The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford is undertaking its largest capital project since its was founded nearly 50 years ago.

The state approved a $3 million grant to the Tony Award-winning theater center which will allow it to go forward with a $7.8 million project that will create a new National Music Theater Institute for college undergraduates from the U.S. and abroad, offering semester-away programs in musical theater training.

The center has so far raised more than $3 million of the remaining $4.8 million.

The project includes seven new dormitory cottages creating living spaces for 65people, a laundry building, a new rehearsal hall and conversion of an existing structure into a production facility. The new housing will be mostly located at the end of its main parking lot, with the rehearsal hall adjacent to “Gene’s Pub” on the campus overlooking Long Island Sound. The town of Waterford is granting the center a modest additional land parcel which will bring the O'Neill's total land area to just over 10 acres.

 

Bids for construction will go out within weeks with building following immediately. The launch of the institute will begin in the fall of 2014.

“This is a transformative moment for us,” says Preston Whiteway, executive director of the center who says the grant is the largest in the center’s history.

The project is the first phase of a two-part expansion. The second phase includes a new proscenium theater, a new dining hall; and kitchen, renovation of administrative space and an endowment.

“Phase One has the most dramatic impact and is independent from the second phase, which is value-added to the first,” says Whiteway. The state has “expressed interest” in supporting the second phase, too.

“This is another example of what we mean when we talk about building upon our state’s strengths in partnership with our private sector partners,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in a statement.

The O’Neill grant, following line-item support for seven theaters as well as other arts-centric initiatives, signal a significant pro-arts agenda by the governor and legislature. At Goodspeed Opera House’s 50th gala Monday night the governor “pledged support” for a new theater in East Haddam.

The National Music Theater Institute will be the center’s first new program since it created the National Puppetry Conference and the Cabaret and Performance Conference in the 1990s.

Other programs include the National Playwrights Conference, the National Music Theater Conference and the National Critics Institute. The center is also the steward of the Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, the boyhood home of playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Since 1970, it has also run the National Theater Institute, the college-credited program for undergraduates interested in theater, which is the center’s primary revenue source. The music theater institute will parallel the NTI, which generates $2.3 million in gross revenue for the center. The music theater institute is expected to bring in an additional $1.2 million in gross revenue. The overall budget for all the center’s activities is $3.8 million.

“This is a positive for the center’s long-term financial health,” says Whiteway.

The project has been under development for six years and the center has been working on the state grant for three years.

Whiteway says the program is a unique one in the country offering comprehensive seven-days-a week-training — with a curriculum approved by Connecticut College — where students learn all aspects of musical theater, including performing, writing, directing, choreography and design.

Students will also interact with professionals and other programs at the center.

“In the age of ‘Glee’ and ‘Smash’ and where 80 percent Broadway shows are musicals, this is an untapped market,” says Whiteway. “This new program reinvigorates the O’Neill and will benefit the American theater for years to come.”