Many reviews of the Groundswell Players’ breakthrough Fringe show, Hackles, mentioned Pig Iron Theatre Company — indeed, a year ago, I wrote: “I remember the ‘wow’ of seeing Pig Iron’s first show at Swarthmore College years ago, and felt it again at Hackles.”
The comparisons aren’t surprising, given that Groundswell formed out of the first class to attend the Pig Iron Theatre’s School for Advanced Performance, a two-year program launched in 2011; the show was even performed at the school’s space.
In 2011, Pig Iron also produced the Fringe’s best-selling show of all time. The company is as close to elder statesmen as you get at experimental-theater festivals; their “devised theater” style and physicality are distinctive.
Now Groundswell, mounting its second theatrical production, Go Long Big Softie, has the task of asserting its identity beyond “piglet.”
Similarities are unavoidable, says Groundswell artistic director Scott Sheppard (pictured below, left). He sees his company as “three-fourths Lecoq” — the physical theater style taught in Paris for over 50 years that strongly influenced Pig Iron’s founders — and “one-quarter Pig Iron, for that contemporary edge.” But he dismisses the idea that Pig Iron produces imitators.
Groundswell began in sketch comedy with Sheppard, managing director Alison King and two other Haverford College friends (one’s now a doctor, the other’s a lawyer). Groundswell first produced longform improvisation inspired by Christopher Guest films like Waiting for Guffman, including Fringe productions How to Solve a Bear in 2010 and The Speed of Surprise in 2011. Then Sheppard went back to school.
“Students work on ensemble-based projects,” explains Pig Iron school director Quinn Baruriedel, “so it is natural that companies will form. We even bring in some business training on how to run and manage an ensemble in America.”
“Through Pig Iron, I’m no longer just a comedian, but a theater artist,” says Sheppard. “Hackles was our first show that wasn’t just comedy. It was more imaginative, with more serious themes. It’s not just candy, but serious art.”
“Serious candy,” fellow actor and Big Softie co-creator Mason Rosenthal (pictured, right) clarifies.
Big Softie, funded by a $10,000 Wyncote Foundation grant and Kickstarter, began with modern bromance as exemplified by Judd Apatow movies and The Hangover, which Rosenthal says may be wacky, “but ultimately [are] about how much men care about each other.”
Sheppard describes Big Softie as “men trying to be men who are actually boys.” They explored male mentorship, including controversial pickup-artist seduction strategies that, Rosenthal says, “were almost hypnosis,” and the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s, a back-to-the-woods effort to rediscover masculinity.
Groundswell travels to New Orleans’ Fringe Festival in November. After that? “There are lots of things in the incubator,” Sheppard says of establishing an identity as a company. “We’re about to become a group of serious artists ready to explore literature, weird worlds, dark places, wonderful bright happy places — whatever interests us.”
Go Long Big Softie, Sept. 6-21, $15, Torrent Collective, 938 S. Eighth St., 215-413-1318, fringearts.com.