By Holly Tarson
Photographed by Karen Pearson at Northwind Farms
Stunning vistas and vast pastures epitomize the splendor of the Hudson Valley. But equally compelling is its dynamic population: people whose families have lived here for generations alongside transplants from New York City, Los Angeles and many places in between. It’s almost like there’s a magnet here for creative minds and vibrant spirits, for people who are compelled to do good work and live good lives. Two of those people are Mary Stuart Masterson and Jeremy Davidson, whose most recent good work is a play, written by Davidson and directed by Masterson, called Good Dirt, about the lives of farmers in the Hudson Valley.
As actors, directors, writers and producers, they once made Brooklyn their home. Jeremy reflected on their lives and their work as exciting and inspiring, but said the bonds they form with people on each project, though deep, are inherently ephemeral. Every play or film comes to an end. “I think the nature of our adult lives, and with Mary Stuart going back into her teenage years, it’s a gypsy life. Growing roots and feeling like you are part of a community has been a difficult thing for us, and I think we both yearned for it.” When they became parents (they have four small children), they wanted something different for their family. So they traded in their weekender status for full-time residency in the Hudson Valley. “Somebody was looking out for us that we landed here. It’s an amazing community of people,” Jeremy said.
Drawing inspiration from novelist Wendell Berry’s philosophies about the environment, farming and life, they looked for ways to connect to their community. “When you are not doing work in the place where you are living, there’s a spiritual disconnect. I recognized that in myself. So the Hudson Valley has given us a chance to try to heal that,” Jeremy said. “I like live storytelling. It’s my church. So when we moved up here, I thought…I can start collecting stories on my own…and bring some of my own work to where I live.”
Together, Mary Stuart and Jeremy formed Storyhorse Documentary Theater to do just that. Mary Stuart describes the work this way: “This form of theater is—when it works best—a conversation with our community. And the more specific a story is, the more universal it is…so these stories travel well, too.”
The stories include themes that strike pretty close to home. Last year, The Little Things profiled a Poughkeepsie family’s battle with Lyme disease. This November, The Kept Private will focus on the story of an African American Revolutionary War veteran from Milan and the culture of slavery present in Dutchess County in the 19th century. The current project, Good Dirt, was performed in April as a benefit for the National Young Farmers Coalition and will be mounted again this October at Bard’s Fisher Center.
The projects often begin as interviews, which Jeremy transcribes and culls into scenes. Combined with historical documents or other primary sources, projection and sound design, often under the directorship of Mary Stuart, they become multimedia staged readings performed by actors. The stories evolve through a process that beautifully melds documentary and theater together. Mary Stuart says, “[J]ust by how they are collected, arranged and edited, they are transformed. In some cases, dialogue was created to activate the material, so it never feels like a lecture or a series of monologues. For example, if someone told us a story about, let’s say, their child, then Jeremy would take the attributions out and actually create the scene as it was described so that it is more of a theatrical experience. That and the visual element makes the experience more of a tapestry than a narrative.”
Good Dirt tells the stories of Brian, Justine and Maggie Denison of Denison Farm; Ken Greene, founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library; Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff and their children, Neshima and Emet; Nestor Tello from Tello’s Green Eggs; Ann and Larry Cihanek of Green Goats Farm; and Northwind Farms’ Richard and Jane Biezynski.
Farmers are integral to life in the Hudson Valley. And yet, many of us are blithely unaware of the hardships they face. As we pass a farm stand some warm Sunday in July we might say, “Yay, they finally have blueberries!” giving little thought to the backbreaking work required to connect the farm to the table while managing to eke out a living at the same time. A backyard garden provides the closest frame of reference we might have. We eagerly plant the first seeds of spring when the soil peeks through the snow, only to have pea shoots devoured by hungry chipmunks. We patiently watch our rosy tomatoes ripen, and then one day, blight sets in. Don’t even start with the woodchucks. It can be frustrating (some would say devastating!) but honestly, keeping it in perspective, these are minor inconveniences in our lives. Scale it up to a livelihood at the mercy of weather, pests and the whims of the marketplace, and it’s no joke. Last winter’s mild then wild temperatures and late snow eviscerated an entire orchard of peaches. Gone. The dedication and resilience necessary to persist and sustain life in the face of these obstacles is astounding.
Mary Stuart says this is why Storyhorse wants to tell these stories. “For as long as I can remember—and I grew up in New York City—small-scale, sustainable agriculture has been a passion of mine. Farmers are [the] backdrop to every day of our lives. I mean, every meal originated on a farm, and yet, the people who do that growing are not even among the costumes we buy for our kids at the toy store. There is policeman, firefighter, doctor, ballerina, chef, even astronaut, but never farmer.” She describes farmers as the heroes and heroines in our shared community. “This way of life is about pushing back the forces of capitalism and its preference for greater and greater scale and greater and greater debt,” she said. “It is about balance. And it is incredibly inspiring to me. We owe these people everything.”
It’s not surprising that audiences find the stories compelling, but the impact of the project runs deeper than entertainment. Like a pebble in a pond, the ripples are gently changing perspectives and connecting lives. It’s comfortable to live insular lives surrounded by friends who echo our worldview, but when we step outside ourselves and begin to fathom other people’s experiences—the depth and textures of their lives—this breeds understanding and compassion. Growth and real living comes from opening our hearts and our minds to the myriad of experiences that define human existence.
For this reason, Good Dirt strives to give voices to people from disparate backgrounds. “We tried to find diverse voices,” Jeremy said. “Particularly the direction our country is going right now, I want to learn from people different from me. There’s all kinds of issues that farmers face that we had no idea about. But I do know that walking these farms with these people, they open their lives in very intimate ways. They are very human stories. It takes a lot of courage.”
Good Dirt will be performed on October 2, 2016 at Bard’s Fisher Center. Learn more about Storyhorse Theater at www.storyhorsetheater.org.