Theatrical 'village' taking shape at the O'Neill theater center
Waterford — Don't be fooled by the continuing busy rumble of construction work at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Eight years after initial planning began, the campus is on the brink of a major development in its ongoing $8 million project to enhance the residential experience of visiting students, teachers and other professionals.
Four of the theater's seven new Victorian-style dormitory cottages, plus a new rehearsal hall, are slated to open in about two weeks, according to theater Executive Director Preston Whiteway. He said once all seven cottages open, the theater campus will increase capacity for residents from about 40 to roughly 100 beds.
"Now we're going to have a village," said National Theater Institute Artistic Director Rachel Jett.
Whiteway emphasized how the architecture and arrangement will facilitate sociability and create a "summer camp" feel.
Students of NTI and the inaugural National Musical Theater Institute arrive on campus Sunday and leave soon after for a brief off-campus study portion of the semester, some to London and others to New York. The opening of the cottages will come just in time for the students' return, according to Whiteway.
Jett said the additional space will allow visiting artists to stay on campus for extended periods, when in the past they might have stayed at a hotel or been on campus for only a night. This will allow greater opportunity for collaboration between experienced theater professionals and students, she said.
"Now we can invite them to work on what they're working on either with or in front of the students," she said.
Project architect Chad Floyd said he modeled his design for the new buildings on the Methodist camps of the 19th century, where people gathered during the summer for worship and community.
He said the emphasis of the design was on creating a sense of community not possible in a normal dormitory where students might simply go to sleep, and noted that many Methodist camps eventually became artist communities.
Porches on each cottage and on the rehearsal hall built flush with the ground for handicapped accessibility will give students, faculty and other visitors an intermediary space between study and sleep, he said.
"The participants will be walking down the sidewalk, passing people sitting on the porches and pausing to chat, and I think those are the opportunities for creative friendships and contacts that will really add so much to the experience of being there," said Floyd, who is a partner at Centerbrook Architects in Essex.
Centerbrook project manager Dan Batt has overseen construction of the project.
Floyd said he imagined the new Jim & Jane Henson Rehearsal Hall, which contains a dance hall with a spring floor and a music composition room, would hold the role of community center.
The pastel facades of the two-story cottages make them appear quaint and small, but inside, rooms are spacious. The largest cottage contains about 2,500 square feet of floor space. In contrast to the pale Easter hues of the living spaces, the exterior of the one-story hall is painted a deep green.
"It's not quite Kermit-green," Whiteway quipped during a tour Wednesday, referencing the Henson muppet.
Construction workers on site Wednesday could be seen painting the exterior of one cottage. Another cottage had just had its floors installed, and a third was apparently awaiting carpeting on its stairs. Clay-colored mounds of dirt, dust billowing, dominated the foreground.
Whiteway said that by around Sept. 20, a sidewalk will be paved and trees planted in front of the four new dormitories, and the parking lot located in front of the finished buildings will be paved.
He said that by around Thanksgiving, the theater plans to complete the next three cottages and a laundry building, and by spring, renovate the Lloyd Richards Production Cottage. The parking lot is slated for completion with the next cottages.
The Production Cottage is currently two-thirds residential space and one-third rehearsal space and will be converted completely to rehearsal space and have a porch added to it, according to Whiteway. He said the laundry building would look similar to the Stonington borough lighthouse, except that the new structure would be made of wood.
Construction has been a long process with a few complications along the way. Whiteway said construction workers encountered rock while putting in a sewer system. Heavy rains this past spring forced the O'Neill to work to contain erosion that sent silt into the nearby woods, according to town Planning Director Dennis Goderre.
Initial planning of the project began in 2006, with fundraising of the $8 million to fund it starting in 2007, according to Whiteway. Floyd said he began designs, including a conceptual master plan, in 2008. The theater broke ground on the cottages in 2013, Whiteway said.
Whiteway said the dormitories will be named in a spring ceremony marking the end of the first phase of the O'Neill's current construction project. The next phase, which does not yet have a definitive timeline, is slated to include construction of a new theater and cafeteria, he said.
Floyd said the project was unlike any other he had ever worked on. He compared the O'Neill cottages and laundry building, arranged to form a corner framing one of the theater's parking lots, to the quaint Victorians in the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard.
"I really take pleasure in imagining the students sitting on those porches, and the sociability," he said.
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