SPACE on Ryder Farm has come a long way since co-founders and longtime friends Emily Simoness and Susan Goodwillie convinced a group of artist friends to join them in helping rehabilitate a house in upstate New York a decade ago. What began as a simple idea—give your time to the property in exchange for some space to create—has developed into what is fast becoming one of the country’s most sought-after artist residency programs.
Located on a 130-acre property (and one of the oldest working organic farms on the East Coast) in Putnam County, New York, SPACE on Ryder Farm supports artists through various residency programs, spanning playwriting to filmmaking to social justice. Residencies range from one to five weeks, with only three simple requirements: artists are asked to attend communal meals daily, give back two hours to Ryder Farm, and share what they’ve developed with fellow residents.
We chat with Simoness about the history of SPACE, as well as Director of Artistic Programs John Baker, and past and present resident playwrights about The Working Farm, a five-week resident writers’ group whose alums include Clare Barron, David Cale, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Mfoniso Udofia, Samuel D. Hunter, and Anne Washburn.
Growing up in the Midwest, Executive Director Simoness remembers hearing of a family-owned farm on the East Coast as if it were folklore. A magical place that had been around for centuries—that was about all she knew. Two years after moving to Brooklyn—where she was pursuing an acting career—Simoness decided to call her cousin Betsey Ryder, an organic farmer working on the property, and asked if she could come and visit.
“I was absolutely taken with the scope of the property,” says Simoness of her first visit in 2009. “What I found stunning about it is that it has all the elements—woods, pasture, lakefront, historic structures.”
When she first stepped into the 18th-century homestead on Ryder Farm (the same house which now houses half of SPACE’s resident artists), it looked like it hadn’t been lived in for years and was in need of some TLC. This gave her an idea. Back in New York City, she was surrounded by artists who lacked the time and space to create work. Why not offer them a deal—in exchange for their labor, a group of them could use the property to create art.
“The two independent needs—the farm’s need for rehabilitation and my artist friends’ needs for time and space—collided,” recalls Simoness. She pitched the idea to Betsey Ryder and in 2010, SPACE’s founding group of artists began rehabilitation work on Ryder Farm. The following year, Simoness was able to open it up to applications from artists.
Since, SPACE has grown significantly. Now with two houses located on the property, the organization can sleep as many as 11 residents each week; has 5 full-time staff year round (as well as a number of interns), and a rotating team of resident chefs each week. The non-profit’s current season is 26 weeks-long, 22 of which take place from June through October, and four in February.
What Is The Working Farm?
Spend a day at SPACE on Ryder farm, and you’ll spot writers working everywhere. A playwright reading in the hammock, while another is tucked away in the library. Take a stroll up to the barn and you’ll likely see someone at the piano, notes spread out beside them.
Now in its sixth year, The Working Farm is a fully subsidized, annual five-week residency for up to eight playwrights. Deliberately broken up into non-consecutive weeks, the program allows playwrights the opportunity to develop work while on the farm, go back to their lives momentarily, and then return to their residencies with fresh ideas and a new sense of purpose when their schedules allow.
“It takes the pressure off having to get everything done [all at once],” says Simoness. “Because you know you’re coming back.”
“The real gift for me with The Working Farm is [the non-consecutive weeks],” says 2018 Working Farm playwright Stefanie Zadravec. “Leaving home for weeks at a time is a stretch as I have a family and a special-needs son.
“This rhythm works for me, of weeks on and weeks off, because I’m not someone who writes every day. I’ll go home with questions of what to do next, and then I can read or research, and return in three weeks and put it all into the play.” The structure is ideal for Zadravec’s current project. With a developmental workshop scheduled at NYU earlier this summer, she was able to split her residency to accompany the workshop and return to Ryder farm for re-writes.
“I think this is what makes it unique in the industry,” says SPACE’s Director of Artistic Programs John Baker, “which speaks to the goals of the program—to give playwrights the time and space to focus their energy on a new project.”
Though the program asks residents to focus on a particular play during their time, the residency itself is artist-driven. Writers are selected based on already existing work and conversations had between them and SPACE staff.
This year’s Working Farm playwrights are Antoinette Nwandu (Pass Over); Will Arbery (Plano); Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Last Night And The Night Before); Dave Harris (White History); Michael Thurber (Thurber Theater); Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play); and Zadravec (The Electric Baby).
Who Are the Playwrights?
Baker says that choosing The Working Farm playwrights is just as much about curating a group of writers who will successfully be in conversation with one another as it is about the individual artists themselves.
The SPACE team consciously invites playwrights at different stages of their careers, which fosters the beginning of mentorships, as well as writers who are creating vastly different types of theatre, with the hope of nurturing rich conversations. It’s also an opportunity to meet resident artists working in other fields, which can be a breath of fresh air for any theatremaker.
“Theatre can become really insular,” says Zadravec. “When you have such an interesting mix of people on the farm, conversations tend to go in [new] interesting directions.”
Throughout their time on the farm, the artists are encouraged to bond through group activities—whether it be a bonfire by the lake in the evening or watching an NBA game in the living room—settings which inevitably cultivate collaborations and friendships beyond Ryder Farm.
“I’ve felt so much like I’m on my own little track,” says 2015 Working Farm playwright David Cale, who has spent much of his career working on solo shows (Harry Clarke and Somebody Else’s House, among many others). “Being with these writers and bonding with these writers made me feel a part of something. I feel like I have a community in a way that I think this [residency] started. A feeling of belonging to something.”
SPACE provides three daily farm-fresh meals at a communal table and much of the co-mingling between residents occurs during these times. What started as a decision made out of financial necessity has turned into one of the program’s most-valued features, says Simoness.
“I feel like folks come with the expectation that they’re going to work on a project, but the other, equal benefit is that they meet all these people, and have all these conversations that they wouldn’t necessarily have in other environments—I think the table sets the stage for that.”
The Magic of Ryder Farm
“There is something magic in the air up there,” playwright Jacobs-Jenkins has said of Ryder Farm. "SPACE is one of the few places on Earth where I have felt genuine inspiration happen over and over again; out on the lake or alone at a desk, watching the sky change colors over the Bowling Green or in conversation with fellow artists, sitting around a bonfire or the dinner table deep into the morning, long past the plates being cleared."
For playwright and performer Cale, Ryder farm was the perfect environment to develop We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, his autobiographical musical show debuting at The Goodman Theatre on September 15.
“I don’t think I would have written it [had I not come here],” says Cale. “The show is so personal that it was very productive to be away from home. To be in nature also really worked. Some of the show is about my childhood, which was spent roaming in the English countryside, so the environment felt like a good match.”
Beyond the Farm
Following their residencies, The Working Farm playwrights are offered the opportunity to have a public reading of their SPACE-developed plays at Playwrights Horizons. It’s an opportunity to funnel these artists and their shows to the forefront of the theatre industry, and often, SPACE is integral in connecting residents with new collaborators for these readings as well as inviting industry connections.
“We’re advocates for all The Working Farm residents,” says Baker of SPACE’s long-term investment in its playwrights.
“A lot of them have become my friends. They’re people that I admire and look up to,” says Simoness. “Given that SPACE is the giver of a resource, I feel a great responsibility with that and I don’t just want this to be a one-off.”
“We call it a home away from home for a reason. It’s not a fluorescent rehearsal room or a college dorm. This is someone’s home,” she says. “I want SPACE to be a home for people, and not just once.”
SPACE on Ryder Farm is currently accepting applications for the 2019 season. For more information on its programs and residencies, visit Spaceonryderfarm.org.