There are lots of staunch old regional theatres spinning their wheels in the mud — this much is true. When I find myself contemplating that fact for too long, I start to get really upset about the plight of theatre in America. Where are the young companies, the bright vibrant ideas?
Are they nowhere to be found?
As much as the corporate structure and dependency on subscriber bases may have strangled the creativity of some larger theatres, America is still a vibran place for young companies. The Pig Iron Theatre Company is one of these. Located in Philadelphia, Pig Iron formed in 1995 and describes itself as “an interdisciplinary ensemble…dedicated to the creation of new and exuberant performance works that defy easy categorization.” Woof, I’ll hop on that bandwagon. Over the past years the company has been fulfilling this mission with impressive gusto. They primarily devise pieces, though recently they opened a production of Twelfth Night in Philadelphia, their first foray into working from an established text. I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing any of their pieces, but based on my online research I have learned several things: every show sounds bizarre (example titles: Chekhov Lizardbrain, Cankerblossom, and Come to My Awesome Fiesta, it’s Going to be Awesome, Okay?) and every show is roundly praised by critics and audience members alike.
The company is primarily made up of three artistic directors and four company members, who create work themselves as well as bringing in guest artists and establishing connections with other collaborators. They create work primarily through improvisation, and company discussion. Their schedules for creating shows are notoriously long – often up to a year. The production of Twelfth Night, which just closed, began work just before the beginning of the summer. The three artistic directors are all graduates of Swarthmore, and created Pig Iron initially as just a summer gig. Eventually it became their primary project and has brought them all sorts of acclaim.
I find the story of Pig Iron incredibly inspiring. A group of young artists, friends, who banded together to create unique theatre. And they have done it well enough that they have audience, money, and a voice that is being heard. It’s possible! The regional theatre monoliths don’t have a stranglehold on all creativity. Pig Iron proves to me that there is an audience out there that is LOOKING for that next thing, that theatre company unafraid to push the boundary courageously and skillfully.
On top of it all, Pig Iron recently received a $150,000 grant which they have put into use developing a two-year Advanced Performance Training program, which substitutes for a traditional MFA. Opening this year, the new program is a testament to the fact that not only can young artists create great work – it is just a few steps from there to becoming the next generation of mentors.
And finally, this is from Pig Iron’s introduction to its new school in the student handbook: “The Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training will re-draw the lines of artistic ownership in theatre and overturn the traditional norms and power structures embodied by the current regional theatre model.”
Like softest music to attending ears.