PigPen Theater Co's 'pop-up' performances pack a punch

by Jess Waters / Beacon Correspondent • November 20, 2014

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Courtesy of Liz Lauren
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Courtesy of Liz Lauren

On Tuesday afternoon, there was a gaggle of seven young men tuning instruments and perfecting harmonies in the lobby of Little Building. Their dress wasn’t distinctive, at least not at Emerson; there was a mix of peacoats, flannel, boat shoes, and ratty sweaters. More than half of them were wearing beanies. At a glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Those were no artsy Emerson students, though—it was PigPen Theater Co., a critically acclaimed theater company and indie-folk band.

ArtsEmerson has brought PigPen to campus to do community outreach events in tandem with performances of its original play, The Old Man and The Old Moon, from Nov. 18-23. The family-friendly play tells the story of the man who is responsible for filling up the moon with light every night, but must abandon those duties to search for his missing wife.

The troupe kicked off its week at Emerson with a series of unscripted, unannounced, and intimate “pop-up” concerts, performing songs from the show and from the two albums it has released since 2012.

Dan Weschler, an accordion player and performer in the PigPen troupe, described its music as “folk Americana, folk rock, and some atmospheric sound.”

“[Our sound] is changing a lot, because we write our songs to fit our plays,” said Weschler. “We’ve got four or five different plays with really different stories and settings, so we’re always experimenting with the music.”

The Little Building pop-up concert started with a small audience that quickly grew to several dozen people watching the five-song set as news spread by word of mouth and social media.

“My sister told me to come see them, because she thought they were amazing,” said Cal Laird, a sophomore visual and media arts major. “And they really are amazing.”

PigPen’s events on campus were coordinated by three of ArtsEmerson’s student creative producers. Senior Corey Ruzicano, one of the creative producers, said that even before she met the company in person, she was “trying not to become a total fangirl.”

“The great thing about PigPen is how excited they were working with us,” said Ruzicano, a senior performing arts major. “Emerson is like their ideal audience, and they were where we are not too long ago.”

PigPen formed in 2007 during the members’ freshmen year at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. Meg Taintor, the student engagement coordinator for Emerson’s office of the arts, said The Old Man and The Old Moon was originally written for the troupe’s friends while they were all studying in a program similar to Emerson’s own in the performing arts.

Weschler said that connecting with students is PigPen’s main goal while on Emerson’s campus.

“What we hope for everyone we perform for in general is that we can leave you guys with the urge to create something,” said Weschler. “But that’s particularly important on a campus like this.”

PigPen will also hold a lunchtime meet-and-greet for Emerson students on Thursday, Nov. 21, at noon in the Paramount Center, and participating in a public Boston Theatre Block Party with other local artists at 5:30 p.m. in the Bill Bordy Theater.

Taintor said she thinks The Old Man and The Old Moon will strike a special chord with Emerson students.

“Somehow this group of really young guys has managed to craft a powerful story about age, memory, and the power of loss in a way that feels like a folk tale written a hundred years ago,” said Taintor. “And they’ve written it cinematically for people of their own generation.”

Ruzicano said she hopes that PigPen’s energy can inspire the whole Emerson community.

“If you only go to one night, to one thing that ArtsEmerson ever does, go to this,” she said. “I think it’s going to be huge for Emerson students to see people with similar training succeeding in this form of storytelling we all love so much.”

Taintor said she has been connecting international performers with Boston students for two years, and believes there’s something fundamentally different about how PigPen interacts with students. Though many performers may come to Emerson with the intention to inspire, Taintor said PigPen is able to make success feel realistic.

“This is such a good model for Emerson students to see what’s possible for them,” said Taintor. “It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s seven guys who are three years older than you, they started exactly where you are now, and now they tour the country with their band which is also a theater company.’”