Pig Iron Theatre Company, a Philadelphia-based ensemble founded by Swarthmore alumni, will present its latest original work, A Period of Animate Existence, in a semi-staged concert Thursday, Sept. 14, at Lang Performing Arts Center. The performance, part of the 2017–18 Cooper Series, will be a “first look” for Swarthmore audiences ahead of the show’s world premiere at Philadelphia’s 2017 Fringe Arts Festival.
Set in the “Sixth Extinction,” an era in which up to 50 percent of living species are at risk of dying off, A Period of Animate Existence brings together actors, a chamber orchestra, and three generations of choirs in a synthesis of music and theater. Children, elders, and machines contemplate the future in a time of dire predictions and rapid technological change.
“It is always a delight to come home to Swarthmore, this place of brainy people, ruthless thinkers, and compassionate advocates,” says director Dan Rothenberg ’95, who developed the production with composer Troy Herion and set designer Mimi Lien as artists-in-residence at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities. “I imagine the work will be deeply touching for some, and seem immoral and inadequate to others.”
Leading up to the concert, which is free and open to the public, student-actors will conduct live promotions on campus, with tie-ins designed to pique curiosity. Two master classes will complement the performance: “Visual-Music” led by Herion on Tuesday, Sept. 12, and “Measures: Rhythm in Space for Theater-Devisors” led by Rothenberg on Saturday, Sept. 30.
Two book exhibits will also run alongside the event: one at Cornell Science Library featuring sources addressing the Anthropocene and climate change, and a second at Underhill Music & Dance Library highlighting materials about performance art, social change, and Pig Iron’s involvement in Philadelphia. A future McCabe Library exhibit will be curated by Swarthmore’s Materials that Matter class, led by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility’s Katie Price.
“We’re trying to have not just a performance but a yearlong conversation about the Anthropocene and what we all can do to mitigate the effects that humans are having on the planet,” says Associate Professor of Music Barbara Milewski, who is sponsoring the event in conjunction with the Department of Theater and Environmental Studies. “We want people imagining how we all play a collective role in the issues that matter to us globally, and how we might come together to really act—not just literally on the stage—through our communities.”
Pig Iron will return in the spring to further this conversation, by launching an Ecotopian Toolkit contest at Swarthmore. The brainchild of Bethany Wiggin ’94 and the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, the project encourages community members to propose tools for the Anthropocene—the current era of significant human impact on Earth’s ecosystems—and engage in discussions about the proposals.
With 86 performers ages 7 to 81—including a Swarthmore student and several alums—A Period of Animate Existence is shaping up to be the largest production in the Philadelphia region this year, Rothenberg says.
“I urge people to put aside their homework for 90 minutes and come see what we have dreamed up,” he says. “It’s a rare event.”
Pig Iron Theater Company, A Period of Animate Existence
Master class: “Visual-Music” with composer Troy Herion
Tuesday, Sept. 12, 4–6 p.m.
Lang Music Building, Lang Concert Hall
Thursday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m.
Lang Performing Arts Center, Pearson–Hall Theatre
Master class: “Measures: Rhythm in Space for Theater-Devisors” with director Dan Rothenberg ’95 Saturday, Sept. 30, 2 p.m.
Lang Performing Arts Center, Frear Ensemble Theater