PigPen Theatre Company in The Nightmare Story
Photograph: Courtesy Bart CortrightThe Nightmare Story

Profile: PigPen Theatre Company

Pittsburgh's PigPen graduates to Brooklyn in The Nightmare Story.

Adam Feldman

Playground rejection has long been a motivating factor for artists, and PigPen Theatre Company is no exception. In the fall of 2007, seven freshmen at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon School of Drama found themselves sidelined at the conservatory's annual Playground week, in which students devise their own plays. "It's a crazy festival where everyone gets excited to see their friends create this unique and original work," recalls troupe member Arya Shahi. "But we were new to the school. Nobody asked us to do anything."

So the seven invented a show for themselves: a 15-minute low-tech playlet about a hunter in search of the bear that killed his son years earlier. "They gave us the keys to this multimillion-dollar theater with all the latest gadgetry, and we made a show out of puppets and cardboard," recalls Shahi with a laugh. But something clicked, and the group began creating more pieces together, in the same basic mode but longer and more ambitious. By their junior year, they were officially a company, and taking their work on tour—including the New York International Fringe Festival.

PigPen's 2010 Fringe show was a spooky quasi-Slavic folktale called The Nightmare Story; it won an Overall Excellence award, the festival's highest honor. Last summer, the troupe returned to the Fringe with The Mountain Song, an Appalachian fable that featured a talking mountain, a giant, vultures and a cobbler in an epic search for his lost, mute daughter; it won an Overall Excellence award as well, making PigPen the first group in the Fringe's 15-year history to win that prize two years in a row. Having moved to New York after graduation in May, the company is now readying for its first major New York run: a revival of Nightmare Story at Brooklyn's Irondale Center.

It's a storybook rise, in its way, and happier so far than most of the tales that PigPen favors. Appropriately timed for the run-up to Halloween, The Nightmare Story will give locals an opportunity to check out the signature style that has made the troupe a darling of the Fringe: a neomythic mixture of campfire-ready narration, youthful directness, appealing songs and eclectic puppetry. "We use a lot of cardboard and flashlights and things that we find," notes PigPen's Alex Falberg. "Not only because it's cheap—though it's really cheap, and that's helpful—but because there's a simple kind of storytelling we can create as a result of that. Hopefully, everything has the feeling of simple, graceful cardboard." (The cast performs barefoot.)

The resulting shows are theatrical valentines of homemade dark chocolate, and The Nightmare Story is darker than most. The troupe set out to write a scary tale, and after a false start down a vampire road, settled on a tone that drew inspiration from Russian and Ukrainian folklore. In it, a young woman is plagued by awful dreams that she can only expiate by sharing them with the foundling boy she raises as her son; when she can no longer tell them aloud, she falls into a coma, and the boy sets out on a quest for a cure. "What he begins to realize is that it isn't isolated to his mother," explains Falberg. "Her nightmares are manifested through the entire world, and he has to travel through them to save her."

Like all PigPen projects, the show was devised collectively, with no individual credits assigned for writing or directing. "It's completely collaborative," says company member Ben Ferguson. "We start with the story—what we want to tell, how we want to tell it and in what style." Once that has been hashed out, troupe members start working on different parts of the project, according to their strengths: Dan Weschler generally writes first drafts of the scripts, Ferguson and Shahi tend to compose the music. (Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia and Matt Nuernberger round out the company.) Working by consensus is not always easy. "It gets arduous," admits Falberg. "There are weeks when we are still not happy, or one person is still not happy, with the way the story ends, and we won't move on until we are all on the same page."

The company itself seems to be moving at a rapid clip, however. PigPen has its sights on expanding into the worlds of animation and music—the score of The Nightmare Story will be recorded as an album—and hopes to line up a stage production in Manhattan next year, perhaps pairing two shows on a single bill. For now, though, the kids are all right with Brooklyn. "It's a young, cool place to be," says Shahi. "And we're young and kind of cool."

The Nightmare Story plays at the Irondale Center through Oct 28.

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