A Conversation with Emily Simoness
Emily Simoness and I met seven years ago on a blustery January morning. Emily was an actor and I was working at Disney Theatricals. It was 6:45am in Harlem; we were stationed outside of the Apollo Theater, registering legions of hopeful young Simbas and Nalas for an open call of The Lion King. As is customary among chilly compatriots working an open call, Emily and I stole time to make small talk. Warming on our hands on dunkin donuts coffee, we discussed, among many usual topics, our aspirations to make a lasting impact in the industry in the interest of new, exciting, and vital work. We spent a harried day freezing and thawing our fascia all for the sake of the dreams of these little ones — and a paycheck from doing work in the biz.
After spending the day with Emily I was struck by two wonderful things about her: she was confident and powerful in a warm way. She has nothing to prove – she knew she had a place at the table just by virtue of her passion for art and artists. She’s not arrogant. She knows she can make a difference, and does. She sees you. She listens attentively without waiting for her turn to speak. Okay, so maybe this is more than two things. If you don’t know her, you don’t know it’s hard to just pick two. And if you don’t know me you don’t know that I say “just two little things” which eventually leads to an effusively extended list.
When Emily created a space for artists I wasn’t surprised. But, SPACE?! Who knew the woman had a three hundred year connection to a farm in upstate New York? I don’t know that for much of her life even Emily knew. I love visiting the farm. Everyone you encounter looks well fed and contemplative and yes, they really are all theater artists. They’re well fed, nurtured by nature, and trusted to do their work. Emily’s leadership on the farm is apparent not only in her involvement but also in her delegation. She trusts those she’s hired to be ambassadors of the SPACE mission – let the people do the work in the most beautiful place with the confidence and validation that just being at SPACE is enough.
What follows is the transcript of what always proves to be an enlightening conversation with a very real, very honest, and very special person. Emily, thank you for the space. From all of us.
Gina Rattan: So is Ryder Farm your mom’s side or dad’s side of the family?
Emily Simoness: My mom’s.
GR: Was she ever out here?
ES: She was born in upstate New York, but she never visited the farm until I visited the farm. So her father, my grandfather, had been here a lot but she had never visited. So it really wasn’t until…she told me tales of it when I was a kid, and one of my aunts had visited a few times, so she told me about it. Now they come and visit. My branch of the tree was sort of far flung – my grandparents moved them all to Wisconsin and they weren’t really involved – and now they’ve come back, which is cool.
GR: It’s cool that it skipped one generation in your family and has now come back. What brought you here in the first place?
ES: That’s the part I still don’t know. I had heard about it as a kid. We would get like a yearly letter from the corporation which owns the land, which is comprised of 87 family members, and I remember getting that letter and I remember hearing about it and then I honestly don’t know what made me cold call Betsey Ryder, who is my fourth cousin once removed. I called and said, “I’m Emily, I’m related to you, can I come and check out the farm?” And she was like, sure. But I don’t know what made me curious.. I was an actress, I was bored, I was curious, and the farm seemed so groovy. That’s the part that like…I don’t really believe in God, but…destiny or something. It’s weird. It was great timing. It’s very clear to me why I stayed, but why I went in the first place? I don’t know.
GR: So, now the dream has been realized, right? This incredible place exists, you have a phenomenal team, and really well-developed programming. Is your ultimate goal achieved?
ES: Right now, because this 1795 homestead is not insulated, we’re limited with the time we can be here because the winters are not bearable. One of the things I’m interested in is getting the place (buildings) online for the whole year, what that would look like, and what that would necessitate. It’s something I really have my mind on.
In terms of the first six years, I do feel like it’s been a test kitchen. It’s been great, and successful – we’ve tried a lot of different things. We started out with just a general residency, which meant that any individual artist or artistic organization could apply with a project. Now we have the Family Residency and the Creative Solutions Symposium, which is for those working in the social justice space and are looking at creative solutions for their organization’s mandates. We have The Working Farm, which is where seven or eight playwrights come up for five weeks and they all work on a play. Additionally, we support a bunch of institutions, and they come up and either work on strategic planning or workshop plays for their next season. We also just hosted a week of social justice activists, their guiding question was how to combat racial inequity. I would say 80% of our constituents are theater artists, and the other 20% sort of wax and wane between activists and dancers and some visual artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Next year, we’re really going to clarify the communities we’re serving are and why; who’s primary and who is secondary.
GR: What’s down the road in the immediate future?
ES: We’re also on the brink of a capital campaign. We’ve done what we can do with the existing physical plant. We’ve rehabilitated these structures and started renting them; the outdoor stage was built – there’s now a stage in the barn – and there’s now a dock on the lake. We’ve converted a chicken coop to an artist studio. There isn’t any other existing structure that we can do anything with. We’ve had some informal performances in the barn, and I really think having a barn-like structure, whether it’s the existing one or a new one, would allow us to have rehearsals and workshops and present shows and hold conferences for farmers. Part of what I’m trying to sort out is what the earned revenue engine is of this place, from a business standpoint. A commercial kitchen is on my mind, because that would allow us to take our farm-to-table dinner situation to the next level. And then, ultimately – and this is down the road – really looking to have a different housing set-up with artists and farmers. This house – which is called The Sycamores, and was built in 1795 – ultimately probably wants to be the show piece and a love letter to the family, so [I want] to preserve the house.
GR: Did you ever think you were going to be here, at this time, looking at all of these past and future endeavors? It’s really remarkable what you’ve all accomplished.
ES: No, fuck no. Thank you, and no. No way. I did not grow up in a rural setting so that wasn’t ever anything I saw for myself. There’s always so many new challenges here. The minute you figure out how to get your 501(c)(3) non-profit status and [figure out] what that even means, and what a board of a non-profit means, and all of those things…the minute you sort all that out, you have to hire staff and understand what that means, both from a person-to-person place and also a legality place. And then the minute you figure that out, you have to start working with building inspectors about what compliance looks like, in terms of buildings. It’s just a lot of different areas of learning. I think that’s been good for my temperament.
GR: Because there’s enough variety.
ES: Yeah. I’m trying to learn now what a conservation easement would mean. I don’t know a lot about that. Learning how people organize around that, and what a winning application would look like, and how that differs from a winning application from the NEA.
GR: What is a conservation easement?
ES: There are a bunch of different kinds of easements, but essentially it would ensure the land’s safety and security from development. So essentially, you apply to the state…well, you first get an appraisal on the land, and the appraisers tell you what it’s worth. Then you apply to the state and if you win, the state puts up 75% of the appraised value of the land, and 25% in matching funds is secured for the rest of the appraised value. So Ryder Farm would get paid a nice sum of money in exchange for agreeing to never develop the land, which is funny, because if you had said to me seven years ago that land conservation was of interest, I wouldn’t have even known what that meant.
GR: Or why it would be important.
ES: Right. It factors in hugely to me, because our artistic mission is a big one, but there’s also the mission of this family and keeping this land. I guess that’s another question. What’s next? Ultimately, I’ve got this thing in my craw about saving family farms through art, which sounds crazy. When I first said this to my mom, she was like, “So you’re putting a church on a farm?” But I do think that if a template can be created here, who knows? You might be able to take that to other places.
GR: Saving family farms through art, meaning people setting up similar things to this because it revitalizes everything?
ES: Yeah, basically learning from what we have done at Ryder and seeing what the components are that we can take forward into the next venture that would yield a similar result.
GR: Does this help make money for the farm? Or is not really about money?
ES: I think it’s more about reviving. This makes money because [SPACE] pays rent on the structures we use, thus we created revenue streams through rent. There are a lot of ways to skin that cat, but it might be a viable model. We’ve got a lot of work to do still.
GR: This seems like a place where no matter who comes here, they’re profoundly impacted by it and want to be around here. There’s something that’s revitalizing about the place. What a wonderful lifecycle for the artist to give back to the farm and continue to engage.
ES: Exactly. And I guess a question I have is, was SPACE a fluke? I doubt it. I’m sure there are other places like this that could use a similar model.
GR: Oh, especially being able to get out of the city and into a different place. It has been inspiring for artists of many generations, retreating to nature and the country and all of that…but something you guys do that’s unique is that the whole experience is very home-y. Everyone eats meals together that are cooked fresh in the kitchen with ingredients from the farm.
ES: Being in someone’s home is different than being in a dorm. Having your rehearsal studio be a barn or a chicken coop is different than being in a fluorescent-lighted, mirrored space. Actually, a lot of the feedback we’ve gotten, is that there’s something about the wildness of the land and imperfect nature of these homes that lets people feel like it doesn’t have to be so perfect, you know? The pressure is off. In the beginning we said – and it’s on the website still – that this is “your artistic home away from home.” It really does feel like a home. It wasn’t by design because we’re using what was here, but it certainly has been leaned into.
GR: Feeling at home and releasing your non-fluorescent work are correlated.
ES: At the beginning, the intention was to paint a wall or fix a ceiling so we could inhabit it. It wasn’t much beyond that. The fact that there’s a guy gardening there [points to the field] is hilarious to me, because for four years we didn’t even look at the land – I couldn’t take that on. I couldn’t focus on how to spackle a wall and how to erect a loft in the corn crib and how to insulate a structure and also look at manicuring the hedges.
GR: I like that idea; that being in a space that’s not perfect allows you to take the pressure off of yourself, or allows you to focus more on the process. This house is keeping me dry in the rain, it doesn’t have to be fabulous, so what’s the purpose of what I’m working on now?
ES: Right, which like, when we do “improve” the things here, it wants to be in line with this sentiment. I never want to get too fancy, because that’s just not what this is. I love the idea that people came to Taylor Mac’s performance here and used a port-a-potty.
GR: That’s the gig.
ES: That’s what this is, and most people are pretty great about that.
GR: In a way, it attracts a good fit artist-wise.
ES: That’s true. And I take that really seriously. That’s one thing I’ve really learned about this – managing expectations. In a lot of ways, this is a hospitality job. It’s really important for people to feel safe and comfortable. They know what they’re getting into and what it’s going to look like and I think that’s a part of feeling safe. They need to feel safe to be creative. It can be dangerous too, but there needs to be a container for it. There are so many variables here, like the weather…
GR: There are bugs, there are raccoons…
ES: Yeah, it’s like, really freakin’ old. That’s why the days are grounded in the three meals, so there’s some sort of grounding or common denominator.
GR: Well, yeah, it allows it to be a cohesive experience. Is it worth complaining about something when you have this beautiful meal in front of you and you’re all working away?
ES: The staffing has been a huge part of it, too. At the very beginning, it was like ten of us who were hardy and down and it was a totally different thing. There was no evidence that what you and I are talking about right now [SPACE] was ever going to exist. And then it was like I was on a life raft for a very long time with various founders who would come in for short spurts or we’d cobble together a little bit of money and hire a contractor for a stint, and then in the last two-and-a-half years we’ve really had people who get up in the morning and think about the organization like I do, because they’re paid to. That’s a radically different thing, and there’s so much responsibility that comes with that too.
GR: Well, it must’ve changed a lot for you to have full time support.
ES: Right, the fact that Maggie [SPACE’s Company Manager] was able to take you guys down to the lake, and that there are three contractors with the kids who are in residency with their moms, that’s the only way we can do this. I was never going to run this Family Residency program if SPACE didn’t have this kind of professional oversight. I would say that is the number one thing that has changed since the beginning. I mean, time is this crazy thing, because you’re like…could [SPACE] happen? Will all the things I want in terms of the buildings and the programs and the infrastructure come to fruition? Something that I can point to is staffing. It’s alleviated the strain and made us able to do more things and helped us serve people more deeply.
GR: I imagine, too, that every year you do it, the more you realize is possible, because you accomplish this, this year and then next year…
ES: That’s a big thrill of it too.
GR: Wanting more.
ES: There’s so much responsibility to do what I see as the right thing for now. But also…I’m seventh generation of this family. I want the place (the farm) to still be flexible enough so that the version of me 140 years from now could have some amazing idea that isn’t this idea. [Emily points down towards the road] You know, there used to be a tennis court over there. There was an apple orchard over there for a long time. Towards the back of the property, at the lake, is a forest, but 40 years ago it wasn’t a forest, it was pasture, which is crazy. I find myself constantly trying to zoom out, and that’s challenging.
GR: Right, what allows you to be here today is that legacy and then you are also realizing that you’re a part of someone else’s legacy in doing it. I wonder then what it would be like to make those decisions and go, “Okay, we don’t want this to be a prohibitive choice”…it would be so interesting to see how your relatives in the past made those decisions and what plays into it historically, because some of it is out of necessity, of course. You build this and that and build a forest or an apple orchard because it was time to do that.
ES: That’s what’s so crazy about it. Different iterations.
GR: I have a question for you about transitioning from being a freelance actor – which you were for years in New York – to doing this. In some ways you’re using similar skills – having to be bright, resourceful, and excellent at dealing with people, but in a very different way. That’s a huge transition. What was that like? Did you have regrets?
ES: It was hard. When I first came here, [SPACE on Ryder Farm] was a hobby. It was not a salary, it wasn’t even a thing…it was just this crazy notion that was distracting at a time when I needed a lot of distraction.
GR: Because you were unhappy?
ES: Yeah. I have tremendous respect for actors. My husband [Michael Chernus] is an actor, but it was such an unrelentingly hard profession for me. For Michael, [SPACE] would be unrelentingly difficult. I really believe that it’s all going to be hard, it just depends on what you’re built for and what you want to do. Anything worth doing is going to be hard. When I was an actor, I hated not being able to get up in the morning and have a thing I was doing. I hated waiting for other people’s permission and invitation.
I landed here in 2009 and I would say I really stopped acting in 2012. So for three years, I was still identifying as an actress. SPACE was a hobby on the side, and then all of a sudden – not all of a sudden, a couple mornings in a row, a couple of weeks in a row, and then for a couple months in a row – I realized, I am only thinking about Ryder Farm. I’m never thinking about being an actor. Right around the time that I started making the decision [to focus on SPACE] is when things really started to kick in for me. It was hard in some ways. Acting was my life. I went to conservatory and failure is not something that I had a good time with. Not to say that I was a failure, but my time acting was incomplete for sure. What I set out to do, I didn’t do as an actor, but I also didn’t want to be an actor anymore.
GR: Being a super successful working actor didn’t happen right away for you but you found something else that had a greater number of elements of what you were interested in.
ES: In a lot of ways, thank God success in acting didn’t happen right away, because we probably wouldn’t be standing here. At the beginning of SPACE, the concept appealed to so many actors. It’s such a tactile thing. It’s making something. There were walls to paint.
GR: Like, oh look I painted that, it’s done, it’s accomplished.
ES: Right, it’s really good for people. Something I really try to instill in the interns, the ones who are actors, is to figure out what you’re doing between acting jobs that is meaningful and uses your skills.