Posts Tagged ‘Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training’

The West Comes To Town: Interview with creator Alex Bechtel

Posted March 13th, 2014

Alex BechtelFor the past several years, Alex Bechtel has been busy in Philadelphia wearing many theatrical hats: music director, actor, singer, composer, and co-creator and was in the inaugural class of the two-year program at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. At the end of March he is premiering The West, his first full-scale production as the lead creator and producer, and with a cast of THIRTEEN no less.

The West is ensemble-devised musical theater, described as “an absurdist western music hall drama about the gun that killed Billy The Kid, the gun that didn’t, and truth and fiction in history, human relationships, and our day-to-day lives.” After having worked for so many other companies—1812 Productions, Walnut Street Theatre, 11th Hour Theatre Company, New Paradise Laboratories, Theatre Horizon, Applied Mechanics, People’s Light, Groundswell—The West is Alex’s moment of stepping out on his own. We caught up with Alex to learn more.

Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training

FringeArts: Why is the play called The West?

Alex Bechtel: When we made the initial short-form version of the piece, I wrote a song that was sung at the end called The West. So, when I decided to expand and remount the show, that song started to feel like what the play was about. Also, the play is called The West because half of the play follows the last days of Billy the Kid. And the notion of “the West” becomes a stand-in for what a lot of the characters in the play are dealing with: the possibility of something greater lying just outside of yourself, the feeling of manifest destiny, the urge to grab your fantasies by the reins and transform them into your reality.

FringeArts: Why did you think that now was the time to create your own project?

Alex Bechtel: I’ve always been primarily interested in creating new work. Many of the jobs I’ve had—either as MD, designer, or as actor—have been in premieres that are being devised and/or created during that production. And for a long time I’ve been striving to figure out just what kind of work I wanted to make. That’s one of the things that going through the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training [APT] taught me: what kind of work I wanted to do. APT is an intense immersion into the art of collaboration and I came out of those two years with a much deeper understanding of the work I wanted to make. When we made the initial, short-form version of The West as my final project at APT, I knew that this was a piece that I wanted to take further, so I felt like there was no time like the present.

Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance TrainingFringeArts: How did The West evolve? How did you come about to its starting point?

Alex Bechtel: The piece began as my final project at APT. For the final projects, each person was given a phrase to prompt the creation of a short work of theater. My phrase was “The reason escapes me.” So, I picked a few people and we began playing around, improvising, picking that phrase apart to get at the heart of it. One of the things we did was talk about inexplicable interests. For example: “I’ve always been drawn to salsa music, but I have no idea why.” One of my inexplicable interests was Billy the Kid. I’ve been fascinated with Billy the Kid for a while; I’ve read a few biographies, I’ve seen a few movies. It’s never progressed to a full-on obsession, but it’s always been there and I’ve never really known why. The group and I talked about that, and then when we got up to do some improvs, Scott Sheppard and Nick Gillette improvised a scene in which they were auctioning off two guns—one, the gun that killed Billy the Kid, and the other, an identical gun made in the same factory, on the same day, that did not kill Billy the Kid. That is the scene that starts The West. It’s been expanded, worked on, but essentially it’s the same scene. When I saw them do it in that first improvisation, I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s the start of a play I’d want to see.” It was a very strong impulse, and I decided to honor it. We’ve thought about moving the scene, changing its place in the arc of the show, but we’ve always come around to where it is now—the beginning. It feels like one.

Poster for an early Billy the Kid film. Most people who saw the theatrical release are now dead.

Poster for an early Billy the Kid film. Most people who saw the theatrical release are now dead.

FringeArts: Is this your first major producing job of your own work? Were you a little frightened of having to juggle such a large cast?

Alex Bechtel: This is, indeed my first major producing job of my own work. And it is, indeed, major. And yeah, I will say that most of the challenges that I’ve faced over the last few months have been in wrangling such a large group of people without the budget to pay them enough to commit to a rehearsal schedule full-time. I really can’t complain—I got thirteen of the brightest, most talented emerging theater artists in Philly to create this piece with me over the course of two months, for almost no money. But because they are those kinds of people, there are other creative projects they’re also engaged in, there are restaurant jobs, there are performances, auditions—it’s been difficult getting people in the room. I understand, though—having been on the other side of that exchange. And I’m grateful that they’ve given me the time and artistry they have in this process. We’re making something great because of that.

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Scott Sheppard’s Living History

Posted April 26th, 2013

“I’m mostly trying to get out of my head and into a really, really stupid place.”

History comes alive!

History comes alive!

On May 13 and 14, FringeArts presents our second annual Jumpstart, a showcase designed to identify new and emerging talent. 2013 will feature six artists and companies performing short works, and we here at FringeArts Blog thought we’d catch up with them. So we turn now to Scott Sheppard, the artistic director of The Groundswell Players and a (soon graduating) student at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. He will be performing his new collaborative work The Living History Project. Not new to Jumpstart, he performed in the 2012 showcase with The Brothers Beffa in Lessons for the Lobotomized.

The Living History Project is an autobiographical theater work about Scott’s experiences growing up in a hermetic, rural Pennsylvania town. The piece explores the absurdity of a backwards pedagogy that re-imagines a reenactment of the Civil War as a means to revitalize student body indifference. It co-stars co-creator Jenn Kidwell, and was developed in part with colleagues at the Pig Iron school.

FringeArts: Why is your show title The Living History Project? What inspired the initial creation of this work?

Scott Sheppard: Now that I re-read it, I think the title has the burden of sounding a little didactic at first, but ultimately, I think that’s a great starting place for this piece. The title is at once tongue-and-cheek and also really earnest. That’s the tightrope we are trying to walk throughout the performance—the moment the audience begins to laugh and feel secure with a thesis, a tone, and a set of themes, is the moment before we shove them into a new place with a new set of rules. On one level, the piece is a story about a failed pedagogy that glorifies reenactment as a way of understanding historical events more intimately. On another level the piece is about two performers trying to process their relationship to history, to race, to acting, and to each other. One question I’ve been asking myself is, “aren’t we engaged in the very same project of re-living history that our piece seeks to critique?” I think so, and that puts us in the driver’s seat to say something powerful.

The Living History Project has been bubbling inside of me for a while because it relates to an experience I had as a fifth grade Middle School student. As with most autobiographical sources of inspiration, this story has evolved with the storyteller. I’ve written about this experience before, but when I thought about turning it into a performance, it made perfect sense, because the story is about performance.

FringeArts: Where did you grow up?

Scott Sheppard: I grew up in Hanover, Pennsylvania, snack food capital of the world! Utz, Snyders, Wege, Revonah and even the company that makes a lot of the shitty pretzels in various trail mixes. It was the kind of small Pennsylvania town that John Updike wrote about a lot, and like him, my romanticism and criticism for the place are densely intertwined.  I had to put in a lot of work to see my first real concert (Goo Goo Dolls at Hershey Park), I had to wade through a lot of close-minded religions, and the homogeneity of the culture was suffocating, but I became a master of making my own meaning and making my own fun. I found great joy in simple pleasures. My friends and I drove through cornfields in an old gutted van, I jumped off road bridges into lakes, we played basketball in driveways late into the nights. Alternately, I watched strip malls desecrate the landscape and sap patronage from the few restaurants, bars, and cafes that still had idiosyncrasy and character. I watched gay kids get mocked in locker rooms and heard church leaders clarify the evils of abortion on Sunday morning. Ultimately, I learned to love a community that I rarely saw eye to eye with. It’s not a place I like to be, but it is still a place I like going back to.

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“Hackles” Rising

Posted August 15th, 2012

Festival Blog contributor Richard Bon lives in Northern Liberties with his wife and daughter. He posts original flash fiction of his own or by a guest writer every other Monday on his blog, liminalfiction.com.

In the Fishtown flat of Nick Gillette, the Groundswell Players are devising their 2012 Philly Fringe production, Hackles. Nick sits in the center of his large living room, emerged in an intense dramatic situation with Martha Stuckey and Alice Yorke while Scott Sheppard and director Mason Rosenthal flank me as the audience. Mid-scene, Mason directs Nick to “tell us a story,” and Nick responds in stride with an impromptu tale chock full of fictional memories convincing enough to have happened in real life. When Mason tells Nick to “go deeper,” Nick reveals a crushing secret from his and Martha’s characters’ shared pasts, the ad hoc revelation as eloquent as if he’d memorized the lines from a script.

As they craft this fully devised play, collaborators/actors Scott, Nick, Martha, and Alice along with director Mason reexamine the traditional ghost story. Comparing Hackles to earlier Groundswell performances, Scott says their new show will be more “finely orchestrated” and less “reliant on spontaneity.” He also says they aim to “manipulate what’s behind the suspense” surrounding scrutiny of the supernatural, with Martha adding that “incongruities will be highlighted between the fact of death and people’s enjoyment of ghost stories.”

The living world, generally treated in genre fiction as more stable than the dead world, contains its share of believers in visitations by lost friends, relatives, or anonymous entities from the other side. “Ghosts are often thought to haunt people in certain ways,” Scott tells me. “We’re asking: what does that curiosity do if redirected?”

After the jump: inspiration from pop culture, children as ghost hunters, and the physical representation of death.

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Jumpstart Profiles: Meet Justin Rose Of The Brothers Beffa

Posted May 21st, 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, The Brothers Beffa! Photo by Martha Stuckley.

This spring (May 31–June 2), at the Live Arts Studio, we are launching our new performing arts program, Jumpstart, which showcases the work of six emerging artists from the region. The Brothers Beffa, a clown-based theatrical troupe, brings their performance of Lessons for the Lobotomized. Inspired by the words of Argentine fiction writer Julio Cortazar, Lessons follows the story of Phineaus Gage, who survived a large iron rod being driven completely through his head, as he is re-acclimated to society by a pedantic, abusive psychologist and his Pavlovian methods.

The piece is created and performed by Justin Rose, a former cofounder and artistic director of the Montana-based theater company The Candidatos, and Scott Sheppard, who is the artistic director of the Philly-based experimental theater company, The Groundswell Players. Both are currently students at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. We caught up with Justin to get some info on the show and his work.

Live Arts: Why is your show title Lessons for the Lobotomized?

Justin Rose: At the time this piece was first conceived, I was living in Missoula, Montana and co-running a theater company called The Candidatos.  We were tasked with creating material for two very different festivals: The Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana, where we‘d be performing on the children’s stage, and the Lincoln Center Outdoor Festival in New York, where we’d be performing between dance numbers by the Streb Dance Company. We wanted to create one piece that was capable of satisfying both venues. A friend had given me a book of short stories by Julio Cortazar, the great Argentinean writer, and I fell in love with the “Instruction Manual” section. The tone of these stories was great–weird and absurdist and rich with possibility! So my first thought was, what if someone tried to follow these absolutely absurd instructions? As we proceeded to explore the stories on their feet we tossed the idea of behaviorism in—Pavlov’s dog’s positive reinforcement for the task performed well, negative for failure. The final piece to come into play was the story of Phineaus Gage, the railroad worker who survived a steel spike exploding through his head. Gage was effectively lobotomized by the spike, thus . . . Lessons for the Lobotomized.

LA: Where did each of grow up and what was growing up there like?

JR: I grew up in Ankeny, Iowa, which I guess you could call a suburb of Des Moines now, but when I lived there, there were six miles of cornfield separating the two. Now it’s just like any other Midwest suburban sprawling city full of box stores. Growing up, though, it was quaint. I have fond memories of Iowa. Now, it’s kind of a scary place.

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