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Pig Iron launches new program for teaching avant-garde theater in Philadelphia

It's a steamy spring afternoon and members of Pig Iron Theatre Company are in a boiler room at the Crane Arts Building's neighboring schoolhouse, kicking up dirt.

In the boiler room of Crane Old School are (from left) Pig Iron’s Quinn Bauridel, John Frisbee, Marc Miller, and Scott Reynolds.
In the boiler room of Crane Old School are (from left) Pig Iron’s Quinn Bauridel, John Frisbee, Marc Miller, and Scott Reynolds.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

It's a steamy spring afternoon and members of Pig Iron Theatre Company are in a boiler room at the Crane Arts Building's neighboring schoolhouse, kicking up dirt.

"This would make a great stage for a performance," Quinn Bauridel, Pig Iron's co-artistic director, says at the foot of a furnace straight out of Dante's Inferno.

Pig Iron and Bauridel have worked at the Crane before. The city's headiest avant-garde troupe staged the starkly forensic Isabella in the Crane's Ice Box Project Space on North American Street during the 2007 Live Arts Festival. Now, as director of the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training (APT), Bauridel will be only a few blocks away, at 1425 N. Second St.

So will such teacher/artists as Pig Iron's co-artistic directors Dan Rothenberg and Dito van Reigersberg, company members Charlotte Ford, Sarah Sanford, and Geoff Sobelle, and longtime collaborator Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey. APT is a two-year postgraduate program based primarily in the physical pedagogy of the late actor/teacher Jacques Pierre Lecoq, in which Pig Iron specializes; it is an alternative to a traditional MFA program.

"I'm passionate about helping emerging theater artists find their voice to reenergize this art form," says Bauridel. "It's important to evolve, lest things become stale."

On signing its lease in January, the APT became the flagship tenant of Crane Old School, which is not only a game changer for Pig Iron and Crane Arts, but for the surrounding Old Kensington neighborhood.

"It's a risky venture, which we've undertaken in uncertain times," says Crane Arts co-owner David Gleeson, who, with artist/partners Richard Hricko and Nicholas Kripal, purchased the former manufacturing site that became Crane Arts in 2004 and bought the Old St. Michael's School on North Second Street in January. With the Piazza at Schmidts, a handful of theaters, and Frankford Avenue's gallery scene, the neighborhood is blossoming, and the Crane complex - galleries, offices, studios, exhibition and performances spaces - has become central to that.

"Crane Arts liked the idea of bringing the educational and productive sides of performing arts into the Old School," says Gleeson. "We're creating affordable spaces for the production of art and creativity products, as opposed to, say, the consumption and sale of art. There's so much energy here, at both the grassroots and highest levels. We're on the cusp of a really great wave of creativity, of which Pig Iron's school is just one wonderful example."

The 25,000-square-foot Roman Catholic school, built in 1891, had been vacant since 2005 when the Crane group took over and brought Pig Iron into the picture.

"We'd had such a good experience with them when we did Isabella - not every landlord would be so accommodating to a naked-cadaver Shakespeare production - that we jumped at the opportunity to work with them," says John Frisbee, the company's managing director.

Gleeson is quick to mention the advocacy of the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (which owned the school), and the project's lender, the Reinvestment Fund. "With encouragement from those organizations and our desire to see more creative development in our neighborhood, we felt compelled to make this happen."

So did Pig Iron. After teaching for more than a decade, the desire to develop something deeper than a weekend workshop had grown in Bauridel. He saw his theater students from Swarthmore and Princeton leaving to pursue their interest in physical and ensemble theater at schools in Paris, London, and beyond, and wanted to develop a local program to keep emerging talent closer to home.

Not only did the Pigs seek to pass on what they had learned from Lecoq - his theories on movement, physicality, and "the neutral mask" - with their own diabolical twists, they and Bauridel wanted to teach Pig Iron's philosophy that an actor is the creator of his/her material, and how to convey that to producers and stagers.

"Actors in Pig Iron don't wait around for others to cast them in this or that part," says Bauridel. "They make their own proposals and create their own characters. They are entrepreneurs."

APT instructor Sarah Sanford elaborates: "It's not like training an actor to speak Shakespeare or a director to analyze a scene, because each student's unique theater has yet to be realized. In our classes we combine our own diverse interests as a company - the role of music in theater, what we've learned from various collaborators, the vocabulary we've developed based on what many of us learned at Lecoq - with the question: How do you teach young theater artists to be creators? How do we forge unique paths?"

Incoming student Alex Bechtel, 25, has a University of the Arts degree in musical theater and acting credits with 1812 Productions and the Walnut Street Theatre. Now, he says, "I've begun to make my own work and am at a stage where I'm looking for new ways to do so . . . to honor and follow my instincts, and eventually those will come into a style and technique of making theater that people will identify with me." That's the Pig Iron way.

Though Pig Iron received a $150,000 matching grant as part of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Knight Arts Challenge, the school is a not-for-profit venture. Bauridel notes that "we're not forming a separate entity for the school, as we see the mission of the APT and the company as united."

The company is raising $800,000 to fund the launch and help cover costs for the first four years. The first class arrives in the fall; the second won't be added until 2013. "This gives us time to really focus on this inaugural class, to learn and process as we go without crushing ourselves in our second year of operation," says Bauridel.

If anyone thinks creating a school will diminish Pig Iron's theatrical output, its board president, Scott Reynolds, notes that while developing APT, the company also (among other things) created the new productions Welcome to Yuba City and Cankerblossom, toured its much-praised Chekhov Lizardbrain, developed work with Toshiki Okada, and started rehearsals for Twelfth Night.

Bauridel was looking for a building that houses artists from other disciplines, and he got it: The studios are filled with diverse artisans, from Raices Culturales, a Latino cultural organization, to the visual artists whose studios are drenched in natural light.

"We hope this will spark collaborations and, through osmosis and chance hallway encounters, enhance the student experience," he says. "The stars aligned on this one."