way kids that are alone at home can connect with other kids and have fun.”
Mask-making is a standard activity at Grumbling Gryphons, led by Moon, who each year has made an array of masks for the children. Since camp was virtual for the performances this year, Elias hired a videographer to film Moon’s mask-making workshop, demonstrating her craft. “We sent those out to the libraries so they can share them,” she said.
Elias calls her 2020 summer program “new science” using live and virtual elements, giving everyone a chance to experience Grumbling Gryphons’ magic. “I think people need this,” she said. “The Zoom links are free, so anyone can watch the shows and be part of them. Camp ends each week with a limited-audience performance on my property, but most of the audience can see it live streaming.”
Elias is developing another new venture, Grumbling Gryphons Playhouse. “That’s the next step, a concept of my (twin) sons, Daniel and Arieh,” she said. “I haven’t implemented it yet, but my goal is to make it a place where kids can share, create, play. ... Older kids could write a play, maybe about COVID-19. That’s my goal, to make it a playhouse, for them.”
Grumbling Gryphons has always held collaborative programs with area schools, combining her shows with music and art from local students. “But we have a lot of work to do, to make sure all of our shows are available virtually,” she said. “That involves more cost.”
This year, Grumbling Gryphons was one of a number of nonprofit organizations to be selected for a matching grant challenge through Northwest Corner Gives, the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation’s effort to provide support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grumbling Gryphons met its $4,000 fundraising goal.
Elias is also hoping to have theater camp alumni participate in a video celebrating the 40th anniversary. “There are so many people who have supported us over the years,” she said. “I’d like to do a video mix of people with a hat, saying ‘Hat’s off to the Grumbling Gryphons,’ or something like that.
“I was at a gathering recently, and a man came up to me and said, ‘I remember you. ... I was in a play with you 32 years ago,’” she said. “That was pretty amazing.”
Donations are always needed. Those who want to help can mail checks made out to Grumbling Gryphons Traveling Children’s Theater to 29 Lake Road, West Cornwall, CT 06796. More information on the theater group can be found on Facebook and at grumblinggryphons.org; or call 860-672-0286.