I met Emily a year and a half ago through a friend and was invited to a fundraising event for her newly formed not for profit, SPACE on Ryder Farm, a retreat space for artists to cultivate their work. I said yes to the fundraiser, but wasn’t really quite sure what I was saying yes to. Adam Rapp one of the presenters spoke at the fundraiser about going to the farm and being ‘transformed by the experience.” Being a cynical city-slicker, I thought, “ok, you wrote some good stuff. There was some grass and some trees. Take it down a notch, guys.”
And then I was invited to the farm for a visit.
An hour north of New York City, touring this 139-acre expanse that abuts a lake and wooded area, I was transported and a little transformed for the mere few hours I was there. Eating a wonderfully fresh, farm-to-table lunch with a group of theater artists who were in residency to develop a new script, I learned more about the history of the farm and the retreat’s vision. But I became more curious about Emily, the executive director and former actor’s path to the farm. How did she get here? And why?
This is a snippet of our hour-long conversation.
When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
Well I was sort of a super kid, meaning my mother had me programmed to the hilt. I was doing piano and dance and volleyball and soccer and basketball. And somewhere around sixth grade, I tried out for the school play but until then my background had been singing and dancing. And I was like, “oh this is fun. This is delightful.” And meanwhile, I was doing the sports thing and then…
You had to choose.
Yes, and the theater prevailed...I grew up in Minneapolis so close to the Guthrie Theater and the children’s theater company and I started to plug-in downtown. I grew up in the suburbs south of the twin cities and I think that is what turned the corner for me.
So is that why you decided to major in theater?
I actually really liked musical theater. So if you asked me at that time if I want to be a musical theater star…yes. Singing has always been my favorite of the three. But I’m a better singer than I am a dancer but I’m a better actor than I am a singer. Does that make sense?
Right, but I went to Williamstown Theatre Festivalfor the first time as an apprentice the summer between the Guthrie and North Carolina. I felt like it was the first time I felt really validated as an actress and I felt like I had a community of people. One of them was Susan Goodwillie, who is now a really good friend and we started SPACE together but that was a lovely touchstone. They have you do everything from mopping the floor, to hanging lights to getting cast in main stage shows with Terrance Mann and Lewis Black which happened for me. I lucked out and that was magical because that really wasn’t supposed to happen.
So I finish with the school of the arts and in 2007 I come up here to New York and I did a lot of regional theater and I did some downtown stuff.
Did you have a definitive experience where you said, ‘I’m an actress now. This is my job, what I’m going to do?’
I think that was always hard for me as an actor. They want you to say this is what I do but my favorite experiences were musicals that were just like sort of right for me.
Did you think at some point you would take a divergent path?
Yes. I have huge issues with authority. Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.
You are a vessel.
Exactly, you are an incubator for someone else. I don’t think I knew it but I was sort of understanding it because it pissed me off all of the time. I was really angry. Well, I’m still pretty angry but I’m a lot less angry than I was. (Laughs.) Because I was like, ‘where am I in this?’ ‘What’s going to be right for me in this?’
And how small is the box I have to fit in so that you can cast me.
Yeah. And that’s the really confusing thing to be18 to 26 years old and being told that you need to shrink and shrink and to minimize and to be less. And be this thing and be that thing. I just got really fed up with it. And at the same time, was really sad that I couldn’t be those things for those people and ‘why could those other people do it? Why, was I not suited for it?
But, when I track back I was always producing things, When Hurricane Katrina happened, I did a benefit for it, Or when we graduated, we had a New York showcase but we didn’t have an LA showcase. I saw a missed opportunity, and produced that. We raised the $25k to do the LA showcase. So, I was producing along the way finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.
I completely relate to you because it wasn’t enough for me to wait,I too started to have to figure out how to make something.
And how to have a life while you’re waiting for something to happen.
What was your defining moment? Was it finding out about the farm?
I think it was a culmination of moments. I was working but it wasn't working out for me. I wasn’t happy. I was doing the regional thing and I was leaving a lot to do shows. And I would rarely get excited because most of the roles I would audition for I’d be like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I was sort of like, ‘this is all there is?’ But I wasn’t ready to give up. Everything I had done up to this point suggests this is what I’m going to be doing so I can’t possibly not like this. I can’t possibly need to change direction or want to change direction. It must mean I haven’t auditioned for the right part or the right agent….
It’s like dating.
You were like, ‘maybe it’s me.’ Or “I haven’t met him, yet.”
Yeah, or mostly likely you do meet them and you’re like. ‘Oh, this is it?" (Laughter)
And then the Farm?
There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. And as a kid, I remember we’d get a yearly letter from the farm because it’s a corporation and all of the shares belong to family members so we were kept abreast of the farm’s goings on. It was like folklore as a kid. I still don’t know what made me call my fourth cousin once removed, Betsy Ryder, whom I never met. She runs the organic operation on the farm but l literally called her up one day and said, ‘Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.” I really don’t know why, maybe I thought the organic thing was sexy.
Yah… farmer’s markets have been in vogue for a long time. I think I was like, 'I got one of those I think I should go check that out.' I was expecting a 10-acre farm and there was a 10-acre farm but it was within a 129 acre expanse of woodland and pasture and a half-mile of lake frontage and it’s like a piece of property that I think its, objectively, sort of astonishing.
I think if someone hasn't grown up on a farm or used to being around some spots of land… you think they’ll be chicken and goats but not the lusciousness the property has abutting it. The landscape is gorgeous.
It is. That day when I went up, the structures were not in good shape and we were there in the dead of winter but it was clear to me that they really hadn’t been inhabited and kept up for quite sometime. My wheels were already turning about what this could be. I just kept thinking about it and I was in the midst of this community of artists and I wanted to make something with this community and for this community and I think those two impulses just crashed together. In June, I brought some really close confidants (to the farm.) One of them was Susan, who is now my co-founder and asked them if I’m crazy. I’d already had this half-baked idea of an artists workshop-art space-residency-retreat and Susan thought, ‘this is awesome. You should totally do this.’ And we did.
I remember asking Betsy if I could take some of her time at the Union Square green market. (Because the farm was the first organic farm represented at the Union Square green market in 1978.) Anyway, I remember being so nervous and we sat in the middle of the Greenmarket and I couldn’t look her in the eye. I pitched her on this idea of an artist’s retreat space.
I’m having the anxiety moment that you must have felt…
Oh My God. Just loaded. Like a loaded gun because a) who was I to ask for something like this, like what a crazy idea. She just met me. But bless her, she was like, ‘that sounds like an interesting idea. Let’s do that.’ The initial conceit of Space was that we would make capital improvements on the structure because they were not ready to house artists. So we basically did that for a summer and a half. We make literal and figurative capital improvements on all of the farm’s structures.
Do you have an idea what was driving you? It’s not like you have a carpentry background.
Nope, but I do know my way around the Brewster Home Depot. I’ll tell you that. I do now.
Was it divine?
Maybe? I mean I’ll tell you. I have got will in spades. I. Will. Make. Something. Happen. So there’s that. So that is something to know about me. I’m going to freaking do it. But, and Susan and I talk about this, the other part of this is, can I actually do it?
So, like a challenge?
Yeah, it’s like the biggest challenge in the whole freaking world (to me.) Here’s this 126 acre property, with these structures that need a ton of work and I have no expertise there. Here’s this not for profit that needs to be formed and I have no expertise there. Here are a lot of relationships that need to be negotiated. I’m gonna try that. But like…so there is that. But I do think in a way that life put me there.
And the Farm had a need too from what I understood because not only the failing structures but...
I mean it’s like great fodder for a novel. They want to keep ownership and tenants within the family. I didn’t realize it but in the life cycle of the farm I’ve come at a perfect time in that Betsy doesn’t have any children.
So the legacy…Betsy is the last arm working on the farm?
There are a lot of shareholders but now I’m on that Board and everyone there has me by 30 years. I’m 30 and the next person is like, 65. It’s a really interesting. It’s taught me a lot about family. I never would have had the opportunity that I have if my mother didn’t have my name. If that name wasn’t in my DNA they would have never granted me access because this is a family. We are the only family in Putnam County to have the same ownership of the same piece of land in 1812 and in 2012. Because Putnam Country was actually founded in 1812; the Farm was founded in 1795 so it used to be part of Duchess County and then Putnam County was founded. And they became part of Putnam but they held on to that land. And they will continue to hold on to that but they need help holding on to that land so we rehab the structures and created revenue streams that didn’t exist because we pay rent. So we were literally contributing and supporting the viability of the farm because it’s a small organic operation. It’s not like they’re making money hand over fist or anything. They’re making money off of the rent but…
They’re living the farmer’s life, which is hand to mouth depending on the season.
Yeah, totally. So I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen. It didn’t seem like there was another option. And it hasn’t since. It hasn’t seemed like there would be another option but to do this.
Do you feel more creative now than you have had as an actor?
Definitely, because I get to actually do it. Because being an actor is being creative once whenever someone let’s you be creative. It’s a different kind of creativity. You know, there are some days that I miss the little corner of the script that an actor occupies because being an Executive/Artistic Director you have to have your eyes on everything which for me is very creative for other people that’s overwhelming. My creative muscle turns out to be a broader brush.
I wanted to ask you this. Your self-esteem in 2009 when you were acting, your self esteem now? Don’t you feel that that is directly contributed to and, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, your sense of creative output and reflection?
Oh hell yes. Totally. I call it I’m in the pocket. I was out of the pocket and I didn’t know it. I was in this free fall. But when you’re in the pocket, you know it. It’s just not as hard. And people are like, what do you mean it’s not as hard, you’re running a not for profit it’s gotta be hard. Yeah, but it’s not as hard as the other thing was. But that’s personal. You’re sort of vibrating at a frequency that is just working, instead of something that is dissonant.
Interview by Tanisha Christie
Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike. She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie