In 1982, a small group of Islanders got together to form a board of directors for what later became Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance. Their first productions were held in the Goldwater Hospital auditorium.
Since then, thanks to a key phone call Diana Brill made to old friends, Nancy and Worth Howe, MST&DA has been able to run a children’s theatre, add a dance component, collaborate with many other Island organizations, and have taught and provided opportunities for generations of Islanders aged 18 months old and up through their late 70’s to act, sing, and dance in shows they have produced.
The interview is part of an ongoing Time Capsule project spearheaded by 16-year-old Mark Strong Shinozaki in conjunction with the Children, Youth, and Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA). Throughout the year, the group will be interviewing Islanders about their experiences and their hopes for the next 25 years. You can read past interviews here.
Members of the Time Capsule Team, l-r Dylan Marfey, Nathaniel Gillespie and far right, Adib Mansour pose in front of A Midsummer Night's Dream set with Kristi Towey, top, and Jackie Lucid-Cusick, bottom.
Dylan Marfey: I like to start with a proud disclaimer that Bryan and I have been members of MSTDA for numerous years.
Diana Brill: The first production of the Main Street Theatre took place in the Goldwater Hospital auditorium in the spring of 1982. We didn’t even have a name for the theatre at the time. A man named Gibson Glass came to Roosevelt Island; he said he wanted to open a theatre here. I decided to help him and formed a Board of Directors. Many of those original board members still live here. They were Terri Resnick, Nellie Negrin, Camy Calvay, Jinny Ewald and another woman who is no longer with us. I was the Chairwoman.
Dylan Marfey: What was the original plan?
Diana Brill: The original plan was to have three shows produced at Goldwater while we searched for a permanent space. The original board sold 450 tickets for the three shows. However, Gibson Glass spent all the money slotted for the three shows on the first one, A Cry of Players about the young Will Shakespeare.
Checks were bouncing all over the place and it got so bad that the union electrician stopped working the lights and we had to do the show with the auditorium house lights because there was no money to pay him.
The problem was that 450 people had paid for three shows, not one, so we fired Gibson Glass.
Then, I don’t know to this day how I did it, but I called my old friends Worth and Nancy Howe and convinced them moving here was a great opportunity for them to have a theatre of their own. So they moved here.
To pay for the second and third shows, in the spring of 1983, we started a children’s theatre and with the registrations we were able to pay for the second show which was The Genevieve Duvall Affair. With the box office receipts from the second show we were able to put on the third show Starting Here Starting Now. So we fulfilled the original three shows.
Nathaniel Gillespie: Where did you eventually move the theatre location?
Diana Brill: We were given the youth center space for the second show and the children’s theatre and we all worked together toward the making of the black box theatre. We rented and then purchased lights, we got Public Purpose Funds for construction and renovation of the space. We got New York State grants and donations from the community, money from fundraisers, plus the registrations fees and monies raised from the productions.
The theatre was an Off, Off Broadway professional Actor’s Equity for all of our shows.
Bryan Cusick: Who was whom at the time?
Nancy Howe: Worth was the first executive director, and served for many years. I was the children's theatre director and taught the classes, as well. I became the executive director in around 2000, I think… I am not sure exactly. It all just evolved, ya know?
Dylan Marfey: Nancy, who was considered the face of Main Street Theatre retired in 2005 with a big party at the theatre.. Nancy, what have you been doing since then and have you had any theatrical experiences?
Nancy Howe, directing at Main Street Theatre 2000, left
Nancy Howe: I guess I was the face of the MST&DA in 2005. Worth had moved to LA a little over a year earlier.
After touring twice, with a national tour of The King & I as assistant stage manager, I went on to be the director of a children's arts program for 2 1/2 years, here in LA. I stay in touch with acting by doing background work on TV and film.
Worth has had roles on Fear, The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Parks and Recreation, as well as some stage work. He works with the production company that is a producer of Broadway shows, including Dear Evan Hansen, Hello, Dolly! (with Bette Midler) Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert to name a few, and the upcoming Tootsie and Beetlejuice.
Bryan Cusick: Jackie, did the theatre have any celebrities? If so, please tell us about it. We know that Al Lewis (from The Munsters) lived on the island. Did he participate?
Jackie Lucid-Cusick: That I wouldn't know; I guess Nancy might know the answer to that question but I do remember he was a celebrity here. Sasha Cohen used to live across the street with her family. She did the technical aspect of theater and she's done Broadway and some Off Broadway shows and television.
The Lucas children did a couple years of children's theatre, then they started doing professional theater. Jake Lucas was in the Broadway version of A Christmas Story, the movie was turned into a musical. He played Ralphie. And Sydney Lucas also did very well. She's on TV now; I think in The Son. At MSTDA she did creative drama and the children's theater and I know she played the cow and the Teen Theatre of Into The Woods. Sydney was nominated for a Tony for Fun Home.
So yeah, this spurs people if they really love theater, this is really great basis for a lot of potential.
Kristi Towey: There was a recent article in The WIRE that talks about where previous Main Street Theatre students are now what they're doing professionally. We have some who’ve gone on to be professional musicians not necessarily in theater; but they are performing professionally in the music industry. We also have some that are performing on Broadway and off Broadway.
Jed Resnick is another one; he's performing professionally. We even have alumni that have come back to teach for us. Joan Marie Cusick is currently teaching for us. Carla Blumberg was alumni from Main Street Theater that came back in and also taught.
Bryan Cusick: Kristi and Jackie, please tell us what recent productions were memorable to you?
Kristi Towey: There are so many. It is a really hard question because to me each one of them is so amazing in different ways. I think I really really enjoyed Pippin. Pippin was one of the most recent teen musicals and is one of my favorite musicals. I really loved seeing the teens perform it. They were so good.
I was in a production recently; it was my first time ever doing musical theatre; I was a dancer. That was definitely memorable to me. I was in 1776.
Jackie Lucid-Cusick: Same as Kristi. I'm so proud of the quality of the work that consistently happens here. I know that one of my favorites of course was the children's theatre production, Little Shop Of Horrors. It was so challenging because of all the puppet work and getting the kids to really push their boundaries and do scary theater on stage.
It was also memorable because we got John Kennedy who works for Jim Henson Puppets for the Children Television Workshop and Sesame Street to come for a day to help out our older performers. He got inside the big puppets to show the two actors how to work them. You know, to see a guy that works the muppets on Sesame Street all the time… it was so exciting. He is very good friends with the Lucas family, the parents of the children alumni.
And of course 1776 was so exciting on multiple levels. It only has two female parts; we had so many women playing men's roles; and it was really exciting to have that happen. It didn’t matter that you were female actress… you could still play John Adams or Thomas Jefferson. It was very very very exciting and rewarding and made me proud of the Main Street Theatre.
Nathaniel Gillespie: Kristi and Jackie, please tell us how did your paths lead to the MSTDA?
Jackie Lucid-Cusick: Sure. We moved here right before 1999 and our oldest daughter Joan started taking dance there. Our babysitter, Melissa Stein told us “you got to come across the street and see a show.” We saw the children's theatre production and we realized this is the real deal ….and the rest is history.
Then when she was in third grade, Joan did the children's theater and that's how that happened. Then her younger brother Bill, who was three years younger, also started. I was just a parent with kids taking classes and a few years later when Nancy was leaving, Mary McKatty who had been teaching with Nancy asked me if I'd ever directed before and I'd done some directing in college. She asked if I'd be interested in directing while she choreographed and I thought about it and I said yes! That’s how I became a teacher on the other side, not just a parent.
Then when Mary McKatty stepped down as executive director she recommended me to take over, which I did for a few years. So all along, it started as a parent of actors in the theater. it was very rewarding.
Kristi Towey: I moved to the island in ‘99 as well actually and I had one child at the time, too young to take part in the Main Street Theater. I started taking dance classes with Mary McKatty – speaking of celebrities Mary was a Rockette and performed professionally on Broadway.
Nancy and Worth and Diana Brill… they all worked professionally. The roots of Main Street Theater all come from these professional celebrities in the Broadway world and in the dance world. But Mary first brought me in dance classes and she was ready to put me in a show for one of the dance shows that she was doing. But I got pregnant with my second son.
Then my kids started to get involved. My older son loved children’s theatre for years. Then Jake, my second son started with creative drama. Eventually after years of being a parent and a participant in the program, Owen Johnston, another former executive director invited me to serve on the board so I did. When Owen had to step down – he was cast into the cast of Allegiance on Broadway – the position was open and I decided to apply. And so that's how I got into this position. I've been executive director for three years.
These four and five year olds are in Debra Orenstein's pre-ballet class
Dylan Marfey: What is the current age group at the MSTDA?
Kristi Towey: The age group is from 18 months up to whatever age. Once they can walk they can take dance and drama. The oldest participants are in their 70’s. We have dancers and actors in their late 70’s. We may have had older in the past, but currently that's the max.
Bryan Cusick: We know that you now offer Special Workshops. Tell us more about them.
Kristi Towey: Special workshops change all throughout the years, so sometimes somebody will just come to me and say, “I have this idea for a workshop what do you think?” This meditation workshop going on right now is not typically something that's part of our program, but I had a teacher come to me and say “you know I have a lot of interest from other people on the Island who would like to explore this, would you be open to offering?”
As long as the interest is there I'm open to pretty much anything that has to do with either fitness, dance, or theatre. Meditation has to do with well-being for all of those. So I was open to it. We've had specialty workshops that have to do with a show. We had an A Chorus Line Dance Workshop recently where somebody from the original cast came in and taught a couple of the dances; we have an Argentine Tango Workshop coming up. So lots of different varieties of things.
Nathaniel Gillespie: Kristy, are there any current issue issues in the theater such as financial hardship or community support?
Kristi Towey: Well, we are non-profit so there are always financial needs. One of our main goals as a non-profit here on Roosevelt Island is to make sure that our program is affordable to the whole demographic of the Island. Often times we have to fundraise in order to fill the gap between what we’re charging for classes and what things actually cost us to run. So Public Purpose Funds that we receive from RIOC is a really big help in filling that gap. We typically will do some other fundraisers to try to fill that gap as well. Our goal is to continue to keep the prices where they are and offer the same caliber of programming that we have been offering.
Reaching the whole community is a different struggle. I find that a lot of people don't know about us even though I feel like we do as much outreach as we possibly can. We've been here for over 35 years. The Island has grown and a lot of people are not aware of who we are and what we do.
It’s a big struggle for me to figure out how to reach the whole community. However, I do think the community is supportive of us once they know about who we are and even people who aren’t part of our program support us tremendously, either by helping to spread the word or attending the shows. We do get a lot of support.
Nathaniel Gillespie: Please tell us about your cooperation with other organizations on the Island?
Kristi Towey: We do a lot of projects with other organizations. We partner with PS/IS 217 and run enrichment programs during the school day with them.
We partnered with the Beacon and we're about to start another program with them. We partnered with the Youth Center, we partnered with RIOC on numerous projects and festivals around the Island. We’ve partnered with RIVAA. We partner with Island Kids during the summer in their camp. We worked with RIRA’s Children, Youth & Education Committee on a lot of their projects including Mother’s day celebration at the Carter Burden Senior Center.
We try to partner with as many people and organizations on the island as possible to meet our goal of reaching the whole community through the performing arts. We just want to make sure that everybody has exposure to it. And we’ve also partnered with Cornell Tech in the last couple of years.
Beacon is going to start having our Capoerira program on Mondays for their second graders. Last year we did West African dance and theater with the beacon program.
Bryan Cusick: This is a question for both of you: what is the current goal of MSTDA and your personal goals?
Jackie Lucid-Cusick: My goal and hope is that my students will let their friends on the island know that this exists and to be able to come see their friends in the show, not necessarily participate in the classes, but just that there’s a place they could perhaps work backstage or anything else. I really love when I see the kids are doing the sports and they're also doing theater. My goal and my hope is that the kids that are involved now will make sure to let their friends know and invite them to come see a show. It is just so important to have live theater in your life.
Regarding my personal goals, I guess with our culture and what's going on in our country right now I think it's really important to be respectful; to take all those messages of no bullying and no intimidation and protect this as a safe space where we can respect and care for each other.
Kristi Towey: so I guess my goal for MSTDA would be the same, the outreach which we talked about before and continuing to provide performing arts to everybody on Roosevelt Island. People may not necessarily appreciate it fully now but it's really amazing to see students who have grown up and gone on to college to come back and talk about how much of an impact their time here had on them.
Personally my goal is to be positive around everyone who comes into the space. I want them to feel like it's a safe space to be in, and I want support my staff because they're absolutely wonderful. I want them this to be a place supports them creatively so that they can grow in their personal lives.
Nathaniel Gillespie: Is there a specific age group that you are in need of attracting?
Kristi Towey: Teens and adults. The teen program comes in waves; we’ll have 15 to 20 students that are in the teen theater and then we'll have less than ten. It goes up and down. Same with the adult theater and the adult dance as well.
Bryan Cusick: This is a question for both of you: How has your RIOC relationship been?
Kristi Towey: I have to say it's been great over the three years that I've been in the role. They reach out to me asking us to provide instructors for certain events. For instance, for the Black History Month they wanted our West African Dance instructor and some musicians that we've used. Our relationship has grown and it's been very positive.
Jackie Lucid-Cusick: Current RIOC President, Susan Rosenthal, actually loves theater and spearheaded a reading that we did last February: Alice Childress, the first African American female to have a play on Broadway, is another famous celebrity that lived here on Roosevelt Island. She was a very famous actress as well. It was really wonderful to have RIOC’s President want to have something like that happen here, on Roosevelt Island. That’s how we all want it to be like!
Dylan Marfey: What do you need from your community to support MSTDA?
Kristi Towey and Jackie Lucid-Cusick: Come to the shows! Coming to the shows is a big way to support Main Street Theater. The students work so hard. That's the other half of it; the audience is part of the partnership! That’s the best way for our community to support us.
Nathaniel Gillespie: This is a question for both of you.. Kristi, where do you see MSTDA in the next 25 years when the Time Capsule gets opened? And Jackie, what would you like to change with the current MSTDA?
Jackie Lucid-Cusick: I don't know if I want to change anything. We have so many creative and amazing people. Kristi is creative and she's also amazing with her outreach and her social interaction skills; that's what makes this space so successful right now.
It would be great to have a technical person who could oversee all the technical components from the back, from the technical aspects of theater. Whether it's the stage management and lighting and design, all that technical stuff. If there was money to have a technical director for the space would be wonderful.
That would be a whole new position that would need to be funded. I think that would really open up the creative types to be able to say “I want to have a mountain on stage” and you’ll have this delightful technical artist to be able to say “okay, well you’ll need these kind of lights, or these kind of gels, etc.” Somebody that's professionally trained to be able to do that I think I would be a great support for our space.
Kristi Towey: I agree, that would be wonderful. I had to learn a lot technically in the last three years. I learned to move lights, focus them, how to program the board. I'm up on the ladder doing it. Yes it takes a lot to run the theater.
Where do I see Main Street Theater in 25 years… well hopefully I see it growing with more productions. I would love to see more hosted productions at Main Street Theater. I like exposing the community to more theatrical productions that are done by other groups; we've done that over the last couple of years.
Jackie Lucid-Cusick: Another thing I guess would be, as Nancy and Diana said, the Main Street Theatre started out as a professional theatre; they had a contract with the Actors Union. I think it'd be wonderful for the theater, even if it was only in the summer, to have professional productions with professional actors working alongside community members. I think this could be a win-win on so many levels.
Kristi Towey: I'd also like to see an expansion of space. We only have two dance studios, and the one theatre. More space would be very beneficial to expanding the program as we grow. I would love to have a production at Four Freedoms Park. That would be wonderful I think it would be such a great opportunity to put something outside.
Dylan Marfey: How do you see the community becoming an even bigger part of the organization?
Kristi Towey: We have a very large creative community here on Roosevelt Island that I would love to get involved more.
If people lend their expertise to one production; if you have one area in particular that you can help out Main Street Theater.. for instance, our partnership with RIVAA has been a really wonderful thing. Now we developed a relationship with Dan Nistor, who is a member of RIVAA, he does these wonderful paintings for our sets.
Things like that are very helpful to us. We always have needs, and like I said before, the financial hardship of being a non-profit and keeping our prices low we can't always hire out the help that we can really use and if anybody is able to even loan one day of their expertise, it is so helpful to us.
The adult musical theatre studio performs Oh What A Lovely War March 29-31, 2019.
The teens perform the musical The Theory of Relativity May 3-5, 2019.
The children’s theatre performs Beauty and the Beast June 7-10, 2019.
Last, the dance concert is June 15.