Nell Bang-Jensen ’11 knows the challenges of making a living through art. Since graduating from Swarthmore with high honors in English literature and theater and serving as a Watson Fellow, the theater artist has made a living piecing work together — teaching, consulting, and directing, all while working full time at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. So after a lengthy application process, the awarding of a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Leadership U grant of $75,000 was welcome news.
“The resources from TCG will allow me to focus my attention towards one organization," she explains, "and towards my own professional development, moving from a survival mentality to a deliberate practice, and asking broader questions about our field.”
The grant is intended for especially talented early-career leaders from all areas of theater to receive professional development via mentorships at a TCG Member Theatre. Bang-Jensen’s choice of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre came easily, since co-artistic director Quinn Bauriedel ’94 has been serving as an informal mentor to her since she first took his acting class nine years ago at Swarthmore.
“My courses at Swarthmore taught by Pig Iron artists exposed me to devised, ensemble-based performance — making work that starts with the people in the room, the complexity of collaboration, and the power of this medium to reveal the emotional resonance of intellectual ideas," she says. "I admire Pig Iron's rigorous aesthetic, their hunger that makes each piece different than the one before, and their determination to break traditional American theatrical models for making work. It is a dream to now be working alongside the artists who were fundamental to me discovering the power of this form."
As Pig Iron Theatre enters its third decade and settles into a home base in the city's Kensington neighborhood, Bang-Jensen sees a lot of new opportunities.
“I’m interested in how theaters can take deliberate, programmatic actions to be more engaged with their surrounding communities,” she says, noting that the previously nomadic company now has “the opportunity to get to know their neighbors and form relationships that are meaningful and long-lasting.”
Bang-Jensen's mentorship will provide her with opportunities to examine the relationship between organizational structure and artistic process, serve as artistic director to Dan Rothenberg ’95 on the next major Pig Iron production which will debut at the 2017 Philadelphia FringeArts Festival, and direct her own Pig Iron workshop.
Bang-Jensen values the times, opportunity, and new focus provided by this grant.
“The resources this grant provides would be appreciated in any field, but especially in theater, the time, space, and financial flexibility for deliberate reflection and professional development is rare,” she explains. “I feel a great honor and a great responsibility to use my time wisely.”