BWW Features: Music Theatre of Connecticut - Thinking Outside the Black Box

Music Theatre of Connecticut: Thinking Outside the Black Box
By Melinda Zupaniotis

Back in 2008, when I moved from my small New York City apartment to my 3 bedroom house on a half-acre in Norwalk, CT, I was both "excited AND scared", to quote Little Red from Into the Woods. I was excited for the change, for the possibilities, and for the extra space, yet scared for the unknown, the new responsibilities, and the financial undertaking. I'm sure "excited AND scared" sums up the feelings held by Kevin Connors and Jim Schilling when faced with their latest venture - moving Music Theatre of Connecticut from its quaint and cozy home in the basement of a Westport strip mall to the spacious and state-of-the-art surroundings at the Company's new location at 509 Westport Avenue in Norwalk, CT. However, "excited" might be the dominant emotion.

The new location is easy to find, behind the Jones New York outlet on Westport Avenue, just north of Stew Leonard's, and adjacent to Ballet Etudes and a number of fitness facilities offering Capoeira, boxing, martial arts and Crossfit. There is ample parking to accommodate the house, and the entrance is handicap-accessible.

Entering the new facility is night-and-day from their old home. There is a beautiful, brightly colored lobby that houses the box office and administrative desk, and the tangerine walls are peppered with posters from past shows and awards that the Company has earned over its 27-year tenure in the community. There is a long, L-shaped hallway off of the main lobby which holds the tech booths, but most importantly, the bathrooms! Funny enough, bathrooms can be a bragging point for theatre companies, both happy to accommodate their patrons and also to ensure a smooth and speedy intermission. While most audience members will be limited to this entrance and corridor, I was given the grand tour, including extra rehearsal space (that can double as a reception hall for special events), the dedicated scene shop, a kitchenette, the gorgeous administrative offices and the upstairs area, which includes dressing rooms, a green room, more administrative offices, and a utopian costume shop coupled with the most organized prop rooms I have ever seen (flamingos!). Buried in there, is a gem of a private vocal studio that is tied into the Company's lush education program - but more on that later.

I also had the pleasure of meeting MTC's Technical Director, David Heuvelman, who gave me the overview of the technical resources at MTC, and the benefits of starting from scratch. The 7,000 square foot space now occupied by MTC used to be a kitchen warehouse. The team, assisted by Signature Construction in Stamford, gutted the warehouse to its walls and rebuilt to suit, meaning that they were able to create a dream-space. The lighting rig cost $250,000 alone, but consists of top-of-the-line units, varying in use and capacity, and all controlled by a gorgeous Ion light board. Similarly, the sound system is cutting edge, aided with 6 inches of acoustic insulation, and with the help of a consultant, the theater is now set up to produce top-quality work with high-end technology.

Speaking of the theater, walking into the Melissa & Doug-sponsored auditorium is both reminiscent of the old space, yet also, completely different. The intimacy is preserved. The seating still hugs the playing space. But the ceilings are high and the stage is larger and convertible; from thrust to proscenium to in-the-round to more. There are now 110 seats - almost 3 times the former capacity. There is the potential for wing-space and a crossover. One can breathe in this new space and take in all that is being presented without feeling cramped, or without missing any of the action.

I recall the old space on Post Road East in Westport, where the 40 seats seemed like an after-thought and four of those seats were situated in the house-right corner, behind a pillar, which must have created some restricted viewing. I also remember how, once, during a performance where I was seated in the front row, I was convinced that one of the actors was about to sit in my lap! All joking aside, Kevin and his crew managed to make things work in their limited space at the old MTC, so I can only imagine how amazing the forthcoming works in the new location will be!

In addition to the technicalities of building a theatre company, there is also an emotional drive. Back in 1987, Kevin and Jim began MTC as almost an accident. Encouraged by a colleague to look at the big picture of the future, these Equity performers took a chance and secured a lease with the Town of Fairfield, CT for 2 classrooms and a 600-seat theatre in the then-dormant Roger Ludlowe School. From there, the company grew. They recruited a Board of Directors and secured their Non-Profit status. While the Board's makeup has changed over the years, the mission to provide quality professional theatre has remained the same.

Additionally, from the get-go, Kevin and Jim knew they wanted to incorporate Education into the brand, and immediately began a program which included teaching artists who could mentor the artistic youth of the Fairfield County community. There is a true curriculum put into place, which sequentially takes the students through all aspects of theatre, beginning with backstage duties and graduating into the performance arena, culminating with a Senior Showcase in New York City. Additionally, MTC hosts a popular and highly-successful College-Bound Seminar series, helping high school students who are serious about pursuing performing arts as a major to prepare for college auditions - one of the most competitive areas of college admissions for some schools. Apart from the MTC School of Performing Arts and the College Program, they also offer one-on-one training, such as voice-lessons, in the wonderfully hid-away studio on the upper floor of the new space. Additionally, being situated directly next to Ballet Etudes offers a special opportunity for synergy and collaboration among the students, programs and showcases. One thing that stands out about the MTC education program is the spotlight on the "business of theatre", something that even the top-ten colleges skip in their training. Utilizing the experience and knowledge of the teaching artists to help their students plan their marketing strategies and brainstorm on "survival jobs" is a unique, and much-needed plus. Their program boasts many collegiate success stories, as demonstrated on a dedicated wall of photos in the long corridor, as well as many Broadway successes, such as Mia Gentile, Adam Kaplan and Justin Paul, all of whom are returning "home" this weekend for the MTC Gala.

This Saturday, September 27th, Music Theatre of Connecticut will host their annual Gala, but this time, in the new space. This is actually a huge feat, considering their timeline has been so short. After receiving their unanimous city planning and zoning approval in December of 2013, they boldly began their independent capital campaign in January of this year. Almost immediately, Melissa and Doug, a locally-based manufacturer of imaginative children's toys, stepped to the plate offering a $100,000 challenge grant to help subsidize what was expected to be a $650K renovation. Those costs have now come closer to $900K, as happens with any construction project, but through loyal patron support, as well as long-term support from People's Bank and the CTDECD, this seasoned team is using every resource to its fullest capacity. If you would like to be part of the exciting things happening at MTC, please visit THIS LINK to donate, or even name a seat in the new facility for just $300.

Another way to support MTC's efforts is to attend the Gala this weekend. With a Broadway star-studded lineup, a wine-tasting hosted by Harry's of Fairfield and heavy hors d'oeuvres, it is sure to be an amazing event. You can purchase tickets HERE.

What's next for MTC? Well, that's easy, as they are gearing up for their exciting 2014-15 season, beginning November 7th with The World Goes 'Round: The Songs of Kander & Ebb. After that 3 week run, they will bring Driving Miss Daisy from January 30-February 22, 2015 and Little Shop of Horrors from April 17-May 10, 2015. As for the choice of shows for each season, Mr. Connors admits that he's been used to limiting himself to shows with smaller casts for staging purposes, but that doesn't always mean choosing shows with small casts! They once performed Cabaret with only 8 actors, most of whom doubled or tripled on roles, and the result was successful, if not groundbreaking, by actually bringing new light to each character and the relationships within the plot. As Mr. Connors says, "We prefer to be experiential and not presentational. We want to do things you won't see at other places."

For actors, Music Theatre of Connecticut has always been a place of respect and craft. Everyone is treated as collaborative professionals and the Company has become one that NYC-area actors vie for. Most recently, one role's breakdown, alone, resulted in over 500 agent submissions. The new space, however, offers even greater accommodations for those Union actors willing or able to make the trip to Norwalk, just 1 hour north of NYC. While the Company's AEA contract requires all roles to be filled by Equity performers, many of those AEA actors are found in nearby CT towns through the Company's frequent NYC-based auditions. However, Artistic Director, Mr. Connors, isn't closed off to the possibility of incorporating events that include local, non-union talent in the future.

Speaking of the future...the future is looking bright for the new Music Theatre of Connecticut. With caring custodians and innovative ideas, this is one of Connecticut's artistic gems. I hope you take the opportunity to see what MTC has to offer and support them in their goal to promote the arts in Fairfield County, CT. Please find more information about MTC HERE.

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From This Author Melinda Zupaniotis

Melinda Zupanitois is a native of Fairfield County, CT and a staunch advocate of local theatre. After earning her BFA in Acting from the University (read more...)