On April 10, a group of farmers will take the stage at BAM. Or rather, well-known actors will portray real farmers from the Hudson Valley, a circumstance even more improbable in the life of most farmers, who don’t usually experience fame beyond their own farmers market tables.
The production, called GOOD DIRT, was created by Mary Stuart Masterson (At Close Range, Fried Green Tomatoes) and Jeremy Davidson (Tickling Leo, The Americans). They’re also the founders of Storyhorse Documentary Theater, which they started so they would have a platform to tell the stories of their neighbors in the Hudson Valley and elevate ideas and voices that are often marginalized.
For GOOD DIRT they interviewed farmers from Soul Fire Farm, Green Goats Farm, Northwind Farm, Tello’s Green Farm, Denison Family Farm and Hudson Valley Seed Library. The April 10 premiere is a benefit for the National Young Farmers Coalition, and all tickets include admission to an afterparty at BAM where guests can meet some of the farmers and their actor counterparts.
We chatted with Mary Stuart and Jeremy about their theater project, community storytelling and why farmers deserve fan girls.
Edible Brooklyn: How did you become interested in agricultural issues and the challenges farmers face?
Jeremy Davidson: We aren’t farmers, but we’ve always gardened, especially Mary Stuart. She’s a massive gardener. I like lugging things back to the house for her.
Mary Stuart Masterson: He’s my mulch man! I grew up in Manhattan, but I’ve always had a really big interest in agriculture. I was on the board of the Rainforest Alliance, and I became really engaged in the work they did around sustainable agriculture. Then we moved up to the Hudson Valley, which is just so rooted in agriculture, and we started reading Wendell Berry and became a little more educated on the issues.
EB: Your theater project, Storyhorse Documentary Theater, is dedicated to telling true stories based on conversations with real people. What about that format inspires you?
MSM: Really, we moved up to the Hudson Valley because we had children and we knew we wanted to live outside of the city, and I wanted to have a garden. But then we found ourselves in this place where we were surrounded by really fascinating people, just a treasure trove of humanity. That’s really why we created Storyhorse Documentary Theater.
JD: Theater has always been, for me, a real sacred place where we get to congregate as a group and meditate on an idea. And in communities, that’s a great thing to have. One of the things that Wendell Berry talks about is the importance of working where you live. Storyhorse has given me the permission to work where I live and try to understand the community where we are raising our kids.
EB: When did you decide you wanted to write about farmers?
MSM: Once Jeremy started Storyhorse, it was just a natural fit for us to go around and interview farmers, especially the smaller farmers.
JD: Sustainable agriculture is one of the biggest issues right now in the world. One of the things that all of these farms face is the question of how big they can grow–what is the land really supposed to give us? There is no reason we can’t feed the world on sustainable agriculture.
MSM: We also saw an article about Ben and Lindsey Shute, who are two of the founders of the National Young Farmers Coalition and who also run Hearty Roots Farm here in the Hudson Valley, and they really inspired us to dig into this topic even deeper. And we signed up for their farm’s CSA.
JD: I think we are all really blessed that Lindsey has the time to farm and also lobby Congress about issues that impact young farmers.
EB: What were some of the most compelling things you learned in the process of creating GOOD DIRT?
JD: The average farmer is 58, and two-thirds of all farmland will change hands in the next couple decades. Depending on who takes over, the use of that land can change irreversibly. It is really scary. I think it is important that we try to tune in to what is going on in rural America. If we don’t support sustainable agriculture now, all of the choices we enjoy as consumers could really go away as farms disappear.
MSM: That’s why we decided to collaborate with NYFC and turn the premier of GOOD DIRT into a benefit for the organization—they are really working to address all of those issues. NYFC is helping make farming a viable career choice again.
EB: What was your process like for deciding which farmers to interview and then turning their voices into a cohesive theater piece?
JD: When we hear about someone with an interesting story, we send them a letter or write an email.
MSM: Or sometimes we just eavesdrop, we just overhear someone telling a great story.
JD: Then we invite them to coffee. For this project, we already knew some of the farmers, and we heard about others from friends. For each Storeyhorse production we record the stories, just audio, then I transcribe the stories and create a narrative using their words. Finally we bring in actors and build the multimedia and sound design to help set the mood and the scene.
MSM: The whole ideal of the project is oral history. Oral histories are so critical to culture: they’re what you don’t read in the textbooks. Our hope is to take the stories from the community, and then give them back to the community.
JD: I wouldn’t call them all polemics, though. There’s another theater piece we have based on a woman who believes a family of sasquatches is living in the woods out here. I’ve gone out looking for Sasquatch now several times. When you meet someone who is passionate about something, it is infectious.
EB: Did you have any favorite stories or moments that came out of the GOOD DIRT project?
MSM: In general it was just so gratifying to get to spend time with all of these people. I’m basically a farmer fan—I’m star struck. I’ll get excited on farms and say things like, “just look at this kohlrabi!”
JD: Storytelling is dangerous in a sense because stories matter. Some of the most moving stories for us were moments as small as a farmer trying to get their dog to be quiet. And then there are large moments, like a barn fire. I think understanding the small details of farm life will make us all pay attention to the messages that these farmers have to share.