Joan Marie Cusick

A Generation Swings Back to Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance

David Stone
Joan Marie Cusick
Joan Marie Cusick

"Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance was my favorite part of growing up," is how she answers the basic why question of our interview.

Joan Marie Cusick is completing a circle with her return to MST&DA as teacher, actor and director, a creative loop that's the first phase of her projected career.

We're parked on a pair of too small stools in a corner at Starbucks. Even as I repeatedly ask her to wait as I finish typing, her enthusiasm is such that I speed up my fingers, at great peril to grammar and spelling, to record as much of our conversation as I can.

Joan Marie Cusick's comments reflect a quick mind and self-assurance unusually strong for her age. Listening to her story, you don't want to miss any of it.

"New York City has everything I want to do," she's saying, "especially the theatre scene," adding, "It's nice to save money before moving out."

Graduating from Fredonia on Lake Erie in Western New York last year with a BFA in Acting and a minor in Dance, Cusick didn't just move back to Roosevelt Island, she joined a group of school friends in New York,  drawn to theatrical opportunities not nearly as plentiful anywhere else.

Right away, they formed Shellscrape, an ensemble that has put together cabaret events, made up mainly of their own songs and dance works, and is oriented around involving more people in various aspects of theatre.

"When Joan reached out to me and sent her resume asking to become involved in MST&DA, I was thrilled," says MST&DA executive director Kristi Towey, "and because she wants to give back to the organization and help provide the same experience to today's students."

Theatre? It's Personal

Although grateful that her parents did not pressure her about career choices while she was growing up, Joan Marie Cusick was born with theatrical genes. Mom Jackie and Dad Russ came to New York soon after college, ambitious to make the most of Screen Actors Guild memberships.

Joan Marie was kindergarten age when the family moved to Roosevelt Island and soon began supplementing primary education with learning at MST&DA. Unintended consequences ensued as, over the years, learning about acting helped a not always socially comfortable girl find her voice and place.

"Whenever I felt like I didn’t fit it, I always fit in there," she tells me, referring to Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance. "I enjoyed the creative outlets, and I learned that I’m at my best when in creative activities.

"I was always quiet in school and more soft spoken, scared to speak up and show my voice. My teachers thought I should talk more, but I had nothing to say."

Cusick, who stretches to claim all of five feet and two inches as an adult, says, "I was always small, a quiet small person, but I didn’t feel that way inside. It was hard to show people that I wasn’t what I appeared. In theater, I was able to play other characters, including being loud.

"Playing other characters taught me how to speak up."

Meeting the still soft spoken Cusick, you might find it hard to imagine her being loud, although it must be there. As proof, she has been certified, according to her professional resume, for "Stage Combat: Unarmed, Knife, Rapier Dagger," in case being loud by itself isn't enough.

Rounding out the contrast, she also specializes in "silly voices," complimenting her mainstream mastery of acting, improv, singing, choreography, directing and dance."

In each skill set development, Cusick has been able to find and bring out something of herself, broadening her life experience.

Power of Now

A theme of owing something for the benefits of growing up in Roosevelt Island's theatre community at MST&DA kept coming up as we talked. 

"It's very important to give back to communities and return what you learned. I encourage others to ask themselves how what they’re doing can help other people. It’s worth it."

Theatre isn't all Cusick and her two brothers inherited from her family.

"My Dad was always very active teaching us to give back. He took us along to things his company was doing, like painting a school house.

"School experiences brought it into sharper focus because, if you’re not careful, acting can become self-indulgent. Directing makes me a better actor because it reminds me it isn’t about me."

It's also a good lesson for living.

Today, Cusick's main role at MST&DA involves teaching in the Teen Theatre classes and, a big step, directing this years teen play, Almost Maine.

Her experiences on and off the stage are a guide.

"I like to give my students healthy approaches," she says, drawing a contrast with acting schools that "try to break you down, even make you cry."

Her choice of Almost Maine, set to delight audiences at the end of April, includes everyone in Teen Theatre, except one who opted for the irresistibly quirky musical, Pippin, also being produced this season at MST&DA.

Cusick first saw the play while in her sophomore year at Fredonia.

"I was looking for a play that would be appropriate and is conversational and makes sense to teens. It had to be genuine. Teens read to Almost Maine well and connect with it."

Written by John Cariani and first performed, breaking box office records at the Portland Stage Company, in 2004, Almost Maine, which bills itself as "a real romantic comedy," is now the most produced play in North American high schools, kicking Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream off that pedestal. 

As the New York Times reviewer reported in 2006, Almost Maine is built in eleven "two-character vignettes exploring the sudden thunderclap of love and the scorched earth that sometimes follows."

Fortunately, the stories are delivered with comic flair. 

"There's a lot of physical comedy," Cusick explains, helping enlightenment and insight float in that universal experience of first love, often at first sight, and the gravity that always follows.

Almost Maine is Joan Marie Cusick's first step into the next circle of development. While she will always be learning, as all good professionals do, she's now doing more, teaching, directing and giving back some essence of blessings received while growing up on Roosevelt Island, embraced by a tightly knit community and welcomed to explore herself at Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance.