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How A Young New Stage Group Creates Innovative Theater By Doing It Themselves

By Sarah Lucie

Clockwise from Top Left: Dan Weschlerr
Ben Ferguson, Arya Shahi, Alex Falbeg, Ryan Melia,
Curtis Gillen, and Matt Nuernberger.

New York’s theater scene has been gifted a breath of fresh air with the young theater ensemble PigPen Theatre Company. These talented men, who all met as undergrads at Carnegie Mellon, write, direct and act in their charmingly inventive Off-Broadway production, “The Old Man and the Old Moon.” They also write their own original music with a folk flair, and play multiple instruments while singing in harmony. The show has received rave reviews from “The New York Times,” “New York Magazine,” and “Show Business” (check out our review here), while they have been regularly featured as a band at Joe’s Pub at the Public. These boys are multi-talented, to say the least, and thanks to all the attention they’ve received, their stars are on the rise. Impressive, considering they are newcomers to New York City—they only graduated in 2011. 

Curtis Gillen, Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler and Arya Shahi are an ensemble in the true sense of the word. Each member participates in every step of the creative process, and each of their theatrical specialties is given room to shine. While Ryan, Ben and Dan are all prolific songwriters; Dan has the added responsibility and aptitude for coalescing the group’s ideas, writing them down on paper and crafting a finished script. But as their production showcased, each member’s talent and sense of humor is integral to the final product. I set out to discover what it was that brought this group together, and how they managed to become such a cohesive unit.

I arrived early at the Gym at Judson Church, the site of “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” to witness the writing process first-hand. All seven members of the group were huddled amidst their ethereal wooden set, each with instrument in hand and an intense focus on their face. They worked through a harmony, meticulously adding each voice to the chord until it was just right. Each and every note, at each and every moment, is taken seriously. I could have listened for hours, but they switched gears into interview mode right on time.

I already knew that I liked their work. After reviewing their show and attending a concert, I proudly call myself a fan, but I respect them even more after talking to them behind the scenes. The group is talented and creative, but they are also hard-workers with exciting ideas about their new style of theater. Lucky for all the “Show Business” readers, they also have some great advice for their fellow young creative-types.

“Make your own work,” Curtis suggests. “Just do it yourself, whatever it is you want to do.” The boys have lived by this idea from the start. Carnegie Mellon closes classes for one week every year to present “Playground: A Festival of Independent Student Work.” “Nobody asked us to do anything, so we thought, let’s do something ourselves!” says Matt with a laugh. It’s easy for them to laugh now, since it was that moment of rejection that inspired their unique path to success. “The people I admire most today paved the way for themselves,” Alex reflects. “They made their own way.”

PigPen began their career with two shows at the New York Fringe Theater Festival, both winning that year’s award for best play. Now, “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” lauded for its creativity, just completed an extended Off-Broadway run. The show is an original, modern folktale that uses shadow puppets, music, and the actors’ dexterity to bring the story to life. It is storytelling at its most basic, and at its best. Each member of the group plays multiple roles and instruments with a boundless energy and enthusiasm while the extraordinary world of the play takes shape before the audience’s eyes.

An ensemble like theirs, one built through completely ego-less collaboration, is an anomaly, especially in a business filled with competitive conservatory graduates. “For most applying to a conservatory,” Dan offers, “there’s often an idea of what you’re in for, and the expectations are focused on you as a single actor.” In most conservatories, actors are trained to be competitive auditioners, and if they want to be a part of an ensemble, they are encouraged to audition into already established institutions rather than create their own. Arya goes on to explain, “When other actors think about ensemble work, they usually think about it on a per-show basis, or think of auditioning for a great ensemble like Steppenwolf, but only now that we’re really transitioning to professional theater do we understand how rare it is to have been working with the same six people for five years.” It is this shared history that allows for a supportive environment, resulting in fearless, innovative work.

PigPen was able to form a cohesive group because they met within the safe, encouraging environment of Carnegie Mellon’s acting conservatory. “It was because we were taking the same classes that we learned the same tools, the same vocabulary, and that we could work together in harmony,” Curtis reflects. Coming together with the same foundation, the boys then built shows to their strengths and experimented with new skills with the reassurance of the group. After talking with the company for only a few moments, their impressive group dynamic becomes clear. They finish each other’s sentences, and when they laugh at each other, it feels like they are laughing at themselves. It’s this ease and openness that allows creativity to flourish. But it’s a commitment, as Dan articulates: “What I’ve learned in the past six years is that it’s a lifestyle, to be able to rely on other people and bring people into your life so you can create art together.”

While the ensemble seems to know how to enjoy themselves, they also know the meaning of hard work. “By the time we were all juniors, we basically spent all of our free time when we were supposed to be out, you know, living the college life, holed up in each others apartments playing folk songs and messing around with fairy tales,” Dan remembers. In fact, their first experiment with a shadow screen came about one of those nights spent in Ben, Ryan and Arya’s apartment. That night evolved into an entire aesthetic. 

With this group, one idea can develop into a new project instantaneously. “As soon as we learn to do something,” Dan explains, “we’re already bored with it and think it’s not as good as it could be.” Perhaps it’s this drive that led each member of the group to learn multiple instruments while in college — all for the improvement of their productions.

“The music really did start as a tool. We played simple, improvised music while working on a scene to underscore its emotions,” Dan explains. “We learned how quickly it can affect an audience,” Alex adds. “Now we’ve developed our musicality to the point where we can create more interesting and diverse flavors,” Dan continued. Their musical style has now grown into a lush, complex sound with 7-part harmonies, complete with varied tastes from different time periods and new instruments added every day. “Look out for a new album of dulcimer tunes,” Arya jokes.

The group’s fearlessness is what allows the group to grow artistically, and to grow fast. “People would ask us to create music for different events, so we would force ourselves to improve our latest project on a deadline,” Matt explains. Their constant stream of performances didn’t allow for any hesitation—new skills had to be performance-ready, so the group worked tirelessly to make it so. Arya adds, “We jump right in when we aren’t quite ready. Those challenges just continue to grow. We’re comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Discomfort seems to work for them considering their successes so far. PigPen approaches their work thoughtfully and brings new ideas to the theater scene, proving that they’re more than a trend. They are doing something unique, after all—they’re creating genuinely original musicals amidst a crowd of revivals and movies-turned-Broadway-shows. But there’s something more in the appeal of their homegrown aesthetic. “The audience has to do a bit of work in this show with their imaginations,” Dan notes. “We’ve found that people have this deep satisfaction when we show them an outline of a monster or a strange foreign landscape and they put it together themselves. There’s something special about having a creative experience while you’re watching someone else be creative.” Matt adds, “The storytelling comes about as people watch the image being made. It’s magical.”