“We literally owe our lives to farmers.” So says actress and director Mary Stuart Masterson, who is probably best-known to moviegoers for her starring roles in Fried Green Tomatoes and Benny & Joon, but also has an Emmy nomination under her belt for Nine on Broadway. Masterson and her actor/writer/director husband Jeremy Davidson make their home locally. They run a troupe called Storyhorse Documentary Theater, and their latest stage project about farm families will be performed in the Sosnoff Theater at Bard College’s Fisher Center on Sunday, October 2.
Another project with which Storyhorse is involved is building a new not-for-profit media center in Kingston called Stockade Works. The facility is intended to function as a bridge among existing film, video and electronic media resources in the city, says Masterson, “to help everybody play together in one giant orchestra.” She envisions the enterprise as helping to fill the economic gap left by the departure of IBM by training a new urban workforce in “skilled jobs in film production, postproduction and also technology… connecting mobile apps and films.”
Several pieces still need to fall into place before the Stockade Works project can be greenlit, including grant funding and legislative action, Masterson says. Further developments are promised soon.
Meanwhile, Storyhorse has been a crucible of creativity for Masterson, Davidson and the rest of their troupe. “We’re a documentary theater company. We do all-live performances that are completely based on transcribed interviews that we conduct locally,” Masterson explains. “We like to incorporate oral histories – personal perspectives to be experienced by the community that it was taken out of.” The theater piece to be performed at Bard, titled Good Dirt, had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back in April. “The first half is the play, whose characters are based on real people. The second half is a conversation between the audience and specialists in the field, plus some of the farmers themselves.”
The dramatizations of the six farm families in the play itself will be enacted by an ensemble of actors, some of whom are quite well-known to current TV-watchers. They include Jeffrey Demunn (The Walking Dead), Margaret Colin (Madam Secretary), Lolita Foster (Orange Is the New Black), John Procaccino (A Most Violent Year), James Lecesne (The Best Man), Kohl Sudduth (Grosse Pointe), Jacqueline Knapp (You Don’t Know Jack), Andres Munar (Che: Part One), Mick Lynch (The Eclipse), Gary Swanson, David Tass Rodriguez, Rose Stoller, Pauline Chalamet and Tanya Selvaratnam.
The Hudson Valley agriculturalists whose stories are shared in Good Dirt are “a very diverse group,” according to Masterson. A couple of them may already be familiar to Almanac Weekly readers. One is Green Goats, Ann and Larry Cihanek’s herd of invasive-species-chomping ruminants who got wiped out by a catastrophic fire a year and a half ago; the weed-control enterprise has since been rebuilding its herd with donated goats. The Hudson Valley Seed Exchange’s founder, Ken Greene, used to write a monthly column in these pages.
Other farmers featured in the performance include Brian, Justine and Maggie Denison of Denison Farm, a certified organic CSA in Schaghticoke; Nestor Tello, a Colombian-born chicken farmer who runs Tello’s Green Farm in Coxsackie; Richard and Jane Biezynski of Northwind Farms in Tivoli, whose poultry-and-beef operation is struggling with the issue of generational succession that is so common among farm families; and Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff and their two children, Neshima and Emet, of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, near Troy, who Masterson says are hosting a program that brings in kids on field trips from inner-city schools and employs “people who would otherwise be incarcerated.”
“There’s a lot that threatens farming life,” Masterson notes: “the weather, debt, pestilence, taxes.…” Although the theater piece addresses some of the economic and political issues that affect a farmer’s ability to carve a living out of the land, she says that it’s not polemical. “It’s not activist theater per se. We’re more starting a conversation than we are drawing conclusions.” Leading the discussion segment will be Lindsey Lusher Shute of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC), based in Hudson, who is an alumna of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy (CEP). NYFC, CEP and Live Arts Bard are co-sponsoring Good Dirt.
Written by Davidson and directed by Masterson, the play will be presented in the Sosnoff Theater at 3 p.m. this Sunday, October 2. Following the performance, there will be a community picnic on the Fisher Center’s lawn. Bring your own picnic and blanket, or sample the offerings available on-site for purchase, featuring goods from some of the farmers portrayed in Good Dirt and other local purveyors. Ticket prices range from $15 to $20 general admission, $5 for students. For information and to buy tickets, visit https://fishercenter.bard.edu or call the box office at (845) 758-7900.
Good Dirt, Storyhorse Documentary Theater, Sunday, October 2, 3 p.m., $5-$20, Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.