In the fall, as you know, I stalked several bands as part of my folk beat. PigPen, described below, was the one I chose for my finals essay.
It was the night Bette Midler came to see The Old Man and the Old Moon. An hour before the house opened, the only visibly excited people were the stage managers, David and Allyson. Allyson was constantly bursting into “The Rose” during warm ups, while David pirouetted across the tiered stage as he set up. The seven performers that write, sing, play, act, and direct themselves as PigPen Theatre Company were remarkably impassive, their apprehension only betrayed by occasional fumbles whilst tuning their instruments. The mood was convivial, as it is each night they perform, but this saturday night was special: not only was Bette Midler coming, but the house was full, a luxury for performers in theatre-saturated New York City.
“You’ll love tonight” PigPen’s understudy Nick whispered to me “In a full house, there’s space to laugh… the audience gives each other permission to enjoy themselves. Smaller houses are intimate… but you can’t rely on adrenaline to carry the technical stuff, like timing or scene breaks. In a full house you can just tune into the audience and it’s a high like no drug I’ve never done.” True to his prediction, that night the show was mesmeric, even after Bette Midler left at intermission.
Everyone who sees PigPen’s play The Old Man and the Old Moon leaves the theatre with a different memory. It is not a tale, the narrator tells the audience as it begins, that you can carry away with both hands. The story itself is simple and fabulist: an old man sails across the world following a melody and searching for his wife. Across eternity his job has been to fill the leaking moon, and once he abandons his duty the world comes apart at the seams. The moon and the oceans disappear; the stars fall out of the sky. The Old Man finds himself in paradise, in the belly of a fish, on a dirigible, in a sunken city made of light. He travels with adventurers, sailors, ghosts, milk-bottle dogs and talking planks. Ultimately, as in the way of any fable, he finds himself back at home, surprised to find that the world keeps going round and round and round. Their barebones story is told, the New Yorker’s critic said, with a “perfect combination of original bluegrass-style music, stunning shadow puppetry, and vigorous physical comedy.”
The Old Man and the Old Moon is about memory, and loss, and inevitability, but the real beauty lies in its universality. It draws the audience in, and no one can resist imposing their own cultural crayon upon the stark outlines of its staging. It’s performed, if you will, to cast shadows in the shapes of things you know you’ve seen before. If you’ve read the latest issue of Poetry Magazine, you might think of the Simon Perril’s Archilochus on the Moon: “before sailing/for lunar seas/these moon bound men/signed an oath/will bind them/to ashen coasts.” Or you might browse The Paris Review tumblr on your phone while you wait for the show to open, only to recall Dawn Corrigan’s villanelle The Princess once it does: “But I was wondering:/is the moon the great bucket, or is the sun?”
If you watched it this past weekend*, mourning the death of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali a decade ago, you will think of his fading barkeep, the one who enjoys “a glass/of the moon’s dry wine.” Or his translation of Faiz: “the grief of the moon was extinguished/ we were again together in the night.” Sitting in the audience any given night, you hear whispers of Calvino, Coleridge, Yeats, Ursula Le Guin, Pixar, the television show Lost, and even Stage Beauty, a movie about cross-dressing on the English stage in the 18th century.
*my deadline was December 15.
Yet everyone, however sophisticated their cultural barometer, leaves the theatre with one undercurrent to their thoughts: how did the PigPen seven- these kids- solve the riddle of fame with such elegant ease? How do they do what they do so well one year after they graduated? In truth, they’ve been working together for far longer, and won the NYC Fringe Festival for the first time as seniors at Carnegie Mellon for their second play, The Nightmare Story. They won it again in 2011, this time for The Mountain Song, becoming the first company in the festival’s history to win twice consecutively.
PigPen’s star seems to be implacably rising: in the last year they’ve recorded an album and signed a book deal as well as co-producing their hit off-Broadway show. They regularly sell out their concert series at Joe’s Pub, one of the few new music venues left in Manhattan. So where’s the chaos, the indecision, the frustration that plagues most people in their early 20s?
The PigPen Seven are Alex, Arya, Ben, Curtis, Dan, Matt, and Ryan. Between them they play the banjo, the guitar, the fiddle, the ukelele, the mandolin, the piano, the accordion, the french horn, and the drums. Ryan is the lead singer in the band as well as the titular Old Man in the play, Dan writes the scripts, Arya manages the business. To assign “responsibilities” to them is, however, to miss the point. There could be no PigPen without Alex’s intensity or Matt’s charm or Ben’s flexibility or Curtis’ exuberance. If PigPen is, as Allyson calls them, “magic in a bottle”, it is because they are, each of them, eager to dissolve into a collective. “Our best decision” Matt argues “is that we never defined anyone’s role.” It allows them to question each other, all the while ensuring no one ever feels cornered or defensive about their choices. Conversely, it can also mean a half hour argument about opening the house five minutes after the usual time. “Normally,” David sighed “it would just be me telling people that the noise upstairs means we open late. But the guys believe strongly in consensus. It can be logistically frustrating but creatively it’s PigPen’s biggest strength”
“We don’t deny what people’s skills are, we lean into that, but in PigPen we’ve created a system where everyone flourishes,” Arya agrees, “and the power of PigPen is that all seven of us feel like we’re in control. PigPen is bigger than we could ever be individually.” In making this observation, Arya’s echoing John Berger’s distinction between talent and genius in his essay about Jackson Pollock. “A genius” Berger wrote “is by definition a man who is in some way or another larger than the situation he inherits.” The seven men of PigPen are profoundly aware of their own talent; what makes them unique is that they know it is their company that is the genius. “We decide what we do as we do it” Ben notes “no one’s telling us how, and that freedom is our gift.” “There’s an [actors’] mould on Broadway,” Curtis continues “all flash and spectacle, and we’re not it… We went to a school designed to make individuals… and through it all, we stuck together.”
PigPen’s unlikely cohesion isn’t their only novelty. They’re disciplined, both artistically and fiscally. Everyone turns up to rehearsals and meetings punctually, everyone participates and listens equally, everyone believes that the company (a for-profit LLC, also unusual in the not-for-profit arts world) must be self-sustaining before the actors themselves are. “The company makes profits,” Arya claims “but the actors don’t. One day we’ll pay everyone as well as they deserve to be but PigPen invests in PigPen first.”
The actors’ belief in their abstract collective has always shaped their professional choices. It motivated most of them into theatre, a form many of them believe both dated and jaded. None of them is comfortable calling The Old Man a musical. Even Dan, the person most attuned to theatre within the company, demurs about classification.
“I’m not opposed to calling it musical theatre. What sometimes bothers me about contemporary musicals is that there’s so much effort put into making the song conversational. It drives me nuts when I hear the word ‘like’ put into a song.. I was so like sad… the way we use music is to set the pace, to give the audience a sense of the atmosphere and stir them the same way a film score would.”
If it hadn’t been for PigPen, five of the seven would currently be in Los Angeles pursuing careers in film or television. “Television is the future,” the normally reticent Alex insists “it’s where the storytelling is, where the money is, where all the innovation is. Theatre needs backbone.” Perhaps what theatre of the Broadway persuasion really needs, then, is more companies like PigPen. They’re pioneering the folk fable, inspired by the success of kooky “little” shows like Once and Peter and the Starcatcher. By returning music to its bardic origins, they tell their stories with music rather than through music, and within the two prepositions lies a minor revolution.
“Music supplements what we do, enhances it… people always leave humming. It helps us connect” Ryan explains “but it’s not our hook. Things don’t just stop on stage because someone is singing about their feelings or whatever. Our music tells stories. It doesn’t replace emotion.”
PigPen writes original music and songs without losing the familiar nostalgia of folk music. Listening to their album, Bremen, makes it even harder to picture them as a band fresh out of college; their songs are the musical equivalent of photoshopped daguerrotypes. Even when they record covers — which they did as “rewards” for kickstarter supporters of Bremen — they lend their stripped down sensibility to the most unlikely songs. Their cover of outkast’s “hey ya”, for instance, is its own weird beast: a quixotic song with its tongue so firmly in cheek that it sounds more like Woody Guthrie than the crunk funk original. It is, indeed, what Susan Sontag might have called camp: artifice evolved into art. Camp, Sontag wrote, is an aesthetic founded on “a love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
Camp is Bette Midler seeing herself uncomfortably reflected in a 24 year old redhead pretending he’s millions of years old. Camp, on some basic level, is listening to a bunch of boys and remembering Joan Baez singing “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and, for the very first time, agreeing.