At the El Bar in North Philadelphia after their first public performance, the students of the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training were ravenous for critique and reaction. They sieved through each of the twelve sketches performed to find the intricate merits and deficits, polling me as an audience member for my perspective. They were also giddy to suppose and decipher the opinions of their teachers. Often the bar banter would blossom into dramatization just as a burp will recall the pleasure of a recent meal. All of this verbal release was in vivid contrast to their wordless performance, which was a reverential demonstration of physical theater.
Physical theater is the bedrock for acting at the Pig Iron School. The newly founded school is the educational hand of Philadelphia’s beloved Pig Iron Theater Company. Since 1995, Pig Iron has become recognized internationally as a torchbearer of modern dramatic art. Their highly innovative works are known for cerebral scripts, imaginative sets and, of course, taut acting. But behind such groundbreaking theater is a classical respect for fundamental skills of bodily awareness and keen imagination. Now the company is disseminating their skills, philosophy and energy in an official school setting.
The evening’s performance was a sampling of ensemble sketches that illustrated the student’s coursework to date. The first piece, entitled Trip to the Moon depicted three foolhardy astronauts, suiting up and piloting to the moon where they delight in the novelty of weightless wonderment until the lunar inhabitants devour them. The narrative of this and subsequent sketches were familiar and modest. But the simplicity of these setups allowed the students to focus their imagination on the specificity of their actions and expressions. In other words, they turned common dishes exotic with fresh and surprising ingredients.
In another sketch a mundane family dinner was the blank canvas on which to blur the lines between animal and human behavior. As research, the students were taken to the Philadelphia Zoo to observe the animals. The lack of inhibition or self-consciousness possessed by animals are enviable traits that the performers sought to absorb. Translating these observations to the stage, the characters shifted from being humans with animal qualities to animals with human qualities. The simian and birdlike portrayals were uncanny.
School Director, Quinn Baureidel prefaced each piece with an explanation of its relevance to the class. He described how mask work was a critical method for refining an actor’s physicality. The actors began working with larval masks. Larval masks depict a character of cartoonish naïveté. They are extremely simple in their design, without detail, texture, color or even definitive facial features. They seem to describe one or two emotional adjectives in an exaggerated way.
The larval mask was conceived in the late 20th century by Jacques Lecoq as a teaching device for students of theater. Lecoq encouraged actors to find their personal expression through training that emphasized the pure physicality of acting. With the larval mask these movements and intentions are boiled down to their essence. Through the careful articulations of the actors, these masks come to life and seem to evolve emotionally. The sketch in which the Pig Iron actors demonstrated the larval masks was a courtship between an anxious suitor and his nervous sweetheart. Every aspect of their bodies teased out the struggle between desire and fear during the flush of flirtation. Indeed, the masks seemed to wince, blush and yearn. It was the subtle flourishes that drew the most laughs and sighs from the audience. In further sketches, the larval masks gave way to more descriptive masks made by the students themselves.
The director noted later that the goal of Pig Iron education is to hone and balance precision with abandon. That charming precept was consistent throughout the show with a sense of play intertwined with conscientious execution. The players kept that balance individually and as a unified team. Chase scenes gave the audience a very real sense of the invisible environments through which the actors careened. Dances created whimsy whilst remaining matter of fact. Fantastical worlds were illustrated through the conviction of the actors exploring them.
The impression of the larval mask stayed with me. The raw potential of such a prop echoed the state in which one is trying out newly earned talent. It was a treat to see the Pig Iron students exercise their fresh talent in such a measured formal manner. These actors were in the slipstream of creativity, building off each other and pushing one another’s abilities beyond limits. I’m eager to see what will be built atop this sturdy foundation.
Alex Cohen is a Bucks County painter. To view more essays and paintings visitwww.themagpie.org