Hell Meets Henry Halfway’s Pig Iron Theatre Company is not from Hell, but they are from Philadelphia…more specifically, they emerged from Swarthmore College, where they studied under Allen J. Kuharski, now the company’s dramaturg. Pig Iron’s been heavily influenced by the work of master clown Jacques Lecoq and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but their approach is also relentlessly verbal and theatrical.
How does it work? DCTS Editor Lorraine Treanor asked Dito van Reigersberg, a Pig Iron co-founder, who plays the titular Henry in the show currently running at Woolly Mammoth. Here’s what he had to say:
Lorraine: Tell us about Pig Iron
Dito: I was one of the co-founders of the company in 1995 … we were originally students together at Swarthmore College, in the unusually-ensemble-focused theatre program there. We’d get together after graduation at Swarthmore, where we’d make original pieces in summer residencies. We’d then fundraise our way over to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. Summers turned into full year-round producing, and we all moved to Philly (our home base) in 1997 and we never looked back.
Most theatre companies’ model is a playwright-driven one; our reliance is on the ensemble and the performers as creators of character and text, with the playwright always in the room with us. We also rely much more on the body–warmup and ensemble-building exercises are fundamental to what we do. also, since we keep working on shows that stay in rep, we have several chances over a long period of time to refine work. Our process of marinating and deepening our ideas is longer than a traditional rehearsal period–the time span between the first workshops of an idea and a finished piece is often two years.
Lorraine: For Hell Meets Henry Halfway, where did you start – from Adriano Shaplin’s finished script, from the novel , or did your rehearsal work add to the text and story?
Dito: Adriano arrived with no script. but he has a style that we thought might match well with Gombrowicz’s novel and challenge us as a group, emotionally and verbally. In parallel, we developed characters as actors and text from Adriano. He might take a successful improv and put it into his own words. Or he might bring us a scene that came entirely from him and we’d adjust and shape it.
Lorraine: If we were to read Possessed after seeing the show, would we recognize it?
Dito: The play is only moderately true to the book. but i think they share a certain creepy humor and inexplicable poetry.
Lorraine: I see that you first performed this piece in 2004, and won an OBIE Special Citation for it. What made you decide to remount it for Washington?
Dito: The wonderful artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Howard Shalwitz has been following our work for a while and he invited us to perform it as a part of the Woolly season. Thanks, Howard! Though we have been presented by theatre festivals in the past, it’s actually the first time Pig Iron has been included in another theatre’s season. It’s a true honor to be performing for such a fantastic, hospitable, and professional company in such a terrific space.
Lorraine: Our reviewer described Henry as a human parsnip, and Jon as dog-like. How would you describe your individual characters and the movements you built for them – either vegetable or animal?
Dito: Parsnip? Isn’t that a slightly bitter root vegetable? I think of Henry as a big column of black, a hopeless hopeful, a misguided undertaker who believes in working hard and following a plan. so yeah, parsnip works. And Jon is a dog. a puppy!
Lorraine: The text simply dazzles. tell us one or two of your favorite lines.
Dito: Man, you are asking me to choose between my children. I love saying to Maya, after she says that she’s hungry:
“feeding time is in one hour. Why don’t you run around and scratch the furniture?” which seems worthy of a 40’s Hollywood movie. And i think the entire tennis scene is kind of awe inspiring and makes my jaw drop. But a lot of lines are only magical in context…
Lorraine: The timing in this piece is impeccable. I’m remembering especially Dr. Hincz’s (Steven Cuiffo) s-l-o-w takes on the ‘avuncular’ line, and the prince’s movements. But overall, that single beat at the beginning seems to set the pace for the show. Is that true? Or are you still changing it up?
Dito: That heartbeat runs under a lot of the play, but not all of it. I think the play takes a lot of rhythmic risks, but in terms of extremes of speed, lightning fast and turtle slow.
Lorraine: Speaking of the doctor, when he entered, coughing and spitting, it seemed to induce extreme coughs from the audience. Quite funny. Were those audience hackers Woolly plants or are DC audiences really that susceptible to suggestion?
Dito: I have noticed this too. Maybe coughing is as contagious as yawning?
Lorraine: (seized by a sudden fit of coughing)
Lorraine: At first glance, the set looks simple, but lordy, what surprises it has in store for us! How big is this show to tour with?
Dito: The wardrobe is the only oversize object so the whole set fits into a small truck.
Lorraine: How many ‘stagehands’ are back there making the magic happen?
Dito: A lot of the actors are moving items (ensemble spirit!) but we also have a lovely lady from Woolly named Kristy Matero who helps us and who connects us with our stage manager up in the booth.
Lorraine: After the run at Woolly Mammoth, do you head back to Philadelphia, or if not, where to next?
Dito: Back to philly. then we begin working on a new comic piece inspired by the denizens of highway rest-stops. that will be directed by Quinn Bauriedel, the actor playing Walchak.
Lorraine: What do you wish I had asked?
Dito: I liked these questions. I thought you’d ask me about the jumprope at the top of the show. Yes it took practice and Yes I have been known to trip up. but I usually get it. It’s a nerve-wracking way to start a show, I’ll tell you that much.
Hell Meets Henry Halfway closes March 1st at Woolly Mammoth Theatre,641 D St NW, Washington, DC.
Watch a scene from Hell Meets Henry Halfway