Inquirer Q&A with ... Dan Rothenberg, Co-Artistic Director of Pig Iron Theatre Company

Posted: September 02, 2008

Inquirer: What was the biggest difficulty you had to resolve to get your festival piece, Sweet By and By, from idea to performance?

Dan Rothenberg: We started working on the project about three years ago and were really struggling with the vocabulary and language — English is Daniel’s second language, and the writing we were producing together was pretty scattered. So I brought one of my closest collaborators on board, Dito van Reigersberg, to assist with the writing of the text.

Most people know Dito van Reigersberg as an outsized performer, singer, drag queen. But the truth is, he is a serious artist and a big nerd. Not to mention a remarkable poet and writer. Once he got involved the piece started to gel.

Q: Do you expect your work to have legs? Is there life after LA/Fringe, or is most of what is created for the festival destined to be seen only on the Fringe circuit?

A: I am happy to report that Sweet By-and-By, unlike the last three massive, 5-truck-size Pig Iron installations, is our most tourable show … ever. We care a lot about design, and we’ve been collaborating with some really visionary scenic designers, so the last few pieces have been kind of immense, scenographically — plus some have 10 to 30 performers — so those don’t get a lot of bites in terms of touring.

This piece is about scarcity and the set is intentionally minimal and spare. I think the scrappy one-man-show that is Sweet By-and-By will tour soon! Once Mr. Rudholm’s baby enters the world in November and he’s recalibrated ….

Q: What’s the primary source of your concept — music, literature, geopolitics, personal experience, global tragedies?

A: For this piece, it’s Daniel Rudholm’s connection with his grandfather in Sweden. His grandfather left the Seventh Day Adventist Church and remarried half a century ago; he was a lumberjack and later a labor activist in Sweden. Sweet By-and-By really springs from two items he handed to Daniel: first, the letters that Daniel’s quite religious great-grandfather sent home from America early in the 20th century; second, the songs of Joe Hill that were bound in a union choir book. These two physical items gave birth to the play.

Q: How much does funding influence your choice of subject? Do you find that fear of losing it dampens the political choices you make in your work?

A: At Pig Iron, we pride ourselves in being firmly, intensely non-commercial. We do not aim to please. Let me rephrase - we don't aim to annoy (most of the time), but we try not to "sell you things you already know you like." So our plays, which sometimes are sweet and often are funny, also often attack difficult ideas: mental institutions, morgues, holocaust hoaxes, union leaders as spiritual guides . . .. We're not a "political" theater because we don't like that category either, but we certainly look for things that are arresting in all areas of human existence.

Losing funding? I think we've certainly been passed over for certain projects, and our corporate funding is next-to-nil, but the company exists to make work which is non-commercial and not-easy-to-swallow.

Q: Is having an edge of political, social or community-based change important to your work, or is your sole goal the artistic outcome?

A: Pig Iron's work is deeply about change, but almost never aims to convince people to take a specific policy position. Our role as artists certainly is to make people think, correspond, wonder, feel dissatisfied with the contours of the current situation - but as far as my own civic duty to create specific political change, I do that privately and not with my art.

But the art does effect change by being a pushback against the typical "stories" of American life: what is "sad," what is "funny," even what is worth looking at.

Q: How comfortable are you in expressing your work verbally - to audiences, media, friends?

A: It's love-hate, but mostly it's hate. Like many artists, I feel the work is the work. Talking about it always feels more like selling, proselytizing, annotating. I'm working on it.

Q: If you have performed in other Fringes festivals, tell us how Philly's compares.

A: In America, Philly is the best. Edinburgh is the largest arts festival in the world, so we're a long way off from that - in terms of both the agony and the ecstasy.

Show Details:

Pig Iron Theatre Company & Teater Sláva

Sweet By-and-By (U.S. Premiere)

7 p.m. Aug. 29-31, Sept. 3 and Sept. 10 and 11; 9 p.m. Sept. 4-5; 10 p.m. Sept 6, 12-13; 3 p.m. Sept 7

Arts Bank at the University of the Arts

601 S. Broad St.

Philadelphia, PA 19147

Web Links:

Festival show page:

Pig Iron Theatre Company site: (designed by Canary Promo, by the way)

Teater Sláva website:

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