Interview with PigPen Theatre Company members Ryan Melia, Arya Shahi, and Matt Nurenberger
This week on HowlRound, we're hearing from several ensemble theatres, about both their artistic work and their organizational structures. The participating ensembles represent a wide range of experiences with wildly differing structures, longevities, and focal points for their work. Join in the conversation with us: what does ensemble mean to you?
Corey Ruzicano is a senior at Emerson College in their BFA acting program program. She is participating in the Creative Producer program inside the Office of the Arts at Emerson College. She recently got to talk with PigPen Theatre Co. members Ryan Melia, Arya Shahi, and Matt Nurenberger about how a group of guys who got together in college made a band, a theatre company, and remained friends.
Corey: So, as college students, my peers and I are incredibly interested in the story of your origin, and how you manage to function as a collaborative body that sustains both an artistic integrity, as well as a healthy friendship.
Ryan Melia: Wow, really starting with the hard-hitting questions.
Arya Shahi: We were all acting students at Carnegie Mellon, and we honestly just came together for a single theatre piece our freshman year for a festival called Playground, where students were encouraged to create their own work. As freshmen we were learning a lot of things in movement class, in voice class, and we all kind of wanted to combine it in a very exploratory theatre piece. We didn’t really know what that was going to be. We got together and wrote a folk tale—actually it was kind of like a ghost story. And there was a moment in that story where we wanted these ghosts to come out of the graveyard and we didn’t know quite how to do it without looking like fools. Then someone suggested shadow puppetry. It might have been Matt, it might have been Ryan, someone had done a little bit of shadow puppetry in high school and thought, “oh this might a cool moment to do something like that.” So we did it, kind of laying into the comedy side of things, and people seemed to really enjoy it. The same thing happened with our music. At the time only a few of us really played instruments at all, let alone proficiently but we put in one little—I think it was a cover song—what was it?
Ryan: There were two songs. There was one original and there was one cover, “Keep On the Sunny Side.” And it was only those two musical moments in the whole show, but for some reason we found our aesthetic in that.
Arya: It was really cool for us to be able to tell a story that didn’t take place in a contemporary, real place because that’s what we were studying in acting school, especially in the first semester freshman year. We were studying a lot of Stanislavsky and realism. So for us it was kind of about a little vacation from that and we ended up really liking that vacation, so we stayed. We bought a timeshare.
Matt Nurenberger: We permanently live in our timeshare in Florida now.
We still want to keep close to the original feeling that people had when they watched us, so the balance has been trying not to change while becoming more mature and more knowledgeable about writing.
Corey: Since you guys met freshman year, have there been any major changes or influences in your journey, along the way?
Ryan: We’ve changed in basically the simplest way in terms of scope, how big we want our shows to get, and in terms of length and depth and layers of character and story. Our style is so simple, and we want to keep that simplicity in terms of aesthetic and how we put on the shows, but the stories just started becoming a little more layered. We still want to keep close to the original feeling that people had when they watched us, so the balance has been trying not to change while becoming more mature and more knowledgeable about writing. The writing process has changed.
Matt: We ask harder questions.
Matt: When we collaborated in college, we kind of threw everything into a pot—the visual stuff, the jokes, the plot—and it would kind of somehow become a play. Then when we got out of college and started to do more shows in New York, we started to look at them more as a Play with a capital P. We really try to develop the narrative to be as strong as we can. But I don’t think much about our process has changed except I think we’re harder on ourselves.
Ryan: And also just within the group, we’ve all grown. The relationship between all of us is unexpectedly unique. I don’t think any of us thought that this would be going on seven years later, but each time we got a new opportunity, we couldn’t justify stopping, we couldn’t justify not taking that opportunity with a group of guys you’ve worked with for so long. That’s really one of the biggest differences now influencing us. When we were in college, we were doing it simply because we were trying to learn how to tell stories together, and now it’s about seeing how many different ways we can explore this community that we’re building, that’s become bigger than the seven of us. We have designers now that we’ve worked with for five years, we have directors that we’ve worked with for two years. We have amazing producers that have helped out for years and years and years. And I think that what we’ve learned is that when people are all on the same wavelength, you can really achieve some unimaginably cool things—so why stop trying?
Corey: As a senior in an undergraduate theatre program not so different from yours, everyone around me is on the threshold of this big question—What’s Next? What’s been most important to you as individuals and as a group in your journey until now? Any advice for college students in a program similar to yours?
Arya: There are so many ways of answering that question.
Matt: Knowing what kind of work you want to do and what you’re interested in is one of the most important things when you’re out of school, because you just get so much thrown at you. Or you don’t get so much thrown at you and you just get kind of paralyzed because you don’t know where to start. I think knowing what kind of work you want to do now and maybe five years from now can be super helpful in carving a path for yourself. We’ve been lucky enough to carve our own path and do it with the kind of work that we want to do. And looking back I can’t imagine jumping out of school another way, without that “this is what we’re going to try.”
Ryan: While we were in school we had people coming in and talking to the class and one of the big things they said that we really took to heart was “make your own work.” And we know now how difficult that is. We know that it’s not as easy as saying, “if you want to do a play, write a play, and it’ll happen.” But it is really important that if you have a goal like that, you let it happen however it’s going to happen. You can’t force it to happen. If you’re flexible and you listen to the people and the world around you, then things will happen when you try. No path is the same. You can’t look at us and say, “How did they do it? We should try to do it like they did it.” It’s specific and different for everyone.
Arya: A lot of people ask us “how?” when they see our shows. How did you do it, how did you do all of that? How did you write the music? How did it all come together? Because everyone does say go out and create your own work, which is what we’re doing. And we’re so proud to be inspirational to certain artists because of it. But the number one thing, as a writer, as someone who has to create something out of nothing, is to not be afraid to be really, really bad for a while. I didn’t want to show anyone anything because I wanted it to be perfect, and that’s just not going to happen. We look back at some of the plays we did for hundreds of people two, three years ago and think, “oh my god how did we do that in front of people?” Really, you’re never going to be happy with something, especially if your tastes are very specific—you just have to keep trying.
The other thing is, seniors in undergrad, you really can’t ignore the realities of the real world in terms of sustaining yourself. And that’s going to mean something different to every single one of you—you, your friends—you’re all going to have different resources as soon you get out of school, and I think almost no one is open about those things, everyone just assumes we’re all in the same boat. It’s true to a certain extent, but something that’s really helped the seven of us is being open with the people you trust about what you need to be fulfilled artistically and logistically.
Corey: We’re been talking a lot about ensemble, and I’m interested in what it means to you—to be an ensemble.
Ryan: We really did start as friends. There are a lot of ensembles where people get together every once and awhile, like colleague relationships, but we go pretty deep. We’ve all lived together for basically the entire time, we’ve seen each other at our lowest and our highest. Our relationships with each other are pretty specific. But I would say learn people’s strengths and lean into them. Leaning on each other for things that you know that you’re not the best at. You have a unit around you, a team around you, and you know the strengths and weaknesses of everyone. You learn from other people’s strengths, you lean into them, and you can’t help but grow. We’ve seen people developing strengths that they never had when we first set off just because they were around people that had those strengths. Learning from each other is a big thing that we have come to embrace—it’s helped us immensely.
How can we take what works in the model that’s prevalent in the United States and try to fit that into this idea of ensemble? For us, it’s always, always about how do we commercialize—not commercialize, but make our ideas of working and living and making music and theatre together sustainable.
Arya: The seven of us really, really truly are not the same people that we were before. People have stepped up in ways that you couldn’t anticipate because—and this isn’t to sound dire or hyperbolic—we didn’t give ourselves another option. And we kind of did that on purpose. We kind of did that saying “we’re not gonna miss this opportunity, let’s just jump into it.” And that’s the point that we realized, if PigPen is going to be the thing that we really want it to be—we were very open with each other about what we wanted PigPen to be in ten years if everything went well—we couldn’t distract ourselves with other things. For us, ensemble means a group of people that knows what each individual member is capable of in every time or position, on stage or in life. Back in the day, artists traveled with each other, and lived together, and worked together, and it’s really, really hard to do that the way this industry is set up now. How can we take what works in the model that’s prevalent in the United States and try to fit that into this idea of ensemble? For us, it’s always, always about how do we commercialize—not commercialize, but make our ideas of working and living and making music and theatre together sustainable.
Ryan: But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Why can’t commercial be good? It’s all your interests, and it’s about finding your right audience. And we’ve been really lucky.
Matt: This isn’t a big group—it’s easy to let all the little things get to you. The money situation, who’s paying for what. “You’ve been sitting in the front the whole tour.” Stuff like that. It’s the little things that will drive you crazy.
Ryan: They add up.
Matt: Yeah, they add up, but we’ve been okay.
Ryan: When you think it’s all gonna explode, you just have to say, “Hey guys, we’re about to explode, we should probably not explode.”
Matt: It’s important to remember that reality, to remember that we’re all friends.
Arya: This is the last interview we’re ever giving as a group, by the way.
Matt: Yeah, there’s a reason the other guys aren’t here.