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Next act: Music Theatre of Connecticut plans move from Westport to Norwalk

Published 2:00 pm, Saturday, February 8, 2014

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  • Jim Schilling, right, and Kevin Connors, the co-founders of the Music Theatre of Connecticut, on the set of "God of Carnage," the current production at its Westport theater. The organization plans to move to a site on Westport Avenue in Norwalk later this year. Photo: Nancy Guenther Chapman / Westport News contributed
    Jim Schilling, right, and Kevin Connors, the co-founders of the Music Theatre of Connecticut, on the set of "God of Carnage," the current production at its Westport theater. The organization plans to move to a site on Westport Avenue in Norwalk later this year. Photo: Nancy Guenther Chapman

 

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A couple of Westport men are taking their act on the road -- more accurately, their entire theater.

After years of frustration, the duo's dream is coming true. The men -- Jim Schilling and Kevin Connors -- have finally found a new home for the Music Theatre of Connecticut.

In March, while the theater is putting together its production of "The Fantasticks" (April 11-May 4) at MTC's space on Post Road East in Westport, construction will begin on a new space just over the town line in Norwalk at 409 Westport Ave.

"It's kind of the ideal location, which we love," said Connors, MTC executive artistic director and co-founder. "We love the building, we love the space."

It's ideal because the faithful Westport audience can follow the theater company slightly less than two miles west, and a new Norwalk audience also may find it. The box-like building, behind The Studio ballet school and in front of SiSu Elite Fitness, is almost twice the size of the basement the theater has called home in Westport for nearly 27 years.

Co-founder Schilling said they have been looking "forever" for a place to expand the programming of their all-Actors Equity Association shows and their instruction.

Connors said they first set their sights for a new home on the Lucille Lortel's White Barn, only to be disappointed when the legendary theater was sold to a developer in 2006. Then they tried to move into Westport Digital Studios Inc., Martha Stewart's former television studio, but that wasn't zoned correctly for public use and parking was an issue, Schilling said.

They were then in on the ground floor of attempts to renovate the Globe Theater on Wall Street in Norwalk, but decided that they didn't want to be in the middle of a construction zone, Connors said.

"There have been a lot of dead ends, a lot of frustration, a lot of disappointment," Schilling said.

"Looking for a space for us is much different than looking for a retail space," Connors said. "Westport was difficult because the kind of building that is really conducive to fitting out for a theater company is like a manufacturing building or a defunct church or something that has some scale and some size to it.

Because Westport never really had a manufacturing-type base, it was difficult to find anything here, even if you had all the money in the world -- which we don't. We're a nonprofit."

The new "state-of-the-art performing arts facility" in Norwalk will feature 120 seats in the main stage theater, up from the 45 they've been working with since MTC began in 1987, with a true "three-quarter thrust" stage, meaning audience members will be on three sides of the performers.

A large lobby will showcase MTC's many awards. The first-floor space will include teaching studios and a set construction/costume shop.

On the second floor, there will be dressing rooms, administrative offices and space for costumes.

MTC's School of Performing Arts also will be housed in the same building. Performances will be on the main stage instead of local schools.

Schilling, the school's director, said it's hard for him to believe the dream is coming true, even though a 15-year lease has been signed.

"How do I feel about it? I'm eager, I see the vision. I can't wait," he said.

The new theater will have 6,800 square feet, as opposed to the 3,500 square feet in Westport. About 400 square feet of that was "sort of wasted," as it's a hallway with concrete blocks on either side.

The pair sent out an email blast notifying their clientele about plans for the new theater two weeks ago.

"The response has been enormous," Connors said. "Everyone is so excited. Most people who have been around here know that we have been looking for a long time. They know we're confined in this space. They know the work is really good, but more people will be able to see it."

A major donor contributed $100,000 for the project, and a capital campaign also is underway.

"The target for individual giving is $350,000 and we're at $103,000," Connors said.

Connors doesn't think the new space will change the theater's artistic mission.

"It will let us do shows that are a little bit larger and it will accommodate 120 people and this only accommodates 45," he said. "But the thing that was important to us, the thing that people love about this theater, is the intimacy. We wanted not to lose the intimacy.

"So I'm calling it MTC 2.0. It's kind of taking everything that is good here and just making it a little bit bigger, but not losing the proximity from the actors to the audience and all of that, which we really love."

The new theater is scheduled to open in September. Meanwhile, "God of Carnage" continues at the Westport site until Feb. 16, and the 2014 MTC Gala, "Wish Upon a Star," will take place March 15. "The Fantasticks" will mark the end of the Westport era as MTC looks toward its new beginning.

For more information about the Music Theatre of Connecticut, visit www.musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883.