On Friday at FringeArts, Pig Iron Theatre Company opens its Philadelphia premiere of I Promised Myself to Live Faster, hyped as "an intergalactic gay extravaganza featuring closeted extraterrestrials, high-stakes pursuits, and nuns from outer space."
That may sound like the quintessential wacky FringeArts promotional blurb. And it should, as Pig Iron was a pioneering participant in the Fringe two decades ago and has been a festival mainstay since. But the play - your typical quest for the Holy Gay Flame story - is also the work of a company that turns 20 this year, and is now a master's-of-fine arts-degree granting institution by way of a new partnership with the University of the Arts.
In the fall, the four-year-old Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training and the University of the Arts' Ira Brind School of Theater Arts will launch one of the country's only accredited graduate degrees in devised performance, which is created collaboratively by performers rather than written by a playwright. That means, among other things, students can take out federal loans to learn to stage intergalactic gay extravaganzas.
The move puts Pig Iron squarely in the realm of the establishment, if it wasn't there already.
But cofounder Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel believes the institutional framework is what will allow Pig Iron to continue creating bold work.
"We've always resisted the idea that we want to be around forever as a company, like a museum," said Bauriedel, who runs the school, which will remain based chiefly on North Second Street. "The school was a way of restarting our clock. . . . I think it's given us an energy that's been tremendous."
Likewise, it marks a shift for the Brind School, which had not previously offered graduate-degree programs. It signals growing emphasis on devised work, said Joanna Settle, Brind director.
The program draws on Jacques Lecoq's Paris school of clowning and movement arts, where Bauriedel and other Pig Iron founders studied. It also weaves in other Pig obsessions, such as music, sound design, and cabaret.
A degree in devised theater is not, Settle says, as amorphous as it sounds: "It's physically rigorous, it's intellectually rigorous, and highly collaborative."
The university partnership includes the option of a four-semester certificate or five-semester master's, and adds electives, a teaching component, and a range of services.
"It sets the training in a broader context," Settle said. "And you have access within the university setting to financial aid and loans." That's vital, because tuition will jump from $12,500 a year for current Pig Iron students to nearly $40,000 for those entering in the fall.
Nonetheless, the Pig Iron program is exceeding enrollment expectations and attracting more international applicants than ever. That means an abundance of talent for Pig Iron and other companies.
For example, in I Promised Myself to Live Faster, Pig Iron School graduate Jenn Kidwell plays a supporting role as a homosexual-birthing virgin nun. She performs alongside core Pig Iron members, including Dito van Reigersberg, whose drag alter-ego, Martha Graham Cracker, was an inspiration for this piece.
"A lot of people say there's something about the wild unpredictability of a Martha show that's exciting to them, and I think we wanted that feeling here," van Reigersberg said. "There are moments of improvisation and interaction with the audience, and also a feeling of, 'I can't believe this is happening.' Martha will sit on someone's lap or lick a man's ear; she'll do something crazy that's against the rules. And there's a lot in this show, Live Faster, that's pushing against the boundaries."
The play, though devised, is not a bare-bones, DIY creation. It was written with a playwright, Gregory Moss, and indulges a maximalist aesthetic with elaborate sets and over-the-top drag costumes, nodding toward the 1970s, Star Wars, and Star Trek. It also references avant-garde theater artist Charles Ludlam, who made works that were often ridiculous but never trivial.
"It's the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner," director Dan Rothenberg said. "But what motivates the play, even though it's very funny, are sorrows in the end, and feelings of loss."
Rothenberg said that, as Pig Iron matures, delving into new themes and issues will be what sustains it. He's interested in making plays without words that can tour to places where English isn't spoken. And, he said, Pig Iron will explore more cabaret-theater hybrids; works with the band Dr. Dog and the composer Troy Herion are currently in progress.
Settle thinks interest in devised theater is growing in part due to an economic climate that's made staging a play the traditional way - licensing a script, hiring actors, building sets, making costumes - more difficult.
"Theater work is being made the way bands make work now, with everyone hanging out and figuring out a way to make art . . .. Devised performance gives you the tools to make really great work out of yourself," she said.
The hope, though, is that graduates of the program will be able to get by better than your average garage band. Bauriedel said the graduate degree, in particular, could open up opportunities such as tenure-track teaching positions.
But, he added: "There's no other school, really, like this in the country. It's not like there's a formula. The proof is in what the alumni are doing."
Among Pig Iron's first graduated class, all 15 are working in theater. Most also have day jobs, he acknowledged. But, on the other hand, "all of them have stayed in Philadelphia, and they're all part of the young, devised-theater scene. They're making this a city that has a name for this kind of work, and the MFA program will only help that."