BREWSTER, N.Y.: My first week up at SPACE on Ryder Farm in June left me breathless from the abundance of it all. Nestled amid the longest-running organic farm in New York State a mere hour and 20 minutes from Grand Central Station, I was mesmerized by the rustic charms of farm life, in awe of the hustle and warmth of SPACE staff and interns, petrified of getting a tick, and very intimidated by the other resident writers. Swirling at the center of it all was Emily Simoness, the well dressed, quick-to-laugh executive director of SPACE. By her side, most often, was Michael Chernus, an affable actor of repute and Simoness’s husband.
Sitting down to farm-fresh meals three times a day felt luxurious, and when Simoness and Chernus joined the table I privately mused that it was as if the lord and lady of the farm were joining us. Over the course of the summer—I was a Working Farm resident writer and spent five weeks in all at SPACE—the initial intimidation I felt in the presence of the other writers quickly gave way to camaraderie. And the awe I had for the SPACE staff deepened, and my fear of ticks waned (slightly). It turns out the lord and lady of SPACE, who happen to be delightful and very down-to-earth people, had an appropriately fairy-tale meeting.
In 2013, in honor of playwright Anna Kerrigan’s birthday, the residents went off the farm–an excursion which was a big deal. “I think I have only done that with residents like twice in six years,” says Simoness. During drinks at Cache, a local bar, Simoness, who had gone through a breakup, recalls declaring to the group that she was “on the market.”
Resident playwrights Dan LeFranc and Max Posner agreed: She had to meet Michael Chernus.
As fates would have it, Chernus had recently returned from L.A. and was subletting near his friend Posner in Brooklyn. “Max and I had dubbed it ‘the month of Michael and Max,’ but as soon as I got to Brooklyn, Max told me how he’d be away for a week at SPACE and asked it I’d come up and do a reading of his play Judy,” says Chernus, who had previously heard about SPACE from playwright Adam Rapp. “I thought, ‘This’ll be great. I’ll go to an organic farm, breathe some fresh air, and recover from the trauma of 11 months in L.A.!’”
Meanwhile, Simoness told Posner, “Whatever you do, don’t be weird.” Unbeknownst to her, Posner was already texting with Chernus.
“Max wrote, ‘This place is amazing. You’re going to flip out—also, the woman who runs this place is awesome and she’s single,'” Chernus remembers.
When Chernus arrived at SPACE the day of the reading, he recalls with a smile how Posner “literally jumped out of the 1795 homestead, the Sycamores, and runs over to me saying, ‘Welcome to your kingdom!’” Later, when they went on a tour of the farm, Posner turned to Chernus and joked, “Look, Papa’s returned!”
Simoness was not on the tour, and she and Chernus barely spoke on the day of the reading. “Around 11 p.m. that night, most people had gone to bed and Emily and I were in the kitchen of the Sycamores,” Chernus says. “We both knew we were being set up and I first I thought, ‘There’s no vibe.’” Simoness was doing dishes and had her back to Chernus. “But then I noticed there was a dish cloth she kept folding and unfolding and I realized, ‘Oh! She’s nervous!’” he adds. “You know, Acting 101, the actor’s use of an object—the washcloth was giving her away. I could see an entire emotional life in that washcloth!”
The next morning at breakfast, the playwrights shared pages, and Chernus was moved. “In L.A. I had felt cut off from an artistic community, and the next morning here I am crushing on this smart, beautiful woman and being nourished by the food and the sharing around the breakfast table,” he says. “I was so taken with all of it: the residency Emily had made, her family history, and the ad hoc family of artists around the table.”
SPACE came out of a family connection for Simoness. In late 2009, she was an actor living in New York City and knew she was a seventh generation Ryder of Ryder Farm. On a whim she contacted Betsy Ryder, her fourth cousin once removed, and visited the farm in Brewster, where she saw an opportunity to house and feed artists in need of time and space. Six years and 1,000 resident artists later, SPACE boasts a staff of 10 and an operating budget of $550,000.
Chernus jokes how he is the “First Lady” of SPACE. He curates SPACE’s film initiative, which had its pilot program in 2015, and is on the advisory board. But the work/life overlap between the two is a bit more nebulous than that.
“SPACE is my life, so in some ways we work together all the time,” says Simoness. “This place is our home, my work happens here, but it’s also my family’s property. I’m always asking for his input and trust him implicitly.”
When Chernus is in Brewster, he’s ready to lend a hand with manual labor on the farm, lend an ear to writers experiencing writer’s block, or lend his acting chops for various events like public readings. In that sense, he is part family, part volunteer staff, and part working artist.
Beyond farm life Chernus sees himself as an ambassador to SPACE. “I’ll talk about it with everyone and wear my Ryder Farm hat every day,” he says. Indeed, when he and I speak on Skype while he’s filming “Patriot” for Amazon in Prague, he is sporting a smart navy blue Ryder Farm cap.
Simoness’s role in Chernus’s sphere is an ongoing conversation. “She used to help me with lines—not as much anymore,” says Chernus.
“I’m a great wardrobe consultant,” Simoness quips.
Both admit to the challenges of life and work being so intimately intertwined. “We are both serious accommodators,” says Simoness. “And we’re both aware that there could be more boundaries. I think at worst, Michael sometimes feels like my employee. It’s a unique situation because if I worked in an office in New York City, it wouldn’t be as though Michael would show up to the office with me. But when he’s here in Brewster, that means he’s at work with me.”
For Chernus, there’s a balance of figuring out when to be a good partner and when to be a collaborator. “It’s familiar on the farm and the lines get blurred,” he explains. “My manager and agents have all been to the farm—UTA is the corporate sponsor to SPACE’s gala this year.” If anything. he has found it helpful to err on the side of over=communication. “I’ll say, ‘I’m speaking to you as husband Michael, or, ‘I’m speaking to you as someone who cares about SPACE,’” he says.
But the joys, like the fruits and vegetables grown on the farm, are abundant. “We have each other’s backs and we share each other’s victories,” says Chernus.
“Now that we are married,” says Simoness, “Michael shares in some of the family conversations about the farm. That’s huge. I think it’s given our situation more credibility—there’s an investment. I’m not a late-20s girl who might leave; I’m married to an actor and we’re here to stay.”
It’s fitting the two got married at Ryder Farm on Sept. 26, 2015, the two-year anniversary of their first date just days after they’d met.Chernus had invited Simoness out for “a coffee or a smoothie—I had been living for L.A.!” Simoness still chuckles about the smoothie. “I told him, let’s get dinner,” she says, and Chernus immediately Googled farm-fresh restaurants in Brooklyn.
Posner, who officiated the wedding ceremony, met with the couple together and separately in the months leading up the ceremony. “He was our love doula,” says Chernus, describing how much of the writing they did became their vows.
When I ask Simoness for advice to others looking to make the leap from love to work she says, without hesitation, “It never felt like a leap.”
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