The Beloved Artist Residency

Want to know what an artist residency is and how to apply for it? Here are some stories from different residiences I've done across the world from Iceland to California to a tall ship in the Arctic.

The beloved artist residency

From a mansion at a monastic ruin in Iceland (Klaustrid), to sailing through sheets of ice on a tall ship in the high arctic (The Arctic Circle), to a studio overlooking a grove of redwoods on the California coast (Djerassi), to a 20,000 acre cattle ranch in Wyoming (Ucross Foundation), to a social justice oriented retreat with a boathouse on a lake in upstate New York (Blue Mountain Centre), to a print studio run by a lovely artist couple in Prince Edward County (Spark Box Studio) – I’ve had THE BEST time on artist residencies. I get five times the amount of writing done, while having wonderful connections with other artists and living a good life.

The Arctic Circle residency aboard a tall ship

COVID has brought the physical artist residencies to a halt for now, but not the other type of residency I do: developing work within the supportive fold of a theatre company. In 2019 I had the pleasure of developing EVERY LITTLE NOOKIE in residence with the Stratford Festival, and this year I’m jazzed to be creating CLIMATE CHANGE & OTHER SMALL TALK in residence with one of Turtle Island’s most dynamic theatre companies: Why Not Theatre.

I get a lot of questions from other artists about what exactly a residency is. Well, it can be a lot of different things. Residencies like Djerassi and Ucross are spaces where you get to work on any project you want. Most of these don’t pay you a fee, but you get free food cooked by a chef (MY DREAM!), a free accommodation/studio to work in. You apply with a project but in reality once you arrive you can switch projects: the investment is in you as artist with the gift of time and space. Other residencies cost some money, like Spark Box in Canada (which is very reasonably priced and Chrissy and Kyle are lovely).

There are big databases of residencies like TransArtists and ResArtis. They can be overwhelming - I found it easier to go by word-of-mouth from other artists. Once I got my first residency, I asked all of the artists there for recommendations, and indeed, it's a favourite activity at residencies is to sit around after dinner and gossip about the best other residencies!

The boathouse at the Blue Mountain Centre (upstate New York)
Dreamy lunchbox delivery as part of 3 cooked meals per day at Yaddo (New York)
Writing up a storm in Iceland

And then there’s being “in residence” with a theatre company. This is often not physically in residence, but rather developing something with the support of the company, which can look like many different things: basically whatever you negotiate with the company. Some are more structured with what the offer is, like the fantastic 2 week WrightSpace residency I did with PTC in Vancouver which provided intensive dramaturgy and actors to workshop my script. Others are very flexible to the differing needs of artists, like for my residency this year with Why Not Theatre, I asked them for dramaturgical support as well as producing support towards the pilot episode of the audio drama series I’m working on. Why Not are also championing the project by helping build partnerships and supporting my grant applications to bring more resources in. And then there’s all the “artist buddy” support: some of you might have noticed that creating is hard work (!) and it makes a world of difference when you get to develop it with the support of other artists and producers.

Some of these type of residencies have formal application processes (e.g. PTC's WrightSpace or the Banff Playwright's Lab), but others are organized through building a relationship with a theatre company slowly over time and then... asking! But first, make sure you're clear on who would be a good match for your work and that you've already done a range of other things to get to know the company. While these residencies often won't pay you a fee, in Canada there are various grants that you can apply to for a fee to be "in residence" with a company e.g. Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council.

Before I could access either of these type of opportunities, I co-organized DIY residencies with my artist friends. And in fact, I still periodically do because sometimes what I need the most is community with other artists. Like the time my dear friend and colleague Awilda Rodríguez Lora came up from Puerto Rico and we developed our work side by side for a week. In the mornings we had our own creation time and in the afternoons we chatted with other artists and gave feedback on each other’s work. One afternoon we even traded works: we gave each other a creative task on our own pieces – so fun! The following year, Awilda and an awesome duo in Puerto Rico (Patio Taller – Las Nietas de Nonó), organized another residency week and myself and two other artists from Tkaronto (Toronto) came down and created alongside each other. These were some of the best times I’ve had in my artist life.

ARTISTS ARE GREAT and my richest work is created from that unique cross-pollination that happen when multiple of us are creating nearby. I’ve come to love the evening artist chats after dinner – and this is one of the things I’m missing the most during COVID. Although if we can’t gather in person, then at least I still have the joy and inspiration of Why Not Theatre’s Michelle Yagi and Kevin Matthew Wong on the other end of a zoom chat.

Long live the artist residency!

Art installations at Djerassi (California)
Peaceful evenings at the Blue Mountain Centre
Yup, remote!
Amazing cooked meals by gourmet chef at Ucross Foundation (Wyoming)
Big open skies in Wyoming for big open creating (Ucross Foundation)
When in Wyoming...