Written For THE DRAMATIST
Take Metro North an hour or so up from Manhattan and it feels like you’ve traveled much further than you have. As the train nears Brewster, New York, the air softens, the light filters through the surrounding trees, and the frantic pace of urban life diminishes. You exhale. You drop your shoulders and start to become aware of the space around you. And then you hear, “Mommy, how much further?”
In August of 2016 I participated in the second annual Family Residency at SPACE on Ryder Farm. I am a composer/lyricist, and joining me was a group that included puppeteer Beth Nixon, designer Louisa Pregerson, playwrights Sarah Ruhl and Deepa Purohit and, among us, our eleven kids.
Writers retreats can be heavenly idylls of peace and quiet. The few I have attended in the past have been wonderful opportunities to escape the chaos of a contemporary, overcrowded schedule and to focus on one thing: the work of one project, the pressure of one deadline. At a traditional writers’ retreat, the days are ordered to maximize creativity. It is customary in these situations to arrive at a writers’ retreat and discover that nearly nothing is expected of you. You have clean sheets on your bed. Someone else has brewed the coffee. Your job, for the week or two or three that you are in residence, is simply to create your art. At some point you might be expected to show up for dinner, which someone else has prepared, and you will likely have delightful and stimulating conversation with your fellow creators, all of whom have spent the day in their own rooms making their own art.
One might say that having all that time just to think and create was indulgent if it weren’t so necessary to the creative process. Artists observe. They think and they respond; they try and they mess up and then they try again. Artists can be known to live inside their processes so fully that they fail to answer the phone, they forget to eat, they lose track of time. At a writers’ retreat, this sort of behavior is encouraged, if it’s what you need. In fact, it’s probably why you are there.
For a few years after I became a parent, I stopped feeling like an artist. The change came overnight as I gained a human being and lost the permission to be self-centered. For a few years, it was hard to keep my writing from feeling like a hobby, and I certainly couldn’t afford to lose track of time. Someone else’s life now depended on me being responsible, answering the phone when it rang, getting to bed at a reasonable hour.
“I’m a playwright and a parent, a mother,” says Deepa Purohit, who attended the residency last summer with her son. “When I’m creating and doing theater I leave my parent identity home, and when I’m home, dealing with the demands of motherhood and familyhood, it’s tough to find time to write. I end up writing between things.”
Back in 2014 at a meeting of The Lilly Awards Foundation Board of Directors (of which I am a member), a group of prominent playwrights and composers were discussing the claim that the reason artistic directors and producers didn’t program more work by women was simply because women weren’t writing as much as men were. ‘We would be happy to produce more work by women,’ was the proffered explanation, ‘but those plays don’t cross our desks.’
The Lilly Board’s initial response was outrage. It wasn’t about productivity! There was a pipeline issue. There was a visibility issue. There was an agent bias. Those points are valid, but playwright and Board member Julia Jordan also suggested we consider the issue of writers’ retreats and, specifically, how they can become insurmountable problems for mid-career women. “I mean,” she said, “I stopped applying for them. I have two kids. It’s too hard to figure out how to go.” Nods of agreement circled the room as several women in their 30s and 40s admitted that they hadn’t applied for a writers’ retreat in years. Notably, it was the women with young children who were nodding. When you begin to think about how many meals and babysitters and Tooth Fairies have to be organized in order for a parent to slip away for a week of indulgent creativity, it seems daunting. It seems expensive. It seems impossible. And it’s taboo to admit it.
Emily Simoness founded SPACE on Ryder Farm in 2009, combining her access to the 126-acre working farm that had been in her family for generations with an awareness of her artistic community’s need for productive escape. By bringing artists up to Putnam County and granting them respite from their everyday lives, she “contributes to the sustainability and resourceful preservation of one of the oldest family-run farms on the East coast,” as their website states. She also contributes to the sustainability and resourceful preservation of hundreds of artistic careers each year.
A series of conversations between the Lillys and Space came about in early 2015. What if there could be a week in the summer where writers who are parents could come to a retreat and not have to leave their kids at home? What would the retreat have to provide? What might the benefits to the artists be? Who would come? The list of obstacles was large (insurance, programming, staffing, sleeping arrangements, food…), but, with additional funding, not insurmountable. A pilot program was approved by all and happened that very summer.
The following year, the staff at SPACE put out a call for applications for the first Family Residency. Emily Simoness was overwhelmed with the volume and the integrity of the responses. “A consistent theme in the applications for this program,” she said, “is that applicants have stopped applying for opportunities like this one because they feel like they have to choose between their work and their kids. It is continuously articulated that I haven’t applied for an opportunity like this in a year or four years or seven years because I didn’t feel invited, or I didn’t feel like I could bring my child, or I have to choose between my child and my work. It’s just so clear that the demand and need for a program like this is high.”
A year later, I was asked by the Lillys to serve as their representative in the further development of the program and to investigate the possibility of a musical theater component in the future. I arrived for a self-funded stay at Ryder Farm with my two daughters, their bags full of tiny shorts and sundresses, bug spray, swim suits, hats, water bottles and granola bars. I also had my computer, my scripts, and a ream of blank score paper. I was heading towards two upcoming deadlines and was nervous about getting enough time to work. I dropped my bag in an old farmhouse bedroom and herded the kids upstairs to their room where they had matching twin beds and matching oscillating fans. There was another family in the room next door, and the four kids quickly started showing each other their books, their stuffed animals, their painted fingernails. Louisa and I nodded wearily, the way only mothers-who-truly-recognize-each-other’s-exhaustion can do. This could be a long week.
Instead of doing a play-by-play of each day, I really would prefer to tell you that the week went by very quickly. The five of us artists were all working on different projects, and we each made significant progress. We had breakfast together each morning alongside the SPACE staff and our kids, and then the little ones were whisked away to their morning session and we retreated to our individual corners of privacy and inspiration. I spent most of my days playing an upright piano in a barn, and the only interference I got was from the birds and the mice. Ducks quacked nearby, and every now and then a car would pull up to the next building and a driver would pick up a weekly stash of CSA vegetables grown on the farm. I wrote several songs in that barn, and the few times I needed a break from my own tedium, I was able to step outside, go for a quick walk in the blazing sunlight, and peek in on my kids. Under the guidance of some fantastic teaching artists, they were writing plays, building characters out of old costume pieces, creating a “market” out of found and homemade items, tending sheep, swimming in a lake, picking vegetables, toasting marshmallows, and, perhaps most importantly, becoming fast friends. One particular evening after a delicious meal prepared by the SPACE resident chef, we retired with several bottles of wine, quite a bit of lingering at the dinner table under the stars, and a child-instigated and fully-staged lip-synched production by the kids of the entire HAMILTON cast album. On the back porch. With homespun blocking and lighting by teaching artists holding flashlights.
Beth Nixon and her daughter came to the retreat from Rhode Island. “Though [my daughter] has been marching with me in parades and protests, paper-mache-ing my giant beasts, and coloring during production meetings since she was tiny,” she said, “our residency at Ryder Farm was the first time that for a whole batch of days we were engaged in tandem creative processes. Over dinner I’d hear about the play the kids were making and share where I was at with my script. The hardest part of writing for me is feeling isolated; at Ryder Farm I could go deep into my project all day and then surface to eat a giant salad, connect with other artists about where they were at in their work, and put my tired, stimulated, satisfied kid to bed. Life during our week there was an opportunity for practicing the integration of artist life and parenthood, filled with the right balance: playing outside, focused personal creative work, communal meals with brilliant peers, and frolicking with kids.”
I will admit that at the end of the week, perhaps the amount of work I had generated was less that it might have been if I’d been isolated with a piano and a computer for several days. I still had to hang up wet swimsuits at the end of the day, and I had to supervise the brushing of teeth and the application of sunscreen and the intake of sugar (theirs, mostly…). If we’re going to measure success so quantifiably, then perhaps there are other ways to be more efficient and, arguably, more productive on any given week. But it’s been a long time since I felt such a balance between my writing life and my family life. At our final roundtable discussion, what all of us writers said in one way or another is that it was shocking to write without the guilt of being an absentee parent and to parent without the guilt of being an absentee writer. My kids are still talking about the week we spent together at Ryder Farm– that week when Mommy was working on her music and we all had so much fun.
My friend and sometimes collaborator Jamie Pachino, a playwright and TV-writer in Los Angeles, once said to me that that the thing she misses the most about her pre-parenting years is the daydreaming. “Do you remember mulling over an idea?” she asked me once as we wrangled the four kids between us. “I miss having the time to wonder about things.”
At SPACE on Ryder Farm, for six glorious days, my kids and I had all the time in the world.