Taking Care: Nell Bang-Jensen on Pig Iron’s new show
“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.
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.
FringeArts: What was the process like working with home health aides, hospice workers, and informal caregivers for family members?
Nell Bang-Jensen: The beauty of devising is that the piece is made from the people in the room. There is not a script with prescribed roles to put people in; instead, the content and characters are driven by the creators. Furthermore, because many of the caregiver-performers are enacting personal stories, it felt extra important to make sure they feel ownership over what they’re doing. It’s a room with quite a bit of shared creative control and it’s been essential to be transparent about who is making what decision.
FringeArts: How did it differ from devising with professional actors?
Nell Bang-Jensen: The process differs the most from a process with professional actors purely in the ways we spend time. Because we rehearse infrequently (it’s very hard for these caregivers to leave the rest of their lives for more than one rehearsal a week), we have to be very intentional about how we’re spending it. Our time together is spent on creating content, but it can also end up being a master class in acting for the caregivers (last week we ended up talking about “cheating out” onstage), and, in turn, a master class in caregiving for the professional actors (last week we talked about strategies to get someone with dementia to eat a full meal). The majority of the citizen artists participating in the project are over 50, and the professional creative team is relatively young. It’s been really lovely to get to spend time with people who are at such different phases in their lives, and have different areas of expertise and wisdom.
FringeArts: Were there any challenges getting buy-in from the diverse performers?
Nell Bang-Jensen: The people who have ended up performing in the piece are all people who really wanted to be there. I started the process with story circles at different locations around the neighborhood. Erlina Ortiz (who helped with community engagement and writing) and I would go knock on doors to meet individuals, and also meet with the heads of some non profits in the neighborhood. People’s responses to us wanting to make a play with people in the neighborhood were all over the map–sometimes we’d get blank looks but often the head of a service organization would light up and say, “Ooo, you have to talk to x, y or z staff member! We always say they should be acting!”. I am tremendously grateful to Sarina Issenberg who runs CARES at the Lutheran Settlement House and who quickly got behind the project. She runs a caregivers support group that I was welcomed into, and she saw the potential of creating a theatrical space to continue these kinds of conversations. Several members of her support group have ended up creating and performing in the play.
After meeting with leadership at service organizations, I would invite individuals to a story circle. We’d do some cultural mapping and ice breakers and then start sharing stories about caregiving experiences. For some people, their involvement ended after that one evening: it was an opportunity to meet people in similar circumstances, talk about this complicated topic, and get to know resources available to them. For other story circle participants, they loved sharing their stories and wanted to know more about the process of creating and performing in a play. It means that this group of participants were very self-selecting.
I keep marveling at how game the performers are–they make up one of the most generous, warm, and risk-taking ensembles I’ve ever worked with. I said something like this aloud and a collaborator reminded me, “well, of course they are, they’re caregivers.” These are people who have spent years (in many cases, decades), putting the needs of others ahead of themselves. There is very little ego involved; instead they are remarkably encouraging of each other, willing to look foolish, and have a keen awareness of the group as a whole.
FringeArts: What themes did you want to bring out when you embarked on the project?
Nell Bang-Jensen: Because I’m someone who is comfortable with language, my interest in anything usually starts with research and ideas. I was inspired by the work of Atul Gawande about mortality and end of life care in this country, and inspired by the work of Arlie Hochschild about the commercialization of intimate life and its gendered repercussions. I wanted many of their ideas represented in the piece, but have also found that once rehearsal begins for a project, it benefits me to bury the research into some subconscious place in order to prioritize what’s actually happening in front of me. For a project like this, where bringing people together and giving them a platform for the stories they want to tell is the priority, the themes that I personally wanted to bring out are less relevant.
I would also say that generally in the theater I make, I try to push myself to reach for what is less idea and theme based, and comes from more of a “feelings place” (for lack of a better term). What will people experience having viewed this piece that they could not have gotten from reading an article or watching a documentary? What can the form of theater do for this topic? What are the rich moments that arose in an improvisation that feel, at times inexplicably, theatrically exciting?
FringeArts: What did your conversations with your collaborators revolve around?
Nell Bang-Jensen: At the story circles, the number-one thing that caregivers talked about was how tired they were. To quote a friend of a friend who went through cancer, “Having cancer is like running a marathon, and your caregiver is running the marathon alongside you. The difference is that they are also holding all your gear and no one is cheering for them.”
Some caregiving is expected in society (parents caring for children, taking care of a spouse when they are sick), but some caregiving relationships are completely unpredictable. One woman in the cast had hopes of an equal partnership, but has spent 19 years of her marriage caring for her spouse who has Parkinson’s disease. As she puts it, “I know we said ‘in sickness and in health’, but I had not imagined this'”. The same thing happens with relationships where children end up caring for their parents, who they had previously put on a pedestal.
Many of these caregivers had made drastic changes in their lives (moving across country, quitting jobs, and in one case, giving up on romantic relationships) in order to care for the people they love. That said, most of these caregivers are happy with that choice and can’t imagine having made a different one. The challenges arise when they try to set boundaries–how much of themselves should or can they give up in the service of another? For me, it brings up larger complicated questions about what we owe each other as humans.
The caregivers and creative team felt strongly from the beginning that this could not just be a piece about grief or hardship, but that part of what is central to the caregiving journey are moments of humor and absurdity. We talked about wanting to bring actions that are often small, domestic and quiet into an abstract and expansive space. In typical Pig Iron fashion, there is a sense of play and wonder, and an unwillingness to take ourselves too seriously.
At every story circle, caregivers told me we could not make a play that honestly depicts Caregiving without talking about bodily functions. That’s part of it too.
FringeArts: Do you foresee a life for the project beyond the June performances?
Nell Bang-Jensen: I honestly don’t know. I think the caregivers are eager for there to be a life beyond the June performances–it’s been months of collaboration that will be over in a weekend. That said, their daily lives are so demanding, that getting this particular group of collaborators in the same room together again would present some challenges and require resources. For example, as it is now, we have a care provider come to our rehearsals to take care of one of the participant’s husbands. She needs to hire someone to be a caregiver for him so that she can take a break from caregiving and be an actor!
Regardless of if this piece happens again, I’d love to extend this model of devising with citizen artists to other topics and other communities. The aim of this project was very process-based: I wanted caregivers to have a way of finding resources, meeting each other, and sharing their stories with a wider base of people, and we have accomplished that, even before the performances begin.
FringeArts: What else are you looking forward to in Philadelphia performing arts this summer?
Nell Bang-Jensen: I’m really looking forward to Applied Mechanics’ On the Record and Eva Steinmetz’s The Trial, both going up in June. I also always love checking out what’s at the PlayPenn Conference each year and getting to know the work of playwrights who are new to me.
—Alyssa Kerper & Christopher Munden
What: The Caregivers
When: June 1st and 3rd
Where: Pig Iron Studios, 1417 N 2nd Street