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Velvet Lounge in East Setauket offers open performance nights

Peter Arebalo (left) and Keion J. Wilsher, hosts

Peter Arebalo (left) and Keion J. Wilsher, hosts of the bi-weekly open mic night, "The Muse Exchange" at the Velvet Lounge in Sektauket, introduce the next performer, April 9, 2015. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Poetry, music, comedy -- whatever -- as long as there's passion. That's the idea at the Muse Exchange, an every-other-Thursday open performance night at the Velvet Lounge in East Setauket.

On a recent evening, Barbara Branca of Shoreham is the featured player. Standing before a backdrop of modern art illuminated by stage lights flashing from blue to purple, the 67-year-old poet orchestrates a set driven by hand motions, discourse and the occasional shake of a maraca while shifting between song and spoken word. Members of the audience, ranging from college students to senior citizens, punctuate her piece with cheers and applause.

"I love being around all these different kinds of people . . . it's lovely and so full of life," says Branca, a communications manager by day.

Another performer, Bri Onishea, 26, of West Islip, says the crowd drives the atmosphere. "All this energy from regulars and newcomers . . . everyone is so open and willing to speak," she says.


The scene at Muse Exchange has been building for a steady two years. Organizers Pete Arebalo and Keion J. Wilsher recruit some acts before each event but leave plenty of five-minute windows open for anyone else who wants to "perform their muse" -- a term they coined that paves way for anything from original poetry to acoustic cover songs.

On this night, Arianna Fugit of Lake Ronkonkoma braves the mic after more than a year of sitting in the audience as a spectator.

"I've been wanting to read for a long time," Fugit, 28, admits. "And I'm really glad I did it."

Poetry is only the beginning. "It's a grab bag of an event," says another regular, Steven Licardi, 26, of West Islip. "People performing spoken word, poetry, acting, doing comedy, speaking, even reading personal letters."

Wilsher, the co-host, appreciates having a venue where people feel so comfortable. "The Velvet Lounge has always been a place where local artists cut their teeth and thrive, from rock shows to dance music," he says.

As far as nightlife venues go, this one isn't typical. The lounge is a side room of an Indian restaurant called The Curry Club. It hosts unlikely gatherings -- live indie music nights and alternative DJs -- in a space decorated with graffiti-inspired artwork. There's a fire pit on a small outdoor patio with some benches. Patrons can order bites at the bar during performances.

"It's a unique, freaky, weird culture of people doing things on the fly," says artist and regular Eddie Donoghue, 27, of Centereach.

While she'll likely never take the spotlight herself, Monique Zodda of Oakdale, 28, comes for the presentation, saying, "I have admiration for people who can do this. It's beautiful."

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