When Zaina Dana ’21 applied to work as an assistant director with Pig Iron Theater Company, she had no idea how fortuitous it would prove to be.
The theater troupe, founded by three Swarthmore alumni, was re-introducing Love Unpunished, a hypnotic dance-theater piece about the moments just before the collapse of the World Trade Center, which will be presented on campus on Saturday, Sept. 18 (8 p.m.) and Sunday, Sept. 19 (2 p.m.) as part of the Cooper Series.
Dana, too, had created a piece, Why Are You Killing Yourself?, to explore how people view and talk about 9/11, but from her perspective as a Palestinian American college student. By chance, the play has become a companion piece, but only after the creators reflected on its potential impact.
“I think at first we each thought, ‘Uh oh — what if our pieces clash too much to live alongside each other?’” says Dan Rothenberg ’95, director of Love Unpunished and artistic director for Pig Iron. “But I’m happy to report that we ended up sharing common starting points and arriving at different endpoints, with both of us, artists of different generations, wanting to find a way to say things that aren’t said — to make room in the discourse for unexpected or even unnameable emotions.”
Dana concurs. While Love Unpunished is a largely wordless dance-theater play, Why Are You Killing Yourself? grew into a complete radio piece without visuals. And whereas the former explores the fragility of the human condition with an evocative but subtle tone, the latter is an anti-sentimental “call for justice and meaning in a confusing and uncaring world,” says Dana.
“Together, the two pieces manage to fill a few gaps in the conversations we have — or don’t have — about 9/11 and the wars and crimes that followed,” she says.
Rothenberg first saw Why Are You Killing Yourself? in the spring, when Dana presented it for her honors thesis in directing and playwriting. Professor of Theater Allen Kuharski served as adviser and mentor to Dana — nearly 30 years after Kuharski had taught Rothenberg, encouraging him “to dig deep, learn broadly, and work hard,” Rothenberg recalls.
Earlier this week, Pig Iron sponsored a presentation of the play that was streamed online and followed by a conversation between Rothenberg and Dana. It featured sound design from Michael Nutt ’23 and a cast including Raya Tuffaha ’23, Shail Modi ’22, Timothy St. Pierre ’21, and Jake Chanenson ’21.
This weekend, Dana returns her attention to serving as assistant director of Love Unpunished, which earlier this month ran at the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival. She regards the experience as “a great foray” into the world of professional theater and relishes the opportunity to collaborate with a director as established and acclaimed as Rothenberg.
“Working on a professional show after having only done college theater is a big learning curve,” Dana says, “but one that is definitely helped with people like Dan who take a genuine interest in what they find to be exciting art and who welcome all kinds of voices to their work.”
For Rothenberg, this remount of Love Unpunished marks the 25th anniversary of both Pig Iron and the FringeArts Festival. He counts its creative team among “the most exciting” he has worked with, highlighting Pig Iron co-founder Quinn Bauriedel ’94’s return to the stage after an eight-year hiatus, and he is eager to bring a piece about 9/11 to an audience with a wide range of ages.
“Some of my favorite responses so far have been from teenagers, from people who did not live through the events of the World Trade Center collapse, who maybe thought this wasn’t a piece for them but then found so much to respond to,” he says.
And Rothenberg relishes time spent at Swarthmore, to which Pig Iron has repeatedly returned over the years.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky that my theater work has taken me to so many different environments and into collaborations around the world, “he says. “But it has always been a pleasure to reconnect to people who come from this community — people who care about social change and who care about ideas. That seems to run through Swatties of several generations.”
The feeling is mutual, says Kuharski, for whom Love Unpunished also marks the culmination of several efforts of the Department of Theater over the past 25 years. Among them, the sustained commitment to supporting alumni through vehicles like the Swarthmore Project in Theater and the Cooper Series and Promise Fund residencies; the ongoing partnership with the FringeArts Festival; and the network of mutual support between older and younger alumni.
But above all is the department’s emphasis on diversity, both in terms of performance types and increasing representation.
“[Dana’s] work as a feminist, Muslim, Palestinian American, immigrant voice is our most recent contribution to American theater on this score,” says Kuharksi.
Love Unpunished will also mark Kuharski’s 20th involvement with a Cooper Series residency. The first was in 1991 with stage actor and director Joseph Chaikin, who lent his time to Swarthmore students, including the three who went on to found Pig Iron.
“Today, Pig Iron is playing that role of established master artists,” Kuharski says. “So these are specific circles that are all also being closed with this event.”
Love Unpunished will be performed in the Lang Performing Arts Center (LPAC) this Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 18-19. Due to COVID-19 protocols, it is only open to the campus community.