Pig Iron Theatre Company was founded in 1995 by a group of artists with an interest in dance, clown and theatre. These three vocabularies and territories of performance have guided the company for the last 19 years, and have led it into many different realms of stagework. Each project is a dare to do something the company has never done before. At this point Pig Iron has an eclectic body of work that has been seen in 13 countries on four continents.
The Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training (APT) opened in 2011 and is a logical extension of the work of the company. The School represents an opportunity to take the artistic questions of the company and play with them in a studio filled with hungry, fierce and curious emerging theatre artists who want to innovate within the field. The curriculum is set up as a means to understand how live performance works – to gain expertise of the fundamental building blocks of this discipline. It’s a laboratory to discover how this performance art can stay relevant and vibrant in the 21st century. Like the Company, the School asks a set of questions and dares the studio space, the faculty, and the students answer to those questions through performance.
I’ve picked the brains of three Pig Iron School graduates – Melissa Krodman, Justin Rose and Jennifer Kidwell.
Melissa Krodman is a Philadelphia-based performer, choreographer and creator of experimental dance and ensemble-devised theatre. She is currently a performer/devisor with Team Sunshine Performance Corporation on The Sincerity Project (premier December 2014, Philadelphia Live Arts) and on Richard Schechner and Benjamin Mosse’s new work Imagining O (premier September 2014, Montclair University). The primary focus of Melissa’s work is her artistic collaboration with Nashville-based choreographer Kelly Bond. Their new work, currently titled Jean and Terry: Your Guides Through Dark Light and Nebulous explores telepathy, channeling, and other phenomena of Universal Consciousness and will premier in 2015. She has a BS in Film and Television from Boston University and was a graduate of the inaugural class of Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training.
Justin Rose is an actor, devisor and director with an interest in Circus. He was a co-founder of the circus company, The Candidatos, which toured original works nationally and internationally. He is currently assisting Geoff Sobelle of Rainpan 43 and Pig Iron with his work The Object Lesson which will be presented at BAM this fall, and is directing Greg Kennedy’s new juggling/aerial arts show which will premier in September 2014. He is an instructor and resident artist at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.
Jennifer Kidwell is a performing artist and current TCG/Fox Foundation Resident Actor with Pig Iron Theatre Company. She is currently at work on a duet entitled Underground Railroad Game. Most recently she has collaborated with Joe Scanlan as Donelle Woolford in Dick’s Last Stand (Whitney Biennial, 2014) – and is a performer/company member of Robert Wilson’s new opera, Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter. She is a proud co-founder of the performance space JACK in Brooklyn, NY
Stav Meishar: How is the school unique in its approach to performance training?
Melissa Krodwell: I’m not the best at choosing ONE thing. In terms of my career I’ve always wanted to do everything. I want to be a dancer, a director, cabaret performer, clown, performance artist, choreographer, burlesque dancer…. I’m greedy that way! When I was looking for schools I was seeking a program that would provide me with a diverse enough training to give me tools in all of these different areas of interest, while at the same time providing deep and RIGOROUS training. Pig Iron really trains you to be a working artist with skills in many areas to serve your career. It’s a program unlike any other that I found in my search for schools, and I think it’s especially unique to American theatre training.
Justin Rose: The pedagogy of APT stems directly from Lecoq. Most all of the the teachers at Pig Iron studied with Lecoq in Paris, or LISPA (in London, with a similar pedagogy). But it doesn’t end at Lecoq. Through years of their own creative work the company has developed techniques and a language for use in creation. They’ve borrowed and combined elements learned through collaborations and further study and consequently created an entirely unique approach to performance that is really quite sparse in North America. So while one is ostensibly studying in the lineage of Lecoq there is also the opportunity to look at performance through the lens of Grotowski, Gaulier, Pina Bausch, Kantor, modern dance, and Balinese mask as well as preeminent contemporary artists working in the field today like Toshiki Okada, The Rude Mechanicals, Theatre Slava, Giovanni Fussetti and so many others.
Jennifer Kidwell: At APT, rather than feeling as though I was learning a lot of technique, I was immersed in the performative world. I was asked to explore all facets of performance, not just acting, vocal production and movement, but design, tempo, composition, color, lighting, etc. This helped inform and develop relationship to character as well as to story. Students are not only thinking about motivation, how the world around us can inform a character, and how the world around the character can be a reflection of him or her.
S. M. : Can you talk about the role of physicality in the school?
M. K. : The first year you’re doing a lot of Lecoq movement training and other materials-based physical work. Plus acrobatics twice a week, mask, improv (which was always very physical). Even our vocal training was still rooted in the body, and how the body’s movement influences and inspires voice. The second year is equally as physical but in different, and sometimes more subtle ways. In the second year I think we learned how to use the body to serve the actor. We also did a lot with dance in our second year, and had Alexander Technique. The training creates a strong, physical body – we focus on having strong and healthy cores, on having agile bodies that can serve us on stage. We also learn how to use that body to create character and investigate performance and creation from physical inspiration, rather than from a psychological one – ideas about character, or ideas about what a piece should be about.
J. R. : What we really want at the end of the day is a body that can show anything. Rather than working from the inside out – starting with a psychological intention for example – we work from the outside in. We would draw from the world around us – from the elements that make-up the physical world (air, water etc), to the materials surrounding us in our everyday lives (cardboard, paper, etc), to more metaphorical components such as color and sound – we try everything on with the body and in so doing we learn how the body moves, and how the physical can give shape to the vast inner world of the artist. It’s through the body we can show intention, feeling, metaphor. In combination with more formal techniques such as Lecoq’s movements, mime and mask (among many others) the artists come out being much more grounded in their bodies and able to attack any project – from modern dance, to clown, to hand to hand – with a stronger vocabulary of movement.
J. K. : APT students learn about art-making by inhabiting, so physicality is integral to the experience. Students are asked to discover the “bodies” of things, like adjectives and inanimate objects. This physical exploration of the non-ambulatory world helps us to create movement and breath.
S. M. : How specifically does the school help you grow as a creator?
M. K. : Arguably the largest component of the program is our Creation class. It’s the equivalent of “auto-cours” at the Lecoq school. Basically, every day you have a creation period of about an hour and a half to work to work in small ensembles with a prompt (with varying degrees of specificity). The piece you create is then shown for critique from our teachers on Friday. It is grueling, unrelenting, exhausting, frustrating, enraging, and AMAZING. It’s in that class that you really synthesize what you learn each week into how to make something for the stage.
After APT I now have the skills to know what is compelling on stage on why; how to run a room; how to approach making a full-length work from the beginning, with no starting sources or existing collaborators or materials; I have a sense of how to handle the navigation of a process when you’re in the darkest depths of not knowing what the piece is about or how to proceed; I have a sense of how to handle the process of presenting a successful work once it’s made – how to get it seen, how to budget, how to tour it. I can, and have, taught at the University level based on my training at APT.
J. R. : I don’t know if I would say the program forces authenticity on every one – but it definitely provoked me to a place of authenticity. It stripped away most everything I thought I wanted to do or be as an artist and confronted me with the core at the center of my artistic self. I now have a handful of impossibly hard questions that I can spend a lot of time chipping away at. In addition to the fact that the school really challenges one to learn how to collaborate with others. I had had close working relationships in the past, but I don’t think I approached those collaborations as mindfully as I do now, after APT.
J. K. : It gave me the confidence to be a maker of theater and to bring my imagination to all of my work.
S. M. : Talk a bit about the experience of clown in the school? How did it go?
M. K. : Clown is the most evil, ruthless, difficult, fear-inducing, panic-creating training and I think anyone who puts themselves through it voluntarily has something wrong with them inside. I’d say I cried somewhere around 50% of the days we did clown. Ultimately it went well and I ‘found my clown’ but I’d say I started to really find the true meat about 3/4 of the way through the clown work we did. I’m looking forward to going back and working on her more in the future. I love the rawness and the honesty of clown and I think that more than the form itself I gained skills in how to be with the audience in new ways. I’ve taken it more in the direction of cabaret, but I know it’s the clown training that I’m working with.
J. R. : I love clown. This was my main draw to the school – to formally study clown. I had my own company for a number of years that was based in clown – so I came in thinking I had an understanding of what clown was. But the school allowed my to push even further beyond what I thought I knew. It helped me develop and grow my skills as a clown. To push the boundaries that always kept me locked in. Really, it allowed me to push past the fears I had about doing something wrong, or being an outcast, and really perform something dangerous!
J. K. : I learned A LOT about failure, in so many different permutations. I learned a little about success as well. And, stillness. I mostly learned how much I’ve yet to learn.
S. M. : What was a favorite moment from your experience at Pig Iron?
M. K. : My favorite moment was my final project…there are two moments specifically. One was in the middle of my creation process. I was so lost and felt like I didn’t know where my piece was going, or how it functioned, and none of my “ideas” were working. Then one day I just decided to not be afraid of my room or the process anymore and literally in that moment everything changed. I had command of my ensemble and we ultimately found the piece. The other moment was onstage the night of the project presentations. A lot of the piece was improvised text and it just all WORKED. As an ensemble we were ON and we were listening to each other with a sensitivity that can only come with training and invested time working together. It felt incredible.
J. R. : One of my favorite personal moments was going to the beach as a class early on in the process. We all loaded into cars – teachers, staff, and all the students and headed out. We spent the day running and singing on the beach, but also exploring and experiencing the nature around us. I stood for a very long time by myself watching the tall beach grass blow in the wind. It was something so simple and yet so captivating – to watch the grass move in the wind and try to feel that same movement in my body. It was a fundamental moment in the training for me – where I could hear Lecoq’s words – tout bouge! Everything moves! It inspired me to really look at the world around me for inspiration.
S. M. : How might a circus artist or a dancer — someone from a physical background — benefit from the school?
M. K. : I’ll speak from a choreographer’s perspective on this one. I think APT teaches you how to use physical work – dance and circus arts – to make performance that is elevated beyond those physical disciplines. During my first year at APT I was in the midst of creating a full-length experimental dance piece (Colony, 2012) with my collaborator Kelly Bond. It took me a long time (my entire first year) to fully understand how to use what we were doing in school was relevant to the piece. I was really struggling to see the connections. And then one day I realized that APT’s constant studies on states of tension might be interesting to play with. Ultimately Colony became about tension. That piece has gone on to do really well – we’ve been touring it for two years now, and all of my producing skills from APT training have been kicking in there too. I feel like so much of why our piece works, and why audiences are really stirred by it, comes from the principles I learned in school. This training has absolutely transformed my understanding of how to make successful dance work.
J. R. : On some levels the physicality of the school might be laughable for some one who has trained their entire life in acrobatics or in the dance studio – but at the same time, I believe the school would still provide them a great challenge. Using mask to convey a story silently. Using mime to work with precision. Creating multiple characters. Connecting with the audience through clown. So much happens at this school – and in all of it there is an opening up of the body and spirit as instruments of expression – and really what artist doesn’t crave that!?
J. K. : APT is a good place to take advantage of strong physical prowess and in turn can offer sublime artistry. What an exciting nexus: where virtuosity and imagination meet. In turn, those students who begin with a strong sense of the body can help others who less physically inclined, and thus gain a fresh insight into their own bodies.
To read more about Pig Iron’s program and mission, visit their website.
Stav Meishar is a guest writer for Circus Now and currently traveling abroad, sending us the stories of circus along the way.