Musical theatre songwriter Rona Siddiqui returned to the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Manasota Key, Fla., in May of 2021, following the initial weeks of her residency in November 2020. The following is a diary of her time there.
Sitting snug in my JetBlue seat, staring at the Life Hacks program playing on my little TV screen and wondering if I will ever use duct tape to open a jar or insulate my insoles (I won’t). You know those nerves you have when you’re going someplace you’ve never been? You’re wondering, “What will the air smell like? What will I eat? Will my bed be comfy? Who else will be there?” All the anxiety from the unknown that prevents you from sleeping the night before you leave?
Yeah, I don’t have those. This is part two of my residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, so I know the way the thick Florida air on Manasota Key lays on the back of my neck. I know the Gulf waves lap gently and warmly at my ankles. I know the mosquitos lay in wait to feast on my sweet, sweet blood (I come prepared this time). And I know I will be hooked up with a beautiful living space and studio stocked with keyboards, mics, coffee pots, and ocean views, and a staff devoted to supporting me and my work while I’m there by making sure I want for nothing. I set my daily intention for my two-week stay:
Mornings: walk on the beach, breakfast, free write, catch up on emails.
Afternoons: Lunch, hang on the beach, and read a random book or play I find in the house. Then get cranking! Do the thing I came to do: Write music and lyrics for my new show’s developmental workshop. Also: Make oat milk matcha lattes to increase motivation.
Evenings: Make dinner, hang with the other residents, maybe do more work if inspired, maybe watch some Netflix, or maybe get back to that hip-hop dance instructional video series I bought and never finished. Maybe Michael will do it with me? (My friend and collaborator Michael R. Jackson is here too.)
At the end of the first day, I find myself in a clawfoot bathtub with lavender bubble bath. I can honestly say in this moment that any anxieties around meeting expectations, fulfilling obligations, or worrying about minor bullshit from back home have all melted away. After a day of settling into my stunning ocean view room, going for my first walk on the beach, and dining on said beach with the beautiful people who run the Hermitage, along with my fellow artists, I feel primed for day two. I can’t wait to go to sleep and wake up and make my coffee and walk on the beach and call my mom.
Oh, and these fellow artists btw? No ego to speak of. No pretension. So lovely. Michael and I share the campus with Lucy Kim, a visual artist from Boston, and James Nyoraku Schlefer, a shakuhachi player from Brooklyn. My frequent and often debilitating imposter syndrome remains at bay. Today the past and future have melted away, leaving me in my beautiful room in a beautiful house I am sharing with Michael. Tomorrow will be great!
The pleasantness is over the top, what with the breeze in the shade out on the patio and the swaying palm trees and the playful geckos…it’s too much good! I’m sitting here going through my musical’s opening number in my head and getting all these fun ideas for ways to approach it. Sometimes at home, I just look for the quickest way to get from point A to point B. But right now, I’m all about the most inventive way. And it’s not making me feel exhausted. I’m invigorated!
Uh oh…snafu! My opening number draft is on my external hard drive at home in New York, and my roomie can’t get it to me until tonight, so I must shift my intentions for the day. I reset by grabbing a Danielle Steel novel from the bookcase (don’t judge me!) and doing a little beach reading. After 30 minutes, I’m ready to tackle a different moment from my show. I’ll tell you what: I finish a draft of that song, and despite some major knots in my back, I feel great. As for those knots: bath number two, baby! I melt, they melt, we melt, and to bed I go.
Frittered. I’ve frittered the day away, and that’s okay. A highlight: Some guy’s tent blew into the water, and Michael in his shorts and T-shirt fearlessly ran in and rescued it, much to the gratitude of the owner. An exciting way to initiate a first swim! I must confess I have yet to swim in the Gulf. I never went in on my last trip here, in November. I didn’t have anyone to go in with and I didn’t want to do it alone. This time I will take the plunge.
Oh, and tomorrow Michael is doing a concert on the beach. I will be accompanying him, so we worked on his material today. It was so fun flexing the old sight-reading part of the noggin again. It’s been a long time!
After watching a tomato-colored old man in his wedgied Speedo strutting the beach with his little dog this morning, I know it will be a good day. This old man has no fucks to give and neither do I! This day will not be frittered!
When you can take your experience, find meaning in it, discover its bearing on who you are and how it’s shaped your perception of the world, then communicate that in a fresh and clever way—that’s genius. That’s Michael R. Jackson. This artist is a gift to me and the world, because no one has his take on society, race, class, gender, politics, economics, etc. No one could ever express it with as much humor, humility, and grit as he does. Michael moved a lot of people tonight. He did it with delight and compassion, because he knows this is how to reach people. You don’t do it by yelling on Twitter. You understand that people and situations are complex. You never try to reduce them to black and white. People just want to feel seen in all their complexities. Michael makes people feel seen.
After the concert we have another amazing catered reception on the beach. (Chef Jordan makes a vegan version of everything just for me.) We watch the sunset, and then the four residents sit on the patio drinking rosé and PBR (hey, it was in the fridge from before we got here! Stop judging me!) And then I take a bath. Michael says he’ll go swimming with me tomorrow! We’ll see…
It’s 7:54 a.m. I’m sitting on the beach scanning the water for dolphins. There’s a chill in the air and I love it. It makes me more grateful for the warmth as it gradually rises and envelopes my skin. Today I will finish the new opening number. Then I must start planning for my concert next week. After being so inspired by Michael’s last night, I wonder if I can put together such an entertaining set. Will trust that it will come. Will breathe in this beach air and go back to watching for dolphins now. This is very important work! 😉
At 4:00 this afternoon it was time. We suited up and headed for the water. We were wimpy at first, feeling uneasy as the cold water dared lap at our waists, but once we took the plunge, we couldn’t get out. We floated in that got dang Gulf for an hour, talking mad shit about what musicals we love and hate, who we’ve heard is difficult to work with, and most importantly, which pop artists should write a musical next, since that subset of the genre is seemingly not going anywhere. After much deliberation, we landed on Salt-N-Pepa and the Bangles. (Susanna Hoffs, call me!)
Capping off the evening, Andy Sandberg, artistic director and CEO at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, dropped by with his signature margaritas and more hot goss. What a fun day! Oh yeah, I banged out a draft of the opening number. Tomorrow Michael and I are hitting the open road in a spiffy new shared Toyota Corolla. Brunch in town! Adventure awaits…
I’ma gloss here: It was a great food day. Brunch in town, barbecue with the other residents and Andy at night. I marinated portobello mushrooms for the first time and they turned out great. We discussed many things under the near full moon, including exposure to education and what chance we have to make a difference in teaching young humans how to exist outside a capitalist structure. I’m learning myself. Always learning.
Could I be at the halfway point already? Say it ain’t so! I’m just starting to get used to my feet knowing the shell-laden parts of the beach by heart, the pattern of the afternoon clouds, the rituals of the locals. I follow the angular tides and note that even the roughest of waves wouldn’t knock over a chihuahua. Everything here invites you to stay, to sit, to meditate and reflect, to focus on what is important, to put down the phone and maybe skip the news for a day. I clear my mind and focus on all that I’m grateful for.
Confession time: I’m falling in love with Chef Jordan. And I’m not just saying that because I’m drunk. Jordan knows I’m vegan and even though I’m the only one, he makes me something special for every event. Tonight he made me butternut squash ravioli. And while everyone else was having birthday cake (for our dear, wonderful co-founder/program director and now retiree, Patricia), Jordan made me a cup of luscious, creamy chocolate peanut butter mousse. It was otherworldly, and I’m pretty sure it means he loves me too. Will report back after next catered event.
This morning was spent walking along the beach listening to the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication for research. This was one of my favorite albums as a kid, and returning to it now is euphoric. Not only did it bring me back to my carefree days; I was even more struck by the musical variety within a song, let alone between tracks. (“Sure Shot,” “Tough Guy,” and “Sabotage”? Such range. Come on.) And the freedom of the lyrics! The reckless abandon when creativity just flows. I was giddy on my walk, saying “morning” to everyone I passed with a big goofy smile on my face. I feel so lucky that this is my job and this is my life.
Today is the day of my concert at Selby Gardens, and I oscillate between being super chill and super scared. Two hundred strangers are coming to see me. Can I hold their attention? Will they care about the issues I’m writing about? I know the solution: bubble tea! I stop at Crystal Cream on my way to the venue and get an almond milk green tea oolong slushie with boba. It is giving my vocal cords life!
I arrive at the venue and it is gorgeous! Set under a tree right in front of the bay in this ridiculous botanical garden. Before the concert, Michael, from the Hermitage team, walks me around and we fawn over banyan trees and thick bamboo that touches the sky. Raleigh, my singer for one song, arrives! I love Raleigh. He is the real deal.
I feel like skipping over the concert. Not for any bad reason—it went great. I just want to talk about food again, because it’s more exciting. We went to a Korean restaurant for dinner in Sarasota because Lucy had a hankering. I had bibimbap and it was insanely delicious. This day was quite magical—oh, except for, and please scream the following as a punk rock song: PALMETTO BUG ENCOUNTER! AAAAAAAH!!! (Hey, it’s Florida. There are gonna be scary-ass creatures. Adapt. It’s part of your growth.)
I worked. I swam. I saw two little fish kissing as a tiny wave crested near me. I watched the sunset with James. It looked like someone smeared orange and raspberry sherbet across the sky. There’s so much beauty here.
Last full day!! Chef Jordan texted and said he’s preparing a special meal just for the two of us tonight on the beach. JK! Sadly, there are no more catered meals, so alas, this is where this unrequited veg-affair must end. I will think of you and your creamy mousse fondly, mi amor.
Today I finished the song I’d been laboring over. Here’s my favorite lyric I wrote while I was here. It is sung to a college basketball player, who’s being berated for not being into the game anymore:
So your body shows up but your mind’s in the clouds
Lost the beat of the bounce and the rush from the crowds
In a bubble you chose to create
Floatin’ like a fish or blowin’ in the breeze
Never faced with a moment that you wanted to seize
Never feeling your heart palpitate
Departure day. How do I convey magic to you? Because that’s what Hermitage is. It induces calm. Noise becomes music. Animals become muses. Fellows become friends and collaborators. I accomplished all I set out to do in preparation for my workshop next week. I shared my work with a new audience, and I connected with a theatre company here that wants to produce the premiere of one of my shows.
I return home to a cold, sloshy NYC begrudgingly, but contented. I hope to carry the peace I feel with me, though I know the trials of this city will start eroding it the second we land. (I’m looking at you, JFK baggage claim!) But NYC hasn’t broken me yet, largely because of opportunities like these, where artists can relax, recharge, and focus. And no one does it better than the Hermitage.
I did a lot of affirmations on my beach walks. I take these with me. I remind myself that I have everything I need, and that in fact I have an abundance of love and wealth. I know that what you think, you attract. So instead of worrying about money, which only attracts more worry about money, I take in the moment. I have food, I have a functioning body, I have deep human connections, I have the ability to express myself, and I created something new to share with the universe while in paradise.
Rona Siddiqui (she/her) is an award-winning composer, lyricist, orchestrator, and music director. RonaSiddiqui.com.
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