After 16 years of being one of Philadelphia’s most reputable experimental theater companies, Pig Iron launched their Advanced Performance Training school last fall, with 15 students. Most of them have invented a piece for this year’s Philly Fringe Festival in their spare time.
“When you slow dance, where is he going to put his hands? Am I supposed to kiss him at the end?”
Martha Stuckey, of the Groundswell Players, rehearsed “Hackles” for this year’s Philly Fringe Festival. She plays a teenager confronting a specter of death, who looks like her mother. She has questions regarding an upcoming school dance.
“If I only have one billion heartbeats, and my heart beats faster when I’m around Greg, does that mean that I’m going to die sooner?”
Stuckey, and three others who make up the Groundswell Players, are in the inaugural class of the Pig Iron Advanced Performance Training school. After 16 years of being one of Philadelphia’s most reputable experimental theater companies, Pig Iron launched the school last fall, with 15 students. Most of them have invented a piece for Fringe in their spare time.
The students are learning an ensemble-based, “devised” performance technique: Plays do not start with a script, but rather a set of ideas, which the players improvise on, until it takes the shape of a story. The Groundswell Players started messing around with a handful of characters six months ago.
“We’d been playing with them for a really long time and we kept coming up with dead ends,” said Groundsweller Alice York. “We had these great characters and no story. We just kept running around in circles.”
Those dead ends were not really dead. After a few months of physical, vocal, and narrative work, the Groundswellers saw “Hackles” distill into a play.
“There’s this saying, when you’re really attached to something that you know doesn’t fit in the piece: ‘kill your babies,'” said Scott Sheppard, Groundswell Players artistic director. “There’s another way of thinking of that, which is to compost your babies, so they can come back. Or to freeze your babies and thaw them out later.”
Another student of Pig Iron, Melissa Krodman, is using those learned techniques in a dance piece, “Colony.” While her choreography lacks the strong sense of character and narrative common in theater, the Advanced Performance Training played a key role.
“We talked a lot of about tension and energy and the respect for duration,” said Krodman. “We had a whole class titled ‘Measures,’ about the exactly right amount of time something needs to last. Those things are present in ‘Colony,’ and what makes it so successful.”
Krodman developed “Colony” with Kelly Bond, based in Washington D.C., while Krodman relocated from D.C. to study in Philadelphia. Krodman was attracted to APT’s philosophy of “total theater,” a holistic approach that uses all elements of the theatrical experience at the conception stage. Students consider voice, movement, acrobatics, improvisation, light, space, and an array of other elements when molding an idea into a story.
“I recall looking through the course catalog thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’ve been reading my dream journal!'” said Groundsweller Nick Gillette.
The Pig Iron Theater, itself, has a new show debuting as part of the Live Arts Festival, “Zero Cost House.” The school — still untested, with no graduating class yet — is the company’s ongoing experimentation.
“It is a bit of a leap,” said Krodman. “People who are in this class have gone a bit out on a limb with Pig Iron but, to be honest, that’s what’s so exciting about it. We all feel this palpable energy.”
The students are not finished yet. The Pig Iron school is a two-year program, and they are only halfway there.