Corey Ruzicano is a senior at Emerson College in their BFA acting program program. She is participating in the Creative Producer program inside the Office of the Arts at Emerson College. She recently got to talk with PigPen Theatre Co. members Ryan Melia, Arya Shahi, and Matt Nurenberger about how a group of guys who got together in college made a band, a theater company, and remained friends.
Corey: So, as college students, my peers and I are incredibly interested in the story of your origin, and how you manage to function as a collaborative body that sustains both an artistic integrity, as well as a healthy friendship.
Ryan Melia: Wow, really starting with the hard-hitting questions.
Arya Shahi: We were all acting students at Carnegie Mellon, and we honestly just came together for a single theater piece our freshman year for a festival called Playground, where students were encouraged to create their own work. As freshmen we were learning a lot of things in movement class, in voice class, and we all kind of wanted to combine it in a very exploratory theater piece. We didn’t really know what that was going to be. We got together and wrote a folk tale—actually it was kind of like a ghost story. And there was a moment in that story where we wanted these ghosts to come out of the graveyard and we didn’t know quite how to do it without looking like fools. Then someone suggested shadow puppetry. It might have been Matt, it might have been Ryan, someone had done a little bit of shadow puppetry in high school and thought, “oh this might a cool moment to do something like that.” So we did it, kind of laying into the comedy side of things, and people seemed to really enjoy it. The same thing happened with our music. At the time only a few of us really played instruments at all, let alone proficiently but we put in one little—I think it was a cover song—what was it?
Ryan: There were two songs. There was one original and there was one cover, “Keep On the Sunny Side.” And it was only those two musical moments in the whole show, but for some reason we found our aesthetic in that.
Arya: It was really cool for us to be able to tell a story that didn’t take place in a contemporary, real place because that’s what we were studying in acting school, especially in the first semester freshman year. We were studying a lot of Stanislavsky and realism. So for us it was kind of about a little vacation from that and we ended up really liking that vacation, so we stayed. We bought a timeshare.
Matt Nurenberger: We permanently live in our timeshare in Florida now.
Corey: Since you guys met freshman year, have there been any major changes or influences in your journey, along the way?
Ryan: We’ve changed in basically the simplest way in terms of scope, how big we want our shows to get, and in terms of length and depth and layers of character and story. Our style is so simple, and we want to keep that simplicity in terms of aesthetic and how we put on the shows, but the stories just started becoming a little more layered. We still want to keep close to the original feeling that people had when they watched us, so the balance has been trying not to change while becoming more mature and more knowledgeable about writing. The writing process has changed.
Matt: We ask harder questions.
Matt: When we collaborated in college, we kind of threw everything into a pot—the visual stuff, the jokes, the plot—and it would kind of somehow become a play. Then when we got out of college and started to do more shows in New York, we started to look at them more as a Play with a capital P. We really try to develop the narrative to be as strong as we can. But I don’t think much about our process has changed except I think we’re harder on ourselves.
Ryan: And also just within the group, we’ve all grown. The relationship between all of us is unexpectedly unique. I don’t think any of us thought that this would be going on seven years later, but each time we got a new opportunity, we couldn’t justify stopping, we couldn’t justify not taking that opportunity with a group of guys you’ve worked with for so long. That’s really one of the biggest differences now influencing us. When we were in college, we were doing it simply because we were trying to learn how to tell stories together, and now it’s about seeing how many different ways we can explore this community that we’re building, that’s become bigger than the seven of us. We have designers now that we’ve worked with for five years, we have directors that we’ve worked with for two years. We have amazing producers that have helped out for years and years and years. And I think that what we’ve learned is that when people are all on the same wavelength, you can really achieve some unimaginably cool things—so why stop trying?