Kristi Towey is the new executive director of the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance (MST&DA). But she isn’t new to the MST&DA. In fact, to hear her tell it, sitting in the renovated theatre, blue eyes shining, it feels kinda like fate.
“I’ve been a part of the theatre since we moved here in 1999, for 16 years. The way I’ve been part of the theatre has evolved. First, I was a student, then my children were students and I was a parent. Then I started helping with events and different fundraising functions. Then I became a board member and now I’m executive director. I see myself sticking around for a long time. I don’t plan on moving. My kids are older and it allows me more time to dedicate to the theatre.”
Towey’s Island awareness and experience as well as her institutional knowledge of the MST&DA make her the right woman for the job. She remembers what the Island was like when she moved here, from Atlanta, in 1999. She said, “When my older son, who is 17, was pre-K age, I knew everyone. There were a very small group of families. Now we’ve grown so much. We have all of these new buildings and figuring out what it is these families want and need is a challenge but one that I’m up for. I’m up to figuring out what it is that is going to work in our community.”
It isn’t surprising that Towey is a dancer. She has the poise, posture, and mile long legs to prove it.
She has a Bachelor of Arts in dance and was a professional dancer up until she was five months pregnant with her older son. “I did my last official performance with the dance company when I was five months pregnant. Nobody knew! I danced seven days a week back then.”
“I have had my own experiences over the years through being a student and a parent at MST&DA. That makes me relatable. I understand the requests, needs, and passion they all have. I’ve been a dance teacher, a dance student, assistant to studio owners, and a parent of a student. I can put myself in their shoes in all of these scenarios.”
Towey chooses her words carefully, but that takes nothing away from the force of her delivery. She has a clear view of MST&DA’s future. “I plan to make us a lot more visible in the different areas of the Island. My main goal is to do outreach in the community and let everyone know how valuable The Main Street Theatre is.”
One manifestation of that is to offer more demonstration classes. Another – more performances outside. She wants to showcase “the talent of our staff and our students.” She says, “We have some really incredible teachers, teachers who have credentials that you can’t even find in a lot of studios in Manhattan. We have a lot to offer here and making sure the Island knows what we have here is really important to me.”
By way of example, Towey says that MST&DA dance teacher Mary McCatty is a former Rockette and Debra Orenstein danced with Isadora Duncan.
Specialized workshops will commence in the spring and summer. They will vary between theatre and dance and provide a way to experience a new form of theatre or dance in a shorter time period, possibly a week, to get a taste for it. Towey mentioned a one-week children’s workshop with a production at the end, to possibly coincide with school breaks. She says, “Hopefully that will draw students in for the full sessions.”
So You Think You Can Dance?
Towey is thinking about making some minor tweaks in the MST curriculum. This isn’t to say she isn’t proud of the breadth of courses offered, only that there are some gaps she’d like to see filled. She says, “We don’t have any modern dance here in our dance curriculum. We have a young creative-movement curriculum that incorporates Isadora Duncan style; she’s one of the founders of modern dance, but as they get older, we don’t have a modern dance discipline in the program.”
She says, “Everyone watches So You Think You Can Dance. The most loved form of dance on that show is contemporary dance, which is a mixture of jazz and ballet all sort of mixed into one. I would like to see that here because I think kids sort of relate to what they see being done on shows like that. So offering that style of dance would be great.”
It’s more than that, though. Towey wants the curriculum to reflect the evolution of the community and serve its needs. She says, “I am sure there are needs we are unaware of. I want to find out what those needs are and meet them.”
She says, “I plan on sitting in on all of our classes and going to some studios in Manhattan to get a feel for how our classes compare, although all of our teachers teach elsewhere as well. But I’d like to see what is fresh and new.”
“I love the staff, the history, the dedication of the board of directors, the longtime families/individuals that have been a part of the theatre, the new individuals/families that have become involved as students, the excitement of the arts, and my own love for the arts,” Towey explains.
“I’m really excited about the theatre’s future and I have a lot of passion for it. I love the theatre for what it’s done for friends of mine, and my own children. It provides such a unique opportunity for the kids on Roosevelt Island, including the fact that we provide scholarships to provide that opportunity for kids who might not otherwise have it.”
The numbers underscore Towey’s point. “Right now, we have over 200 students enrolled. This does not take into account our programs at PS/IS 217 or the [Roosevelt Island] Day Nursery. The number of people we provide instruction to is larger. If I were to do an estimate, it would be that over the last 33 years, we have had approximately 5000 students come through MST&DA.”
And it’s important to add that the board interviewed a few people for Towey’s new position. She describes them as, “All highly qualified individuals that should be part of the theatre in any way they see fit. We have some amazing talent on the Island that has yet to be part of MST&DA. Getting more of our local talent involved in bringing new ideas, and adding new programs while developing what is already in place, will be another focus of mine.”
The Island is experiencing growing pains. Every organization is charged with meeting the needs of a new population and trying to anticipate and prepare for the impact Cornell will have.
Towey believes she is in a unique position to understand this. She moved here at the cusp of the beginning of change in 1999. “I only know the Island through its changes,” she says. “Yet, my husband grew up here and tells me the stories of what it was like to grow up here. I can appreciate both. This is what will be important in moving forward as an organization. I don’t think you can have only one or the other. The history of the Island, and the parts of it that helped make it what it is today, are important. What we do with that to evolve with Roosevelt Island is a strong focus of mine.
“The key is preserving the history of the Island while embracing the new Roosevelt Island,” she says. “The Island has changed and, in order to reach our community, we must embrace that change instead of fight it. The history of MST&DA is important to Roosevelt Island. To preserve it best, our goal must be to continue to provide the same experience while embracing the changing community needs. Change is part of life… What better way to express the emotions associated with change than through the arts!”