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Taking Care: Nell Bang-Jensen on Pig Iron’s new show

Posted May 30th, 2018

“I was thinking about what happens in domestic spaces that is often hidden from plain sight but could benefit from being brought into the open”

Pig Iron Theatre Company is well established as Fringe Festival favorite, with Pay Up (2005, 2013) Welcome to Yuba City (2009), Cankerblossum (2010) and A Period of Animate Existence (2017) among its many memorable offerings. The company’s interim associate artistic director, Nell Bang-Jensen is a prominent figure in the Philadelphia theater world committed to expanding the boundaries of theater production and consumption. She uses models of community engagement and social practice to reimagine the way theater can include and represent the diverse community it serves.

Bang-Jensen has brought her interest in community involvement to Pig Iron Theatre’s new show The Caregivers, a play created by and starring caregivers from the neighborhood surrounding Pig Iron’s headquarters in Old Kensington, where it is on show this weekend (shows are FREE but “sold out” and waiting list–only). The involvement of real caregivers in every step of the process allows authentic, lived experiences to be revealed, and shines a spotlight on underpaid, often invisible members of the community. We spoke with Bang-Jensen to learn more about the inspiration for the show as well as the joys and challenges of putting caregivers, creators, and actors together in one room.

Nell Bang-Jensen

Nell Bang-Jensen

FringeArts: What inspired The Caregivers?

Nell Bang-Jensen: I’m serving as interim associate artistic director of Pig Iron through a grant from the Theatre Communications Group . One of my focal points of the last eighteen months was observing and working with theaters around the country (and abroad) that have radical approaches to community engagement. I think sometimes theaters use the term “community engagement”  as a blanket term that really just means trying to diversify their audiences. I’m more interested by models of civic and social practice, which go beyond questions of how to make specific productions more inclusive and accessible, and ask more broadly: how is a theater actually serving its community? How could it be? It requires us in the theater industry to step back and think more deeply about  what the form of theater specifically is primed to do.

I knew I wanted the culmination of this grant period to be making a piece with citizen artists who were both driving the content and also performing.  Pig Iron’s neighborhood [what’s known as Old Kensington] is largely residential and I was thinking about what happens in domestic spaces that is often hidden from plain sight but could benefit from being brought into the open. I also took stock of what organizations were around and noticed that almost all of them had to do with giving care: there is a Visiting Nurse Group, Hospice Center, and Children’s Crisis Treatment Center all within a few blocks of Pig Iron.

I’ve always been interested in the topic of caregiving in general, in part because babysitting and nannying were my go-to side jobs when I was starting out as a theater artist. I was always struck by the intimate acts that strangers perform for each other in these roles, for what is ultimately a financial transaction.  Many of the bonds I formed with families were intense and long lasting, and yet we don’t have many labels in our society to describe these tangential, non-familial relationships of care.

On the other end of the age spectrum, I was very close with my grandfather, who passed away three years ago. I was born on his 65th birthday and we made an effort to celebrate every shared birthday together until he died. I remember being in a hospice center with him as he died, feeling completely helpless, and being overwhelmed by the proficiency and competence of the hospice workers. They were able to provide for him in ways his family members, including myself, could not. These acts of care are profound, and yet people who perform them (who are, unsurprisingly, mostly women) are some of the lowest paid workers in our society.

FringeArts: Do you remember where you were when the idea for the show came to you?

Nell Bang-Jensen: That our capitalist society places so little value on the work of literally keeping people alive is fascinating (and utterly depressing) to me.  I was thinking about all of these things and was out getting coffee one day and came across a banner at the Lutheran Settlement House (half a block from Pig Iron). It was advertising their CARES program, a support group for informal, unpaid family members who are caring for vulnerable relatives. It was the final sign I needed that this topic was worth pursuing in this neighborhood.

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