In April 2008, when the scrappy theater outfit known as O'Connell and Company announced it would be leaving its longtime home in Snyder, the company's small but dedicated fan base held its breath and hoped for a short hiatus.

The hiatus took a little longer than anticipated, with the company taking up temporary residence in the cavernous Riviera Theatre while it considered its options and sought out a space more appropriate to its audience and style.

O'Connell and Company fans will be able to exhale en masse at 7:30 tonight, when the company, comfortably situated in its new home on Erie Community College's north campus in Williamsville, opens its 2009-10 season with a production of the musical comedy "4 Guys Named Jose and Una Mujer Named Maria."

Mary Kate O'Connell, the company's founder and artistic director, touts her organization's collaboration with ECC as a one-of-a-kind project that will merge the concerns of two previously exclusive communities that realize the benefits of working together.

"They're growing and challenging themselves and so are we. As they're changing the face of ECC to step up with the times and to reach a wider and more diverse cross-section of the people, so are we," O'Connell said. "There's so many opportunities through theater to enhance the programs that are already offered at ECC. Everything from their technology to their hospitality to their computer programming."

O'Connell anticipates working with students from several ECC departments on productions, as well as opportunities to integrate aspects of the plays into educational curricula at the school. Aside from a planned collaboration with the school's hospitality program, the details of those future collaborations remain vague. But O'Connell insisted that the company would maintain the professional standards of its productions and simply expand its mission to include sections of the ECC community.

O'Connell also praised ECC President Jack Quinn, who has called the collaboration a "unique and wonderful opportunity for ECC."

As for the space itself, the theater resembles nothing so much as a pristine high school auditorium, complete with an American flag on one side of the stage and a faculty telephone on the other. It boasts 400 seats, of which O'Connell expects to use only half, a projection booth and a large backstage area that the company will modify into dressing rooms and storage space.

"I think it's a high school auditorium without the traffic wear," O'Connell said with her trademark chuckle. "It really is like it was frozen in time, waiting for us."

The space, used only rarely for lectures and classes, will undergo a gradual face-lift as O'Connell and Company acclimates itself. O'Connell wants to build a removable thrust stage, in an effort to reproduce the intimacy that made shows at the company's former home in Snyder such a hit with fans.

"I walked into the space and it felt like home. It was an easy drive, easy park, not a bad sight line in the whole house. I thought, 'OK, this is really going to work,' " O'Connell said. "I knew in my heart of hearts that this was the right place for us to go on our journey."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

WHAT: "4 Guys Named Jose and Una Mujer Named Maria"

WHEN: Tonight through Nov. 1

WHERE: Erie Community College North Campus, 6205 Main St., Williamsville

TICKETS: $12.50 to $20

INFO: www.oconnellandcompany.com, 848-0800