You know a Pig Iron show when you see one. The Philadelphia theater company that generates performances through ensemble-driven devising has become an international standard-bearer of the style. In 2015, their certificate training program turned into a full-fledged MFA track at the University of the Arts. Company co-founder Quinn Bauriedel and other ensemble members run the Pig Iron School in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood. There, MFA students learn the craft of devising through constant making. Student showcases demonstrate the Pig Iron approach: physical, experimental, humorous, whimsical, bizarre, and extraordinary.
Johanna Kasimow graduated in one of the early MFA cohorts. Now, Kasimow is an assistant professor of directing at the University of Iowa. Here, she talks about how the Pig Iron School prepared her for the field.
How would you describe yourself as a performer?
It depends on the type of work. I gained agility at Pig Iron. We moved in so many different dramatic territories, forms, styles, and pedagogies. There was a totality in style. So to describe myself as a performer, I’m drawing from all of that training.
How did Pig Iron get on your radar?
I was living in New York and I heard about this workshop that they do called “Something From Nothing.” I went to Philadelphia for those two weeks and it blew my mind. I had a real affinity for the ways they were thinking about making theater.
What was your impression of how Pig Iron understood theater?
A sense of risk-taking and play. There was this emphasis on observation, a quality of listening, seeing, and responding. In an environment that was super ensemble-driven, there was space for the individual.
Courtesy Johanna Kasimow
Was there a particular exercise?
Totally. Encountering mask work. There was just this freedom that allowed me to get out of my own way. To have a mask and to root the character in the architecture of that mask opened a mental and physical pathway to performing.
What distinguishes this program from other MFAs?
You’re in the city! There’s such a robust Philadelphia theater scene with so many people making this new, devised, experimental work.
What kind of artist would benefit from the Pig Iron School?
Artists that are interested in making their own performance work. If you’re a performer, writer, director, designer, or have an affinity towards any or all of those, I think there’s a lot you can learn. When I was there, everyone was on their feet. Moving all day, every day. It was very rigorous performance training. But, it’s incredible training for directors, writers, and designers, too, because you’re thinking about questions of rhythm and what’s interesting. I also think for actors who are interested in doing more script-based work, there’s a lot that you receive in the training about the presence of the actor, making choices, and defending your work onstage.
How does your training at Pig Iron show up in your work as a professor?
There’s this core principle from Jacques Lecoq called “le jeu” and it can be roughly translated into “play.” At Pig Iron, there’s this refrain of “find the play,” which is aliveness, alertness, openness, and [a] sense of pleasure as a performer. All of these things are a foundation for a classroom where there is a real sense of curiosity and investment.
Do you have any advice for actors who are considering getting their MFA?
See as much work as possible. There are so many different, super-exciting forms of work happening. Clock what’s exciting to you and then try to find a school that can nurture that investigation.