The Pig Iron Theater Company Comes to Swarthmore with Love Unpunished

Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin

Founded by Swarthmore College alums in 1995, the Pig Iron Theater Company has created over 30 original works and toured internationally in countries including England, Scotland, Poland, Lithuania, Brazil, Ireland, Japan, Italy, Romania, and Germany. During the Fringe Festival in 2006, five years after 9/11, the company premiered “Love Unpunished, a movement theater piece about what regular people must have experienced in the staircases of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks. This year, as the country is still working through the pandemic and about to commemorate twenty years since 9/11, they brought it back — and they brought it to Swarthmore. “Love Unpunished” ran twice in Lang Performing Arts Center’s Pearson-Hall Theater, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday Sept. 19. 

Conceptualized and directed by Dan Rothenberg ʼ95 and choreographed and co-directed by David Brick, “Love Unpunished” was created to show the human emotions that existed as a result of 9/11. The cast of the revival consisted of both new actors and those who were part of the show when it first premiered. The cast that came to Swarthmore consisted of Hinako Arao, Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel ʼ94, Jordan Deal, Makoto Hirano, Jenna Horton, Jaime Maseda, Wendy Staton, Kyle Vincent Terry, and Dito van Reigersberg ʼ94. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Allen Kuharski, who has been a professor at Swarthmore since 1990, explained that he taught many of the founders of Pig Iron when they were undergraduates and was instrumental in bringing them to Swarthmore this fall. 

“The process began, probably September [or] October 2020 … so I had plenty of time to prepare the Cooper proposal to get the funding, and then that actually was crucial …” Kuharski said.

According to Kuharski, the process to bring Pig Iron to Swarthmore began with a conversation between him and Rothenberg, where they spoke about doing another collaboration with the college, something they had done multiple times over the years since the company’s formation to the benefit of both parties. 

“In terms of the company, it was all good for them … they love the performance work more. They know Swarthmore is a good venue, college tours like this are really special and a specific kind of touring, and they are really good at it, and it’s an easy tour because they can all stay [in Pennsylvania] … [the actors] don’t have to travel to another state or get on an airplane … so they were enthusiastic about it,” Kuharski said. 

Despite the enthusiasm of the company to perform, Kuharski had difficulty in publicizing the show on Swarthmore’s campus. 

“I had to do all the promotion, publicity for the show without any of the usual department support,” Kuharski said. “I went out and busked on campus, and I was doing that, not just to promote the show but to kind of poll faculty and students about what they knew about the show … Half of the faculty and more than half of the students had no idea that the show was happening.”

Though publicity was a struggle, the Swarthmore audience did not disappoint and filled 200 seats during the Saturday night show. 

“We had 200 people on Saturday night, which was larger than the audiences they were getting in Philadelphia for the show so [the actors] were very excited,” said Kuharski. 

The director and actors spoke with The Phoenix about what they were looking forward to when coming to Swarthmore. Van Reigersberg looked forward to seeing old professors and friends, while Rothenberg looked forward to meeting students. Maseda explained that he was excited to be able to impact students at Swarthmore and was thrilled to get to perform for a lively, on-campus audience. 

“The professors and performances I encountered in college had a huge impact on me as an artist, so I’m always excited to play some part (however small) in a student’s artistic development,” he said. 

Though Maseda wasn’t sure about what kind of reception they would receive after over a year without live performances on campus, he was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of Swarthmore students to attend. 

“We weren’t quite sure what kind of audience we’d have, especially since this was the first live performance on campus since early 2020. But I remember standing backstage before places and hearing a huge crowd of excited students. It felt like a different energy from the theatergoing public returning to the theater and made me appreciate what a gift it was for all of us to be there,” he said.  

Bauriedel thought about it as a way to get closer to his castmates and build connections. 

“It’s fun to go on tour, you know, and this doesn’t feel exactly like a tour but we just did the show in one venue and now we’re here. So it’s kind of like the ensembles regrouping in a very different setting. And that has its own joy to it. It feels a little bit like this ensemble is a mini troupe, and many of these people have done projects with Pig Iron before but many are brand new to us. And so, in some way that I think will help develop an even deeper rapport … there’s some fun things that happen when you’re kind of extending a run.”

Rothenberg was excited to come back to Swarthmore for many reasons, only one of which was the practicality of bringing the show somewhere safe.

“There were many practical benefits of coming to Swarthmore, where the company was born and where we feel connected to the community despite the age difference. We were able to try touring the piece – no small feat with that set – in a friendly environment for the first time.”

In an email to The Phoenix, he also revealed what he personally was excited about.

“It’s always sweet to be back among my fellow brainy concerned citizens. It’s been 25 years but I feel a connection to the student body and to the campus, since it’s where I sort of became myself,” Rothenberg said. 

The inspiration for “Love Unpunished”, 9/11, occurred either too early for current students to remember or before the birth of many underclassmen. Bauriedel, Rothenberg, and van Reigersberg spoke to The Phoenix on why the company decided to perform the show again, and why they brought it to Swarthmore.

“The pandemic was hard, hard for theaters, hard to gather and rehearse and everything, and at the same moment that particular year, happened to be Pig Iron’s 25th anniversary,” Bauriedel said. “We were feeling like it was a moment to look back a little bit and think about some new things that would be kind of wild new directions for the company, but also take stock and what we had accomplished and done over 25 years and, this particular piece was a memory play that we made five years after 9/11. … I guess the play is almost like the thing that you want to be working on when the walls are falling down around you, and it is about that and … humans coming together.”

Bauriedel also told The Phoenix why he thought the story would resonate with students. 

“I remember when I was your age hearing stories about everyone who remembered where they were when JFK was shot, and so there are these events that are markers of time, that are so catastrophic and important that they just mark your perspective … we’re all kind of shaped by that event and like the ensuing choices that everybody made right after,” he said. 

Rothenberg told The Phoenix that presenting the show to students who would never remember 9/11 was extremely enjoyable.

“I was moved by the hush in the audience — I just didn’t know if the younger folks needed more context. But some of the best feedback came from people in their teens and 20s who all said that they had received a pretty textbook, ‘patriotic’ education about 9/11 without really contemplating some of the other ways to think or feel about it.”

Van Reigersberg told The Phoenix that it wasn’t just about the anniversary but also about the nature of the piece. 

“I think not only for the significant anniversary, but also it’s a show that marks a turning point in Pig Iron’s work … it’s more meditative [and] mysterious, and less clear or user-friendly…It dares to confuse and mystify. Also making devised, original work is very labor intensive. Sometimes you wish more people could see it after all the work you put in to make it from scratch. So a revival is welcome,” he said. 

Like Bauriedel, van Reigersberg said that the effects of a world-altering event affect even those who weren’t alive to see it or remember it.  

“Again, [“Love Unpunished”] is a work that we are very proud of, and even if you don’t have a memory of that day, the political repercussions of the event remain,” he wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

The meaning of a show is different for each individual, and the actors are no exception. Bauriedel, van Reigersberg, and Maseda all spoke to The Phoenix about what “Love Unpunished” meant to them. 

Maseda wrote in an interview about not only what spoke to him, but also what he hoped others would gain from seeing it. 

“The juxtaposition of the physical and immediate enormity of such a catastrophe with the more elusive, abstract states of memory, death, fantasy in relation to collective grief lies at the heart of this piece — especially after this first year-and-a-half of pandemic time. I think of this translating into the performance challenge of deepening simultaneous awareness of my body in space (in stillness, motion, falling, panic) as well as the collective ensemble at any given moment,” he said.

Maseda hoped that “Love Unpunished” would allow people to see their own experiences in the movement of the show.

“I appreciate this piece as a container for people to have a wide range of experiences in relation to 9/11. It’s certainly not prescriptive; I imagine it conjuring up everyone’s own experiences, memories, and understandings surrounding the events of the day to create a reflective, meditative space.”

Van Reigersberg connected his experience of being part of the show with dealing with traumatic events. 

“It’s a chance to both live inside the grief, emotionally, and to express it physically. It’s pretty grueling but I think it has a kind of reward for us. Someone in a talkback mentioned all the falling bodies in the piece and how that echoed to her as the deep impossible need we feel to get our footing after a trauma, and that really matched for me with the feeling of being inside the piece.”

Bauriedel’s experiences working on “Love Unpunished” this past year brought up memories from when the piece was first created. 

“You know every piece that Pig Iron worked on, we worked on it over a long period of time. And in doing so, we kind of lived inside of the play … when we made it, it was a very particular time of life; I just got married, I was looking around at the floods of Katrina, and 9/11, and the Iraq War … So in a way it’s kind of like rekindling some of those feelings,” he said. 

It wasn’t only the memories of “Love Unpunished’s” creation that drew Bauriedel in; he was also interested in getting to work with an ensemble again, both after the pandemic and years of teaching. 

“And the seduction of getting to work with Dan [Rothenberg] and Dito [van Reigersberg] and this great cast and performing which I haven’t done in a long time because I run the Pig Iron School and so I’m very occupied and concerned with that and have been for the last few years, so that was also a big appeal at the pandemic like get back into rehearsal room and be part of an ensemble …”

Though not all of the actors working at Pig Iron are Swarthmore alums, Rothenberg, Bauriedel, and van Reigersberg graduated in 1995 and 1994 respectively. 

Van Reigersberg told The Phoenix in an email that he thought that Swarthmore’s biggest impact on him was his education and ability to value an ensemble. Bauriedel spoke about the connections he made and how Swarthmore brought him and the future founders of Pig Iron together as undergraduates. 

“[Swarthmore] brought us together … Dito [van Reigersberg] and I were randomly paired up as freshman year roommates and then we hit it off so well we stayed together freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year,” he said.

Bauriedel also credited Kuharski with having a large influence on both himself and his partners.

“[Allen Kuharski helped] us bridge the gap between what happens at Swarthmore and what happens in the rest of the world … we got agitated and wanted to break out of the [broken American theater] system.” 

At Swarthmore, the now-professional actors saw theater from around the world and were inspired to create their own works. According to Bauriedel, other classes he took (including art history and biology) knowledge of the world helped to inform his acting as well. 

“I met a whole bunch of people in grad school in Paris, they were some of the most fun and amazing performers, but I could see that they were performing things that didn’t have any ideas behind them and I think that the danger of theater is only ideas, and therefore just a lecture or thats its only artificial fanciful gestures but that it doesn’t have any ideas [behind it] …”

Rothenberg agreed that meeting the people with whom he started Pig Iron with was one of the most important things to come out of attending Swarthmore. 

“I met my core collaborators at Swarthmore of course. And I think the college helped make critical thinking and asking hard questions a part of our mission and part of what we are always looking for in actor-creators and collaborations,” he said. 

Theater, as an art form, is distinct, and impacts audiences in a way that is different from art or music. In an email to The Phoenix, van Reigersberg spoke concisely about why it’s important for theater to exist.

“We need [theater]. We need each other. It means we get to look at our existence and ponder its joys, sorrows and awkwardnesses,” he said. 

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