What’s your name?

Heidi Armbruster

Where are you originally from?

I’m from Madison, WI. It’s a good place to be from, I think. I go there a lot.

You live in New York City now, and how long have you lived there?

12 years

What brought you there?

I did my MFA in acting at ACT in San Francisco and then I moved to NYC to be an actress.

Where did you go to undergrad?

I went to UW-Madison, in my backyard. And I didn’t study theatre. I went to college on a Land O’ Lakes Butter Scholarship and I was an agricultural and economics major. I was miserable. I was taking economics and chemistry and then half way through, I did a play. I had done plays in high school, and then I did a play in college and I liked it.

What play was it?

Oh! Hello Dolly! I played Ermengarde, the crying one with the big bass drum. And I was happy and then I started doing more plays and then I went to grad school right out of undergrad.

Cool. Great. What have you been working on here at SPACE?

My play, Dairyland.  I wonder if that’s the right title for it. I wonder if it should be called Heartland.  I’ve started to think that it should be called Heartland while I’ve been here. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now. It’s about a food writer who lives in NYC and she ends up on the wrong side, I would say, of the local organic food movement. And she loses her job at the paper she works for and she goes to visit her father at the dairy farm he works at in Wisconsin. And then from there it sort of picks up autobiographically.

Did you grow up on a dairy farm?

No. Like the character in the play, my dad lived on a farm but we lived with my mother. So we would go to the farm on weekends and we were around the farm and farm culture. And my dad worked for the University that I went to in Wisconsin, as the cow guy. He was the herdsman. The University has this herd of 1,000 dairy cattle spread around their different campuses and extension farms, and he managed that herd and coordinated research. So, going to work with my dad was always like going to work on a farm, or visiting my dad was going to a farm. But, on the other hand, I was not one of those kids who had to milk cows before going to school. I definitely went to high school with those kids, but I wasn’t one of them.

Is that farm experience during your childhood how you came to have an interest in coming to SPACE?

Oh! Maybe that’s part of why it feels so comfortable for me! I really like it here. It feels like an incredibly restorative and very easy place to be. But I mean, and maybe there is something about this sort of farm, like the sound of the ducks and chickens—that’s what my dad’s house sounds like, although there you hear the cattle lowing a little bit and the sound of the highway at the same time. This is a much prettier farm than my dad’s farm. But, yeah, there is something familiar about it…maybe that is why I like it so much, because there is something familiar about it. But then on the other hand it has that New York theater component too. It’s like a farm that grows New York theater.

And it’s a perfect place to write this play maybe?

Yeah! I’ve never worked on this play here. When I was here earlier this summer I was working on two other things. And last year I was here as an actress. But this is the only time I’ve worked on this play here, and it does feel like this play wants to be written in this kind of environment, like I’ve written this play at my dad’s farm and they’re always playing country music and you’re eating fried chicken and biscuits and pie. There’s something about that that feels like it’s right for this play. I really like it here. It just feels like it’s easy. There is nothing off-putting about it. It feels very inclusive, like it wants your output as opposed to pressuring you into outputting—it coaxes it out. The trick for me is always figuring out how to write as if it’s a treat, and there is something about coming up here that says, “Oh, it’s dessert!” I just closed my show in New York and now I get to come up here for dessert, and to write.

You are a writer and an actress. So when did you start writing?

About five years ago.

And how did you start?

It was mostly a logistical thing, really.  My mother had passed, and I didn’t have a job. I had nobody to take care of and nothing to do. And I was staring at the calendar and literally there was nothing on the calendar, and I thought, “I can’t sustain this,” so I took a playwriting class to structure my time. And then it ended up being a nice way to work out some of the questions and feelings I was sitting with. The first impulse was a therapeutic one, and then it’s taken me awhile before I feel like I’ve gotten to anything that is something that could be shared with other people. My early writing was so autobiographical, and now there is a little more craft and a little more focus on the thing itself and a little more storytelling. It feels like it’s in a place where eventually there will be a body of work where you won’t be able to find me in it.

What were you just working on in NYC?

I did Theresa Rebeck’s play Poor Behavior at Primary Stages. It was cool to be around her, as a writer, because she is so ferocious, in all the best ways. And it just closed on Sunday. And then this was a nice soft landing after that…I think it’s hard sometimes to just walk off the cliff edge after a job, and that’s sort of how my writing had been functioning.  It was something else to focus on when I wasn’t acting, and this summer was the first summer when I said no to acting things so that I could focus on my writing, so that shift has kind of started to happen.

Do you ever think about that shift becoming more of a permanent shift?

My sense is, nobody can predict the future. I do feel that my instinct is that the older I get, the more important writing will become for me. There is just so much unexplored territory in my writing. Also, I recognize that I am a mid-career actress and a beginning-career playwright. I’m a little older than most early-career playwrights, but there is something about doing something new, even though I’m in my later thirties, that I think is good for me.  It feels right, like the right impulse to follow. It makes sense to say, “we should always be learning something new,” but then the reality of that is that learning something new can be really embarrassing and make you feel like an idiot.

Have you been getting some good work done here?

Yeah! I came here with a very specific list of feedback that I wanted to incorporate, or to weigh, before I incorporate it, and I’ve done that in these first days. So now I have a copy of the play to send to my agent, and to theatres, and to people who are asking for it. There is a clean copy, baseline, and now I have one more day here to experiment, and then I can just keep experimenting. But I know that there is that copy of the play that can go out into the world that is representative of what I want that story to be…and then if I want to mess with it, I can, because I have a thing that I am proud of.

Have you found a favorite spot on the farm?

Ok, this is embarrassing…what I am about to say is embarrassing, but the two bedrooms I’ve stayed in this summer have been lovely places to work. I was in the Henry Clay room before, and there is a rocking chair in the Henry Clay room that is really a beautiful place to sit and write. And now I am in the Belle room in Kay Hall and the weather is so perfect right now that it is just a perfect place to write. There is also something about having a bedroom that is not your bedroom and there is nothing in it, and it’s a blank space, and you can feel like, “I am here and it’s just me, and my thoughts, and my imagination, and everything I have is here in this space and then what comes out of me is just me. There is nothing else to mess with it. My cat is not there, so I don’t have to feed it. My television is not there, my desk is not there, my calendar is not there. It’s just what I can carry in and on my body, into this blank space. I like that. My dad was like, “Why do you have to go somewhere to write? If you want to go to a farm, come to my farm!” And I was like, “No, it’s different, and it’s important.” And there’s also no expectation to share at the end. There is not a sense of completion. It’s just whatever comes out.

It’s the way life should be.

Yeah, it’s the way life should be.

Do you have anything else you want to share?

This is another thing I said to my dad, I said there is something else about being connected to this community… it’s New York’s backyard. It’s good for me to identify myself as a writer amongst other people who are part of that community, which is more difficult I think to do if you’re just at a bed and breakfast, or at your apartment, or at a Starbucks. You have other people who are interfacing with you as if you were the thing you pretend to be. Yeah, it’s cool. Because in my life, I am an actor first, and then I run this business in Madison, WI, and then whatever space is left over, I get to write. But here at SPACE, all of that gets flipped upside down and I get to be a writer first, which makes me not want to go home.

Interviewed by Julia Schonberg.