Saturday, August 27, 2011
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Sunday, August 21, 2011
This is the end of my first week as an intern on Ryder Farm Organic in Brewster, NY. I'll be here until October 1. Then I'll head back up to Maine for the month to experience rehearsals, do any odd jobs the OFAF team asks of me, and hopefully carve a pumpkin or two! (Halloween in Germany just isn't the same.)
And...where to begin?
Living on a farm has turned my brain into a veritable hothouse of thoughts and ideas about farming. Observations we'd made last summer that had slipped my mind until now resurface like perennials: for example, how each farmer and farm worker develops his or her own "work costume" - like Tali and his hoodies, Penny and her boots, the Ryder interns and their daily long-sleeved plaid-patterned dirty button-downs. New experiences spark new thoughts and connections: I worked my first-ever farmer's market yesterday, in Union Square, and interacting with customers, setting up displays (and seeing what sells and what doesn't!), answering questions, inventorying - it all really drives home why it's important to plant, harvest and prep the way that we do. On a farm that manages to stay afloat, there may be madness, but there is a whole lot of method to it.
There are many things I could post about. An endless number of things. But another important thing I've (re)learned through the process of writing, sharing, and revising our play is this big thing that a successful small farm and a good play have in common: They are about people. Just as audiences are far more likely to invest and engage in a piece of theater if they care and understand and connect to its characters, customers are far more likely to support a small farm if they know and trust and care about the people who work on it.
So I wanted to write about a person on Ryder: Fuad, the field manager.
In some ways, Fuad reminds me of Jordan Farm's PeeWee. Fuad hails originally from another country (Bangladesh). He has worked on Ryder Farm for 15 years. Like PeeWee, he has developed over his time here an important relationship with a strong woman whose family owns the farm (Betsey Ryder), a relationship based on trust and communication. On a farm where most of the workers change from season to season, Fuad provides a strong and capable through-line, training and managing each year's new team.
Of course, Fuad is also not like PeeWee at all. I think the point of divergence starts with that crucial question to which we're always returning: What is a farmer? We've asked PeeWee before if he considers himself a farmer, and he's said "No." Though Fuad does not own Ryder Farm, though he is an employee, there is no question that he considers himself a farmer. He was trained in organic farming at UCA Santa Cruz, has worked on many different farms in many different states of this country, and lives, breathes and dreams farming.
Farmers are chock-full of knowledge and information about what they do - but it can be pretty rare to find a natural sharer who'll try to let you in on some of that information without being asked first. Fuad, however, is just that. He's a born teacher. He will never stop at telling you how to do something; he always tells you why to do it that way, too. A day working with/for Fuad is a day packed with knowledge nuggets and impromptu mini-lectures on sowing, harvesting, prep, food, plants, pests, tools, climate, sustainability and just about anything else you can imagine. There's a guest blog of his on Katonah Green about growing garlic from the 2009 season where you can get a taste of how much he loves to share his craft.
On Thursday, as we were sowing tiny sand-thinned radish seeds by hand in the hot midday sun, Fuad was inspired, waxing poetic in an unstoppable monologuic stream. "Plants are not active. They are passive. If there is not much of water in the soil, the plant will grow deeper roots to find the water. If the plant is growing in the shade, it will develop broader leaves to try to catch the sunlight. That is passive, that is not active. A plant cannot act. That is why I say it depends on environment. This is all environment. Water, light, sunshine. I do not believe people have green thumbs.
"Plants have a rhythm," he added. "You feel it when you touch the plant. In order to work with the plant you have to feel the rhythm."
Fuad is quite a character and it doesn't take long to pick up on his quirks. Like his own personal turns of phrase: "much of" (as in "There is too much of bugs") and "pick up" (as in "How much of basil did you pick up?"), and beginning sentences with "So what I have in mind is...". And his habit of always having a coffee mug in his hand until lunch - you'll often find rogue coffee mugs scattered forlorn and forgotten about the fields - and taking a nap during the midday break. He is curious about everything - he's already asked me scores of questions about the plot and characters in our play - and clearly beloved by the long-term members of the Ryder Farm CSA, who often show up to visit, bringing him hugs and chicken dinners.
"I know how to cook everything I grow. I eat everything I grow," Fuad said a few days ago. I think that's the heart of what makes him a successful and passionate grower.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
As with many histories of western theater, this one begins with the Greeks and we talk at length about the Theatre of Dionysus, but but but . . . it’s all (all of it!) written from a scene design and audience-relationship-to-performer perspective. I have always been a sucker for captivating scenic designs, and I love to talk about audiences, but I really expected to treasure this book for its pictures. I didn’t actually anticipate reading it. I was wholly unprepared for the entertainment value of the writing, for full submersion in literary/visual heaven.
There are a number of things about the book that I love. The predominant message I’ve walked away with so far (I’ve only made it to the Renaissance), is that nothing ever changes. Really. So often we think we’re being innovative. From funders, from audiences, from the media – there is a pressure and an expectation to innovate in all that we do. This narrative has been one big fat reminder that we are recycling material and ideas ALL THE TIME. If the Greeks could fly an actor in 400 BCE and medieval priests could hire tradesmen to create “dummy bodies that could be hacked open to expose entrails and blood”, I think it’s all been done before, at least when it comes to scenic effects.
Intentionally or no, the book makes plain the cycle of innovation in the theatre (and we could probably extend this to include any branch of human endeavor) from a broad cultural perspective. First we see the germ of an idea, an organic movement, a collection of happenings just firm enough in their cultural presence to exist in some record 2500 years later. Then the idea grows, we see it crop up in more places, it changes a bit and it becomes more permanent. Where a temporary shack used to be fine, a standing theater gets built. Where a day or two and a collection of hand-made carts used to suffice, we find accounts of forty-day passion plays preceded by processions of people on foot and on horses. Eventually, the story is removed entirely and all that remains is the parade, the spectacle. Produced at great expense in celebration of some great king or government or body of power, suddenly we have the capacity to raise and lower animal cages, people, and scenic machinery from twenty feet below the Colosseum:
“In one recorded instance, a criminal impersonating Orpheus appeared from below the arena level, as if he were coming from Hades. He then played music that enchanted rocks and trees, which moved to greet him, and animals crouched at his feet. At the end of this display, he was torn apart by a bear.” (Brockett, Mitchell, Harderger, 23)
I’m pretty sure that last part is meant quite literally.
And then there is this:
“And there are accounts of actors falling off a machine and sustaining injuries or dying. It is not known how frequently mishaps occurred, but the emperor Claudius decreed that if any ‘automatic device or pegma’ had malfunctioned, the machinatores (engineers), builders, or assistants would be punished through gladiatorial combat.” (Brockett, Mitchell, Hardberger, 23)
Well, I guess that would have been one way to deal with the whole Spider-Man debacle.
I find the ongoing interest in scenic effect fascinating. I love the age-old question across centuries of dramatic pursuit: “how are we going to make that happen on stage?” For the OFAF team it will be: “how are we going to make weeds continuously grow throughout the play?” And: “how the heck are we going to burn down a barn?” (Thanks, Cory.) Even more delightful to me, however, are the reminders that the very core of our intentions, the basic need to make theater at all, is as old as humanity.
It is clear to me that I do not live or create in a vacuum. I am constantly in awe of the artists, leaders, practitioners, and organizers who have blazed trails with their courageous and truthful work. Most directly and in particular, I am thankful for the artists of Cornerstone Theater Company – but also for the vast web of community-engaged artists across America who generate the ideas, muddle through approaches, and prove that anything is possible.
Still, it is nice to be reminded of the community-engaged work from centuries ago, to acknowledge that ours is not the only moment that has inspired innovation and collaboration of this kind. In medieval Europe, it was Corpus Christi, the famed church festival conducted in nearly every town and hamlet. Corpus Christi encouraged and facilitated the participation of an entire community in the presentation of elaborate plays, generally dramatizing biblical events (Brockett, Mitchell, Hardberger, 33). I can imagine the impetus for a community event of this kind being similar to our incentives today. And clearly, many of the approaches are alike as well. I giggled audibly over this timeline for The Mystery of Three Masters at Romans, France in 1508:
- Representatives of St. Bernard's Monastery and the town council meet to discuss the ideas of the performance
- Money is pledged from various sources and churches.
- A body of commissioners is appointed to oversee the production.
- Authors and secretaries are engaged.
- Monsieur Sanche of Dijon is appointed as producer.
- Monsieur Francois Trevenot is hired as the designer.
- Building begins on the stage and auditorium at St. Bernard's.
- Carpenters, a blacksmith, and a clocksmith are engaged.
- Canon Pra of Grenoble has a reading for the commission, and three notaries are engaged to make copies.
- Pra finishes the script and rehearsals begin. Notaries have trouble finishing scripts. There is one rehearsal per week in the town hall, and refreshments are provided.
- A costume parade is held throughout the town to publicize the play and ensure the costumes are finished. Part of the text is rewritten.
- The play has one dress rehearsal, and opens, but runs much longer than anticipated. It is a popular success, but loses money (Brockett, Mitchell, Hardberger 38-39 cite Harris, 122-24)
It is all just a little bit too familiar. For comparison, here is an early timeline (The Roadmap) made by Farmer Penny Jordan for Of Farms and Fables:
Nov 2008 – May 2009
Jun 2009 – May 2010
Jun 2010 – Aug 2010
Sept 2010 – Apr 2011
May 2011 – Aug 2011
§ Advisory Board Formation
§ Fiscal Agent Identified
§ Funding Options Identified/Pursued
§ Demonstration Materials Compiled
§ Advisory Board Meetings
§ Core Artists Contracted
§ Community Gatherings at Farm
§ Advisory Board Meetings
§ Core Artists Work at Farm
§ Weekly Performance Workshops
§ Advocate Project at Farm
§ Advisory Board Meetings
§ Draft I Script Completed
§ Public Reading
§ Advocacy for Project
§ Designers/Stage Manager Contracted
§ Production Meetings
§ Advisory Board Meetings
§ Script Completed
§ Casting Completed
§ Rehearsals Conducted
§ Design/Technical Elements Completed
§ Performances Promoted
§ Performances Held
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
theaterJesus. Right from the jump, ask yourself: "Why does this thing I'm writing have to be a play?" The words "why," "have" and "play" are key. If you don't have an answer then get out of town. No joke. The last thing American theater needs is another lame play.
Monday, August 8, 2011
I'd heard about hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") - mostly because there's a documentary, Gasland, about it (which I haven't seen), and it was the focus of a recent episode of This American Life. Flipping through a Pittsburgh newspaper, I was surprised to see Trax Farms and hydraulic fracturing sharing a headline. Picking pumpkins and getting lost in cornstalk mazes at Trax Farms are some of my earliest farm memories. Well, apparently the farm has been involved in a bit of local controversy lately because the farmer has leased mineral rights on the farm for Marcellus shale drilling.
Hydraulic fracturing is a big deal in Pennsylvania right now, because there's a lot of it being done in the state. It's a controversial process. On the one hand, fracking taps into a huge store of energy and frees it for human consumption, creating jobs and stimulating the economy in the process. On the other hand, there are a lot of questions about the impact of the process on the environment and on public health - but those questions are unanswered right now, because there isn't enough information. There haven't been comprehensive investigations. When companies who are involved in fracking are asked what the health risks associated with fracking might be, they say they don't have enough information to answer. The same goes for environmental activists. Nobody has enough information to make a strong argument. And in the meantime, we keep fracking.
Here are some points from the article (linked above) that I found interesting:
- Quote: Using all the land is part of farm life in Pennsylvania, company president Bob Trax said. Like its festivals, landscape supply store and deli, the gas well is another way to help Trax diversify and stay competitive. - The stress on "using all the land" and "diversification" comes up time and again in farming. We've seen farmers start composting, open stores and farmstands and restaurants, sell hayrides, rent large portions of their land for haying or grain, etc. - you've got to get creative, you've got to use all of your resources.
- The effect on the community: some of the farm's customers are complaining. It's interesting that the customers are focused on the part the farm is playing in fracking, and not on the role of the companies actually doing the process. Or maybe the article's portraying it that way - which is also interesting.
And one last thing: towards the end of the second article, there's this great paragraph -
But when wells produce, it can pit farmers who have gas under their land against their neighbors, Snyder says. "There's a natural inclination for those who won't have drilling on their land to resent those that do. This is really going on in the rural community. Some people benefit, some people aren't - but are having to deal with the expense and mess of it."
This reminds me a lot of conversations we've had with some of our farmers about the kind of conflicts, jealousies, and resentment that can arise within the agricultural community when it comes to issues of selling land and/or development rights. Which all boils down to this: As a farmer, your land is your everything. Investments, assets, legacy, lifestyle. And it makes sense that you might get very territorial.
Fracking is still pretty new - at least, it hasn't been long since it was brought to public attention in Pennsylvania - and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. How will the agricultural community ultimately respond? How will customers and community respond to farms that do choose to allow fracking on their land? And what happens when - if ever - we do have enough information to know what the health/environmental effects of fracking are?
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Scattered through the narrative of our play are a number of weeding and harvesting “interludes”. These are full-company moments, an opportunity for our audiences to remember and to observe some of the work that takes place on farms, to be reminded of the crops that appear in their season and of the constant need to protect these plants from pests, drought, and WEEDS.
One element we may employ in the staging of the interludes are snippets of conversation between workers on our fictional farms. These conversations have yet to be written. I joined the team at Broadturn Farm this year as a “work share member”. This means that I work for four hours each week in exchange for a share of vegetables. So for the last few weeks, I’ve been paying special attention to the conversations I hear and participate in while working in the fields, in the hope of providing some fodder for Cory’s snippet-writing process. Here are some conversations I've noted:Back in the first week or so of June, John and Stacy welcomed 150 middle-school students from Scarborough to the farm for a tour. Part of the deal was that the students would do some “work”. The two jobs assigned were picking rocks and mulching Stacy’s flower garden. I helped to manage crowds of twenty to thirty pre-pubescents as they scrambled through the mulch pile. I heard some great sound-bites while performing this duty, most notably:
“Just use your hands. Stick your hands in there.”
“No way, I’ll puke. I’ll puke.”
“Ew. I don’t ever want to be a farmer.”
To be fair, there were a number of kids who were able state why the mulch is necessary and who asked some intelligent questions about the process, though these questions did tend to revolve around discerning the cause of the smell emanating from the pile. At one point, I heard John addressing a group of squeamish thirteen-year-olds from atop the pile of mulch on the other side of the garden:
“Did you know that a study was done recently which showed that kids raised on farms didn’t get sick as often because of their exposure to the bacteria in dirt and compost?”
In response to which the teachers began chanting:
“The dirt will make you healthy! The dirt will make you healthy!”And John told me a story one day while we were harvesting kale. Last summer, a group of Courtney’s friends visited the farm on a scorching day in July or August. (Side note: Courtney was an intern last year. Now she’s working on a new farm very near John and Stacy!) The group of friends camped on the farm and they wanted to do some work, so John invited them to mulch – this time in the potatoes. In similar form to his address of the middle-school students, John climbed atop the pile of mulch and delivered an eloquent speech about the potato plant and its cultivation.
“From the beginning of time, from the dawn of agriculture, ne’er has there been a plant such as the potato!”
Sheesh. Talk about theater . . .And then there are the conversations that have nothing to do with farming or plants or food, the completely arbitrary conversations like the one I was part of yesterday in the middle of the squash field. It was a conversation about pet names:
“I think it’s weird when people name pets after people.”
“I don’t know any dogs named after people, but my friend had a baby and the name she chose for her son was the same as my family dog’s name. Of course, she didn’t know the dog, but it’s still a little bit weird for me.”
“I like dogs that have human names, as long as they’re not named for a specific person. But none of my dogs have human names. One of them is Cabot, like Cabot cheese."
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
When you look at the larger issues surrounding the push to get people to buy local foods, one of the largest debates rages around weather local foods are ... well, elitist. Many have argued that the greater cost associated with locally grown organic produce keeps lower income people from being able to have access to this arguably "better" food source. On top of the greater upfront cost, many farmers markets and farm stands do not accept non-cash payments for their wares, not to mention no way to accommodate customers who receive food stamps.
Monday, August 1, 2011
Now back to your regularly scheduled blog post.
Since coming back to America on July 12, I've been in six different cities. I've ridden two airplanes, Megabus and Concord Trailways, two different commuter trains to and from New York City, and Jennie's bike, and I've driven for a total of about 14 hours. I've seen and hugged seven family members and about two dozen good friends. And I've done it all without a cell phone.
Somehow during the past three crazy weeks, I also found the time to make a decision: I want to spend six weeks on a farm. I'm not sure what brought it on. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was my all-too-brief return to Portland and our three farms in July. Maybe it was swinging by the Chicago Green City Market and buying some sweet-as-candy beets. Or maybe it was the hectic pace itself: experiencing different towns and cities and states, one on top of another, with no time to reflect or sit back and take things in.
There were benefits and drawbacks to the way our work exchange was structured last summer. Benefits: Experiencing three very different farms and getting to see the way the farms changed over the course of the season in a broader sense - because a month would go by between our first and second shifts on each of the three farms, we could see the shape of the growing season, the dramatic changes it brought each farm. Drawbacks: Because of the part-time and time-staggered nature of our schedule, I saw and heard about but never experienced what it's like to work on a farm. To do the kind of work we did Tuesdays and Thursdays for 40, 50 hours a week as an intern or farmhand, or more than that as the farmer. To see something you've planted or an animal you're raising grow day by day, not month by month. To feel the way the season unfolds from the inside, not as a bystander. Kind of like visiting a city for a few days every couple of months, but never living there.
So I started contacting farmers about coming on as an end-of-season intern and was even able to visit a few of the farms. I ducked under electrified fences, ate chocolate-avocado pudding, saw refrigerators full of processed chickens and met eclectic intern crews. Some observations from the experience so far:
- Fastest hiring process ever. Never experienced anything like it. I got an incredibly high and fast rate of response to my inquiries, which were all (initially) by email. Some of these farms had no website, or only the most rudimentary sort, but they are on top of their game with communication. And you really get the feeling that your work on the farm will be absolutely integral and necessary if you do decide you're the right fit for one another.
- I've already learned quite a bit about the farm intern/apprentice community. For instance, one of the reasons I found so many opportunities so quickly is that many farm interns are college (or even high school) students who will be heading back to school soon. I ran across other programs I didn't know about, like an international apprenticeship program for young farmers and intern networks that help connect interns with one another across a state or region.
- Our project isn't as "out there" as you might think. One farm responded saying, "We unfortunately don't have any openings right now, but we think your project is fascinating - and we (the wife and husband team who run the farm) are a poet and a playwright!" Another farm has an outdoor stage and a non-profit housed on the farm that provides artist retreats and workshops throughout the summer. A third told me that one of their current interns, a college student, is studying theater. And on and on. We've been right all along: artists and farmers go together.
- Our script is on the right track. This is just a side effect, but it's been very encouraging to talk to the farmers who have been interviewing me a little bit about our script and the themes we're exploring. They're invariably interested in the project and they've all responded with excitement when I say that our script deals with farm transfer, the dynamic between generations, and the dynamic between multigenerational and new farmers. It's clear that we're touching on issues that are really important to the farming community and that is so exciting to hear.