By John Alcott
Space aliens, ghosts and psychedelic rock musicians have all recently invaded a 127-year-old theater on Brewster’s Main Street – and they’re getting standing ovations.
It’s all happening at the Southeast Old Town Hall, where a new group of musicians and theater people are casting a bright spotlight on the local entertainment scene with original plays, concerts and other events.
Calling themselves the Old Town Hall Theatricals, they are operating under the auspices of the nonprofit Town of Southeast Cultural Arts Coalition, a multi-arts organization helmed by its president, Olenna Truskett.
Words like edgy, quirky, offbeat, zany and unexpected all apply to their particular take on the creative arts, but hardly sum up the troupe’s overarching ambitions. Whatever the adjective, their shows are fun, compelling and executed with amazing theatrical and musical professionalism.
Recent theater performances include: “I Want to Believe in Brewster,” an original play about UFOs and ghosts; a live, improvised rock score for the animated French film “Fantastic Planet;” and a Christmas cabaret featuring the Monkeytown Milk Spillers band, and Beacon’s Wynotte Sisters performing original tunes and covers of more obscure holiday songs.
That last concert was at the Studio Around the Corner on the ground floor of the Southeast Old Town Hall at 67 Main St. (Monkeytown is on Turk Hill where Brewster’s famed 19th century circus men kept monkeys, elephants and other exotic animals).
October marked the debut of “I Want to Believe in Brewster,” written by Daniel Basiletti, and the “Fantastic Planet” show. Both played to capacity crowds and were well received in the Victorian-era theater on the building’s third floor.
Seemingly landing on Main Street from outer space, the theater group was founded by four friends who met at a tag sale after moving to Brewster from Yonkers and Los Angeles. All of them have extensive theater, film and music backgrounds.
The newfound friends – Basiletti, his wife Stephanie Schleicher, and Jill Paxton and her husband Rod Cumming – began brainstorming various ways to bring alternative theater and music to the community at large.
“It all started when we were sitting in a room whining about the fact that there wasn’t more diversity, let’s say, in the types of artistic productions here,” said Basiletti. “We were like, ‘I wish there were cool things in my town.’ My attitude was, if you want it to happen, you better do it yourself.”
There was already “a vibrant theater community happening” with the Brewster Theater Company under the leadership of Stacy Dumont, which Basiletti noted does a great of job producing well-known and popular plays.
BTC, founded in 2000 and based at Drew United Methodist Church in Carmel, is now readying for Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.”
“So, there was no need for us to do that,” he said of the more popular plays. “We wanted to try other types of productions.”
While both Basiletti and Paxton had starred in coalition theater productions, including “All In the Timing” and “Shakespeare Rock ‘n’ Roll,” it wasn’t until the four friends joined together to form a theatrical start-up that things began to really percolate.
First came a concert on a flatbed truck in front of the historic Southeast House for Brewster’s Fall Festival a couple of years back. An early version of their eclectic folk/jazz/rock band, the Monkeytown Milk Spillers played a couple of original tunes, highlighting one based on the fatal Tilly Foster mining disaster of 1895.
Cumming was on guitar, and Basiletti – a multi-instrumentalist who knows his way around piano, accordion and guitar – played lyrical trumpet solos. He also lends his horn talents to the Putnam Symphony Orchestra, where he’s on the board of directors.
The band got a good reception from the crowd on the street and the group was off and running. It continued to find gigs, and Basiletti and Paxton got roles in a couple of Town of Southeast Cultural Arts Coalition productions. The next logical step was to pull together a cohesive cohort of like-minded theater people, but they needed a space to stretch out their ideas.
Enter, stage right, the coalition, which invited the group to join forces.
“They are now the theater wing and a new breath of life,” said TOSCAC President Truskett. “They have good ideas – and chutzpah!”
The troupe was ecstatic about the opportunity to use the theater as home base. In addition to providing the stage, the nonprofit coalition now produces and finances the shows.
“All the crazy ideas we had, and they said, ‘Yeah!’ There was complete freedom,” Basiletti said of TOSCAC. “We were a bunch of actors looking to form a theatrical group, and then at the same time the Cultural Arts Coalition was looking for content.”
So, it all came together at the charming, circa-1896 theater with its stage and proscenium arch. The large room still retains the dark woods, wainscotting, vaulted ceiling and gingerbread architectural details in a mix of Colonial Revival, Tudor and Arts and Crafts styles.
But in its current state, the theater is only able to host an audience of 49 people, although it has the potential for accommodating at least 200.
Just this year, the efforts of Truskett and TOSCAC earned a $500,000 matching grant from the New York State Office of Parks & Historic Preservation for the town-owned building’s restoration. But the money is on hold as Southeast awaits the National Resources/iPark decision to buy the building as part of its massive redevelopment proposal for Brewster’s downtown.
The Southeast Old Town Hall is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and plans call for restoring it, but it’s not clear that iPark wants to use the grant money for the makeover. The grant comes with some state stipulations the developer might find untenable.
“I think it is so crucial for a town that wants to see revitalization and life again to have a place for the community to come together to see what they want to see, to be pushed a little bit, to see things they would not normally see around here,” said Paxton of the group’s goal to establish a creative beachhead on Main Street. “We just have a ton of ideas, like: How can we put Brewster on the map again? How can we bring more arts to the area? We really feel there’s a possibility of having exciting things happening here.”
Cumming succinctly summed up their objective: “The idea was to put up a beacon to say there are people here who want to do creative things – let’s find each other.”
The four core members of the theater group, which drew more than 20 cast and support staff for its most recent production, all take on acting roles and do whatever else needs doing. They share directing duties with Schleicher, as well as Basiletti, who also designs the sets and handles the technical aspects of production, such as sound and lighting.
A retail design consultant for the Magazzino Italian Art museum in Cold Spring, Basiletti is originally from Prince Edwards Island, Canada, where he was drawn to music and playacting at 16. He and his wife, Stephanie, moved to New York in 1999 after he did a stint as a jazz musician and busker in New Orleans. They came to Brewster from Yonkers about 10 years ago.
Schleicher is a filmmaker who just completed her first feature, “Pressure Makes Diamonds,” now on the movie festival circuit. She is also contemplating making a web series about Brewster history, tentatively titled “Weird and Wonderful Brewster.”
Southeast resident Paxton has appeared in off-Broadway shows, TV commercials (her “bread and butter”) regional theater and musicals, and was recently involved with the Yorktown Stage, Armonk Players, and Arts on the Lake in Lake Carmel/Kent. A vocalist for the Monkeytown Milk Spillers, she’s made a stunning chanteuse for the cabaret performance.
Her husband, guitarist Cumming, studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California and works as a music data analyst and freelance writer.
Both couples have children and somehow still manage to find time to contribute to the local arts community. They are also among the founders of Putnam Pride and helped organize past LGBTQ events in Brewster and Carmel.
Kent resident and French expatriate Pierre de Gaillande leads the experimental band Body Kite, with Basiletti and Cumming as sidemen.
“We have a lot of momentum right now, so we’re looking forward to putting together three or four productions for 2024 that are in discussion,” said Basiletti. “We’re definitely doing another Body Kite movie and we also would like to screen more movies in the theater.”
Schleicher said other original programs are in the offing for the spring. Concepts like a quarterly coffee house featuring spoken word poetry at Studio Around the Corner and a youth film festival for area high school moviemakers are also in the creative pipeline.
Additionally, the group helped set up the coalition’s Festival of Trees in the theater with multiple Christmas evergreens, which will be in the limelight again Jan. 1 for a timely Concert for Peace at the Studio Around the Corner. (See page 9).