Go Deeper

Jet Set with Pig Iron’s Alex Torra

Posted June 16th, 2009

In advance of tonight’s Pit Stop with Pig Iron’s Welcome to Yuba City meet-the-artist event (free at the Arts Bank, Broad and South streets, 7:00 pm, be there!), I met up with Alex Torra, Pig Iron‘s associate artistic director.

Last week we were sitting at a table at Ann Sather, a Swedish diner in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. He was explaining that after his initial involvement with Pig Iron he didn’t see a way to mature as an artist with the company. Everybody creatively involved, he told me, had gone elsewhere to train, and then returned. So he applied to MFA programs, and went to study at the Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium.

I asked Alex if he had met a childhood friend of mine who works for Trinity. He said he did, and then asked, “Who are you?”

Me? Pfft. I was there to learn more out about Alex, who’s in Chicago this month assistant directing Steppenwolf Theatre‘s production of Up (opening Thursday, June 18).

After the jump, Alex talks about working at one of the most renowned theaters in the United States (under a Tony Award winning director to boot), how Princess Grace hooked him up, the myths and truths of the American West, and clowning as conversation.

Originally from Miami, Alex came to Philly to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He first worked with Pig Iron back in Anodyne, when the group was casting performers from Philadelphia-area colleges to flesh out the space of that installation’s world. Alex’s role was to insult the Polish.

When he heard that Pig Iron was going to collaborate on Shut Eye with Joseph Chaikin, the innovative and legendary director with whom Alex desperately wanted to work, he managed to talk his way into stage managing that show, despite having no experience. Then it was on to Brown/Trinity, and eventually back to Philly. And here is where Princess Grace (well, her legacy, anyway) stepped in.

Alex approached Pig Iron and proposed that they hire him if he were to find funding for his position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they said yes. He went to the Princess Grace Foundation, which supports emerging performing artists and sought a grant for a hybrid administrative-artistic position. The foundation awarded the grant, and with their support Alex joined Pig Iron in 2007 as its associate artistic director. After the year-long grant, Pig Iron kept him on.

Welcome to Yuba City is the first time Alex has been a part of Pig Iron’s process since the inception of a work.

“[Director] Quinn [Bauriedel] awoke a fascination in the group with the West: truck stops, diners, and American mythological figures. It’s kind of a landscape of this world, Yuba City, which is placeholder for the West. We’re exploring dance numbers, a chorus of cowboys, and aliens. The core things are clowning, the West, and establishing anchors for the show.”

Clowning is vital to the show, and working with master clown teacher Giovanni Fosetti was the spark for much of Pig Iron’s mythical Yuba City and its inhabitants.

“Clowning is about taking things particular to you, your own idiosyncrasies, and turning them up or sharpening them,” Alex said.

Sitting at the table, he pointed out that he sits with his shoulders slightly rolled forward, and that he often speaks from the front of his mouth. Showing the Fusetti instructions, he rolled his shoulders exaggeratedly forward, transforming into a more hulking creature as his shoulders inflated and his elbows moved outward, and he imposed himself into my space even more as he mashed up his lips and tongue and teeth to interfere with his speech, and projecting them towards me across the table.

Alex said that this process is about reviving and interpreting some particularly American ideas of individuality.

“Quinn calls it counter to the Wal-Martization of America. It’s nice to honor these people. The character I’m making is not like anyone else, and that’s cool. We’re generating lots of people and spaces and when you put them together, both come alive. We take all the pieces that work, or move, or spark, and then move in the direction of what the material is making.”

What moved Alex in the direction of Chicago this spring was the opportunity to work with Steppenwolf, also through the Princess Grace Foundation.

“They reconnected with Anna Shapiro [a past recipient of a foundation award] and wanted to create an opportunity for a past participant to go assist her,” said Alex.

Shapiro won the directing Tony in in 2008 for the Broadway production of Steppenwolf’s August: Osage County, which also won best play, best leading actress in a play, best featured actress in a play, and best scenic design. I asked Alex if working with Shapiro and Martha Lavey — one of the Up cast members who also happens to be Steppenwolf’s artistic director of 13 years — was at all intimidating.

“They are completely unpretentious. You can see how good they actually are right away –- they make fast, bold, smart choices -– but are people, quirky and strange. They come in, hang out, have fun doing it,” he told me.

“Steppenwolf is not unlike most theaters, but it’s a little brassier, a little louder, with Chicago ballsiness,” Alex said. “Anna makes the room comfortable, personable, a place to make great work together. The great strength of her style is texture and immediacy. Real stuff goes on on stage.”

Working with Steppenwolf, Alex said, reminds him of Pig Iron, with founder involvement, a track record of innovative work, and a commitment to advancing American theater. Alex takes pains to point out that he respects the realist and naturalist traditions that infuse much of Philadelphia theater, but also that Pig Iron operates, well, a bit differently.

“We’re following the things that are awesome, and we’re making work primarily to please the performers. We’re not assuming what the audience will like. We short-circuit the typical signifiers of funny or sad, and let the audience experience the play.”

But you have to go, because a clown on stage in an empty theater is like the clichéd tree falling in the woods.

“Clowning is about being present, alive, together in conversation,” said Alex. “The clown can’t exist without an audience.”

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo courtesy of Pig Iron Theatre Company.