It's a Friday night in mid-August, and somehow, I've managed to score second-row seats to Hamilton. It gets better... it's an exclusive al fresco show, and the tickets were free. But instead of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr., the children in residence at SPACE on Ryder Farm — an artists' residency in upstate New York — are taking on the story of America's heretofore most under-appreciated founding father.
The back porch of a 19th-century farmhouse is their stage, illuminated with floodlights rigged up and held by the children's counselors in a lightning bolt moment of brilliant inspiration. In the stands (nee, picnic chairs set up on a lawn) are their parents, who laugh, whoop, and applaud as their children nail number after number. It's both adorable and impressive — emphasis on the word impressive, 'cause these kids can really work a crowd.
This performance caps off a week of summer play and creation at SPACE's Family Residency. For six days, a small group of artists — after applying to be in residence — attends this 130-acre creative oasis on Ryder Farm, housed in Brewster, N.Y. right off the Metro North. On the grounds, there are numerous colonial farm houses, a working farm, gorgeous rustic barns, and a pond — a far cry from the sweaty claustrophobia of New York City in summer.
"I think that’s why SPACE caught on so fast. It’s just an hour and a half away, it’s a 25 dollar round-trip train ticket, and you’re totally transported to a different place," Emily Simoness, the founder of SPACE, tells Bustle. She started the residency in 2011 after a chance visit up to this mythical, bucolic farm that had been in her family for over two centuries. In a TEDx talk she gave in 2015, she discusses how that chance visit changed the course of her life — and pivoted her life direction from actress to non-profit director. A mere six years later, the applications pour in for the five months of residencies it hosts every year. When I visited, SPACE in partnership with The Lilly Awards Foundation was hosting five working artists who also happen to be mothers, as well as their children for a program called "The Family Residency."
I myself took that scenic ride up the Metro North, and soaked in all the creative energy. Walking around the property, there were plenty of things going on at once. Counselors were teaching kids to make flower crowns. Interns were laughing away in the kitchen, making the night's dinner. Piano music radiated from a barn, where a composer worked on a new piece. Or people were just writing, walking, and laughing.
After spending a night at this mothers' and artists' utopia, I learned plenty about Simoness, the non-profit she started, the residents of the week, and even came away with some very useful knowledge on why artists' retreats — especially for female artists, and mothers in particular — are so important.
The World Of Artists' Retreats Has An Implicit Gender Bias
As Simoness tells me, the structure of the family residency at SPACE is a totally unique one. You can find plenty of "family-friendly" creative retreats, she explains, but rarely do you find a full-service residency that offers care and education for the residents' children on the same campus. "Built into this [program] is time for the parents to work on their craft, structured time for the kids to learn and play with trained education professionals, and time for the families to come together." While the gendered norms of childcare are changing, this gap ends up primarily affecting mothers, who feel like they have to pick between being around to care for their children, or taking time to devote to their work.
"A consistent theme in the applications for this program," says Simoness, “was that applicants had stopped applying for residencies like this one because they felt they had to choose between their work and their kids.”
“Some cited that they haven’t applied for one of these opportunities because they didn’t feel like they were welcome. Or, that they decided a long time ago that to pick kids over career.”
Considering the fact that many huge works of an artist’s life are started and/or finished at residencies, this deficit in programs directly limits the work of female writers, directors, and playwrights whose work is getting off the ground.
The Family Residency Was Engineered To Close This Gap & Be Scalable
Since launching in 2011, some of the SPACE residents had been asking about bringing their children with them up to Ryder Farm. With the knowledge in mind that childcare was a need among people applying to and attending SPACE, Simoness set out to see how she could make that happen. Through a chance connection, Simoness was connected with one of the founders of The Lilly Awards, a foundation that honors and recognizes upcoming and notable women in the performing arts, Julia Jordan. They teamed up to launch a family residency beta test in 2015, and in 2016, it was opened up to applications — and they poured in.
Georgia Stitt, a composer, artist-in-residence, and Lilly Awards board member, tells me how great it was to see the idea come together. "The foundation does a lot of programs, and this is one of them that stuck.” Luckily, the two years that the family residency has been in operation, they're figuring out a system that can be applied to other residencies. "The ultimate plan is to make it scale-able," Simoness tells me. "We want to identify best practices, what works here, and what doesn't work there." The hope is that, some time in the near future, there will be more residencies like the SPACE family residency.
The Kids Get A Great Education From Watching Their Moms Work
One of the coolest things about spending time at SPACE was walking around and seeing what the kids had been doing all week. A cleaned-out, re-imagined chicken coop became their home base, half of which housed a make-believe general store where they sold seed pods (nicknamed "Googamoos") for a cent.
Louisa Thompson, a theatrical set designer and one of the adult residents, made a sort of carousel of "scarecrows" (for lack of a better term) where the children would assemble outfits and assign identities to them.
Dinner was even a product of a cooking class that the child-care professionals — some in their 20s, some in their 40s — hosted with the kids. Owing to the three sit-down-meal-a-day structure, the kids and mothers got ample time to take a break and chat about what they'd been doing all day.
And The Artists Themselves Are Energized By Each Other
If you're working on a big project as an artist, you have to get very good at balancing your alone time (necessary for focusing on your work) with your social time. Adding the duties of motherhood further complicates the quest of achieving that balance.
What's more, it gives women working in different artistic disciplines a chance to get together and relate to each other as artists, mothers, and human beings. "Being an artist and mother can be a bit isolating," Thompson tells me. "It's important to talk to other artists, mothers, and thinkers."
And while retreats like this are — at face value — about escaping and giving oneself the space and time to finish a huge amount of focused work, the opportunity to do it within a larger environment of like-minded people who spark your creative energy is something that any and all of us can benefit from.
It Takes A Village...
Bringing something to life requires just as much collaboration as it does individual effort. Whether you're building your own non-profit from the ground up, raising a child, writing a screenplay, or putting on an impromptu porch production of Hamilton, it really does — to borrow the words of Hillary Rodham Clinton — take a village to raise something and to help it thrive.
With the Family Residency, SPACE is giving working artists the opportunity to do that — with their children, with their work, and within themselves — without having to choose one passion or priority over another. All that's left is room for joy, creativity, lightness, and play. "The whole thing is light," Simoness tells me, sitting in one of the farm's Adirondack chairs at the edge of the property, "and not a lot in this world is light."