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PigPen Theatre Company takes collaboration to a whole new level

‘The Old Man and The Old Moon,’ PigPen Theatre Co. at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. $35-$70.(847) 242-6000,

Updated: September 6, 2013 9:42AM

In 2008, 14 students in the highly selective acting program of Carnegie Mellon University’s drama school gathered for a class in “Collaboration” taught by Stuart Carden.

The class was designed to provide a creative contrast to the strict conservatory-style training of the school’s program. As Carden explained: “It gave these students an opportunity to mine their internal life in a way that went beyond realism. It was all about storytelling, dealing with challenging texts and finding a way to work as an ensemble.”

Seven of the students in that class — all male, as it happened — forged an artistic bond, and began drawing on their various interests and talents in music, puppetry and film to create original work. That bond has only grown more intense in the ensuing years, as all seven moved to New York, established the PigPen Theatre Company, and are now engaged in a multiplicity of projects including theatrical performance, a live music tour, a children’s book, short filmmaking and more.

As it happens, Carden, in his fifth season as associate artistic director at Glencoe-based Writers’ Theatre, is now introducing PigPen Theatre to Chicago audiences by way of the Midwest premiere of “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” their multimedia “play with music” that is a reworked version of their highly acclaimed 2012 debut in New York.

Devised to suggest “an epic new mythology,” the piece, which had its genesis as a school project, spins the story of a man whose job is to collect spilled light needed to refill the leaking moon, and in its quirky, poetic way it suggests the reason for the moon’s waxing and waning. When the man’s wife unexpectedly leaves home in pursuit of much-needed adventure, he abandons his post to follow her, throwing the world into chaos as he searches for his lost love, his fading memory and, ultimately, himself.

“When these guys met, a few of them played music, but most are now multi-instrumentalists because they realized that was to be an essential part of their storytelling aesthetic,” said Carden. “Their use of puppetry and animation began at school when they used a flashlight and screen to create basic shadow puppetry and they just fell in love with the way that technique could shift from intimate to epic scale. Their puppetry can be elegant and refined, but it’s also full of rough play, embracing the very mechanisms that are making it happen.”

“These performers are all essentially self-taught, and they bring a kind of old-fashioned, steam-punk, trunk show spirit to their work, though there is a big Pixar influence, too,” said Carden. “They also are the most democratic ensemble I’ve ever worked with, which can be both amazing and challenging. One of them might take the lead at one moment or other, but none of them has the separate title of ‘writer’ or ‘musician.’ On top of all that, they are earnest, gifted, ambitious guys who are committed for the long haul and have savvy producers behind them.”

True to their “all for one and one for all” spirit, the spokesman for PigPen can be any member of the ensemble — Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi or Dan Weschler.

“We all came from different parts of the country and with different artistic influences,” said Falberg, who was born in Ukraine and grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. “I draw a lot of ideas from old movies, and from folk music — I’m a big fan of Anais Mitchell, Laura Marling, Fleet Foxes, Johnny Flynn. And I grew up listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But we all have different musical tastes and borrow from different mediums. And together we play guitar, accordion, fiddle, electric bass, dulcimer, banjo, piano, drums and some interesting percussion.” [“The Old Man and The Old Moon” features music from PigPen’s debut album, “Bremen.”]

And what if there is an artistic disagreement?

“The story is the tyrant, so we deliberate and try to convince each other until the choice feels right,” said Falberg. “We also use Google Docs, so that all members can actively write and edit the script at the same time.”

PigPen is already at work on its next project — the story of a hunter who lives in the woods and is chasing the bear he believes killed his son.

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