PigPen Theatre Co. is more than just a clever name for the indie-folk band that will be playing at Jammin’ Java Friday. It’s the group’s original vocation, the project that brought seven theater students together and spawned a wide-ranging and acclaimed output of storytelling and music.
The PigPen Theatre Co. members first met as students at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in 2008. They banded together to make a production for the school’s Playground Festival, a marathon of student theater performances, but created something more. They found a storytelling style, melding acting, puppetry, and music into their original folksy fables.
“All of the elements that we use now in our shows, we started with in some way or another in that first little piece we did,” said PigPen member Dan Weschler.
Despite the rigors of their academic commitments, the drama students found themselves investing their spare time in their joint theatrical pursuits.
“Instead of taking our weekends to chill out or party, we would inevitably end up at somebody’s apartment cutting out shadow puppets and playing around with new instruments that we got,” Weschler said. “Pretty early on we realized that this was something we loved doing.”
They found success beyond the campus stage, and well before graduation. As juniors, they staged a piece at the renowned Fringe Festival in New York and took top honors. The following year, a new production earned them their second Overall Excellence Award at the Fringe Festival, making them the first group to ever win the honor two years in a row and earning critical acclaim from national news outlets.
They began workshopping their plays before graduation, as part of a residency with the Vineyard Arts Project at Martha’s Vineyard. It was there that the group was offered a chance to make their theater company a band by a music executive who happened upon one of their sets.
“I think that we were just all so thrilled at the opportunity to bring music back into our lives that the idea of writing an album and recording an album was incredibly exciting to us when the opportunity presented itself,” Weschler said.
Music had always been part of their productions, but it was a component of greater pieces and not its own product. Weschler describes the music in PigPen’s stage works not as the stuff of musical theater, where songs express the thoughts and feelings of actors, but rather a soundtrack that complements the onstage storytelling. Some of the PigPen members had been in bands before – Weschler himself was a keys player in a high school band – and they play guitar, banjo, accordion and other instruments during musical interludes throughout their theatrical productions.
To perform as a band gave the PigPen members the opportunity to extract their music and give it the attention it couldn’t be afforded in a theater production.
“We’ve been able to really sort of fill out the music in a way that we can’t in our plays,” Weschler said. “There’s seven of us, and we’re all acting and moving stuff around – we’re basically the actors, the musicians, and the stage hands for the shows.”
They graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2011 and recorded their debut album in their first year out of school, in addition to putting on two more theater productions.
The album Bremen came out last spring, with layered harmonies and Americana instrumentation that bring about frequent comparison to the English folk-rock act Mumford & Sons. A few months later, the curtain went up on their first full-length production, “The Old Man and The Old Moon.” The play closed last month, and now the group has embarked upon a short tour to give audiences the chance to hear PigPen Theatre Co. – “it’s really a concert experience,” Weschler says.
“We work very well when we have a few different things that we can bounce between,” Weschler said. “It’s easy to get into a rut when you’re writing, and it’s easy to get into a rut when you’re composing something, but if you have the ability to let one influence and inspire the other, we’ve found it to be exciting and also helpful in the creative process.”
When it comes to future projects, the sky is the limit for a group whose varied works are energized by that very variety. Another big-city run of “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” recording more songs, and writing a children’s novel are just some of the projects in the works, though several more in a number of media have been mulled.
“Pretty much anything you can think of is something we’ve thought about doing,” Weschler said.
• For more information about PigPen Theatre Co., visit pigpentheatre.com.