Whenever I seek career advice from actors and theater professionals currently working in this unpredictable profession, the general consensus is that the 21st century theater artist has two options: find work with an existing theater organization or make work. It is even better, though, if you are capable of doing both—always having a creative project on the side or in between your pursuit of the next job. I ask, how does one best don the creative cap?
This summer, I interned on an artist retreat in Brewster, New York—an hour and five minute train ride north of NYC. The retreat, SPACE on Ryder Farm, was an amazing experience for me, because I learned first-hand that there is no blueprint or method when it comes to creation—the creative cap is being donned, but there's many ways you can wear it! Notable artists in residence during my stay included Adam Rapp, working on his new play Through the Yellow Hour which is now debuting at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre; Joshua Harmon—whose play, Bad Jews, opens at Roundabout later this month; and a new play by Max Baker involving Tony Award winners Judith Light and John Glover, amongst others.
This week marks the end of SPACE's very successful second season. I caught up with Emily Simoness, the founder of SPACE, an alum from UNC School of the Arts drama conservatory, and a source of inspiration to me.
Timothy Thompson: How did you first come across the farm?
Emily Simoness: Ryder Farm has been in my family since 1795. I am ninth generation. Growing up in Minneapolis, it was a place I had heard about but had never visited; it was like family folklore. I graduated drama school in 2007, and in 2009, I don't know, I just got an impulse to call Betsey Ryder—my fourth cousin once removed— who runs the Ryder Farm's organic farming operation. I introduced myself, told her I was curious about this farm that has been in our family for generations, and arranged to visit it. And this was just to see it; I had no intention of starting an artist retreat.
TT: When did the idea of a retreat first occur?
ES: I stepped on the piece of property and was pretty awe-struck: it is this 129-acre plot of land (5 of which are developed for farming), with a half mile of lake-frontage, hills, fields, forest, etc. I was moved by the beauty of it. And I started thinking about the potential of what a place like this could be. By that summer I had come up with the idea to start this artist retreat and workshop space, which has now grown into an artist residency. The idea was that the artist would also give back to the land as well as work on their art. It is worth noting that, at the time, some of the farm's structures were falling into disrepair, and I saw an opportunity to make restorative improvements to the structures. Bringing up a little army of artist friends, we set to repainting, spackling and repairing these historic structures while working on our art. Since then, it has grown.
TT: How is SPACE on Ryder Farm different from other artist retreats?
ES: Essentially artists (writers, theater makers, filmmakers and visual artists) come up and are given time and space to work on their art. We offer our artists in residence three farm-fresh meals per day—most of the food we eat is grown on the farm and prepared by our cook with the assistance of an intern. I'd say the biggest difference from other retreats, though, is that we encourage artists to show their work, though it is not a mandate. It really is process-driven on Ryder Farm.
TT: Why process over product?
ES: I just don't believe you should look at an artist and say, "Oh, you're a writer, so you should be doing this," or, "You're a theater company and this is what you should look like." I think that the number one thing that separates a good artist from a great artist is that a great artist is really tapped into their own process and their authentic point of view. It is so important to tailor the experience for each artist based on their individual needs. I don't ever want one workshop to look like another. I think it would be counterintuitive to the creation of new work and to the development of the art.
Thank you so much, Emily! Many congratulations on another successful year, and I wish you the best.