In 21st-century New York City, the search for something as mundane as a decent job can seem like questing for the holy grail. We are the heroes of these quests, and we learn from each adventure and trial along the way. The Hero’s Journey is a common 17-step narrative structure seen in literature and film, and many real lives tend to follow as well. It’s what makes fictional characters relatable, and unites us all along this Sisyphean journey known as Life when we might otherwise feel like completely disparate human beings.
Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of these lesser-known (and lesser performed) Hero’s Journey plays. After fleeing from a king who wishes him dead, Pericles embarks on his HJ. Along the way he encounters famine, shipwreck, love, murder, mistaken identity, and other makings of a Shakespeare romcom. Pericles is currently playing at Theatre For a New Audience‘s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene, in a brave new production directed by multiple Tony Award winner Trevor Nunn (Cats, Les Mis, and more), arguably the most prolific stage director of Shakespeare since Shakespeare himself. Among the cast is Brooklyn’s own PigPen Theatre Company. Not only do these musically versatile men play roughly 50 roles among the seven of them, but also sing and play its original music (composed by Shaun Davey).
Given this creative re-imagining of the play, I got to thinking about the Hero’s Journey. Is it just convention, or is it actually relevant to our lives today? I chatted with a few members of PigPen to ask them about their journeys toward this latest production of Pericles, and what its message for the 21st-century Brooklynite might be.
PigPen, formed as freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, is Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, and Dan Weschler. I talked with Melia, Nuernberger, Shahi, and Weschler about their own hero journeys:
The Call to Adventure/Refusal of the Call
Initially, several members of PigPen had set their sights on Los Angeles once they graduated. But plans changed when PigPen took their first show, The Nightmare Story, to the 2010 New York Fringe Festival. The show took home the award for Overall Excellence, and PigPen won the award again with The Mountain Song in 2011, becoming the first theater group to be crowned with the festival’s top honors two years in a row. Upon graduation from CMU in 2011, the PigPen posse packed their bags and moved to Brooklyn.
“PigPen’s call to adventure was our decision to do what we’re doing,” explained Weschler. “The seven of us had to collectively agree, or be convinced, to move to New York.”
Nuernberger said that he had initial doubts about making PigPen his number one priority.
“When we graduated, I took a break from the company to join the Non-Equity Company at Williamstown Theatre Festival for three months. I needed some time to figure out what kind of work I wanted to do. But at the festival, while I learned so much and had an amazing time, I found that so many artists further along in their careers were hungry to find like-minded individuals with whom to collaborate, a call I was refusing [back home]. I came back into the company more assured of what I saw myself doing within the group.”
Meeting the Mentor/Crossing the Threshold
“Barbara Mackenzie Wood, the head of CMU’s acting/music theater program and professor of drama, has been particularly influential to PigPen,” Weschler said. “After graduation, she continued as an educational force in our lives as a professional mentor.”
Melia went on to explain Wood’s pivotal significance as a professional colleague, ushering PigPen into Brooklyn’s theater scene by helping them mount their first full production at the theater company she co-founded in Fort Greene, Irondale. “She taught us the importance of vision plus collaboration, and how those two things co-exist and create a rich piece of theater owned by all who worked on it. Since leaving school, she has only ever supported us like a friend and colleague.”
Arya Shahi told us that he considers his fellow company members his greatest mentors.
“But at every step,” he added, “we’ve met someone that has helped us develop as a company. Someone who’s said, ‘That’s really cool — you should spend some more time with that.’ Which we need, because we’re seven people with many different tastes.”
Two other individuals stand out as profound mentors for Weschler: “Directing teacher Stuart Carden was very influential in how we treat storytelling. And a third mentor for us is [music producer] Ron Robinson, Jr., who encouraged us to record our first album. We write music to weave into the fabric of our plays, so PigPen as a band came naturally.”
Robinson heard PigPen performing music while they were workshopping a play in Martha’s Vineyard, volunteered to produce their album if they’d record it, and Bremen, their debut album, was born. The Huffington Post named Bremen the #10 Best Album of 2012. Their sophomore album, Whole Sun came out in 2015 to great reviews, including recognition in Esquire.
Weschler said that discipline was his most daunting threshold as a collaborator. “Every day you have to [make] bold choices and creative decisions. Most of the battle is just getting yourself into that frame of mind.”
Belly of the Whale/Road of Trials
If there’s anything that living in New York teaches you, it’s that even the most mundane journeys are fraught with encounters unknown, failures of every kind, and points of no return (formally referred to in the Hero’s Journey as “The Belly of the Whale,” you can imagine why). For PigPen, the greatest trials came after their initial successes.
“What we found in the ensemble is incredibly rare. Our only issues come in moments of real artistic identification. There have been some bruised egos along the way, but quickly remedied.” Shahi shared. “[Every now and then] we’ll do something that doesn’t resonate the way everything else has connected with people in the past. The most difficult moments for the company,” he explained, “involve having to evaluate why something used to work and why it isn’t working anymore.”
Weschler agreed that tried-and-true formulas for the company aren’t always enough to go on when making new work. “We need to listen to what’s happening in the world, and in our lives right now.”
Shahi cited barriers in the entertainment industry as one of the greatest obstacles PigPen faces, “as well as the natural progression of doing art with only the tools we have.” (Quite literally, PigPen creates for their shows with the tools they have available, designing and building puppets and set pieces in collaboration with designers Lydia Fine and Bart Cortright.)
Meeting with the Goddess
Within the structure of the Hero’s Journey, the goddess appears as a strong female figure who loves the hero unconditionally and gives the hero support and strength to continue the journey, a strong divergence from the role of women in ancient mythology as temptress. The goddess comes along after the mentor has already played his or her part, to keep the hero motivated, usually in moments when all seems to be lost.
In Melia’s opinion, the mentor and the goddess can be one and the same, again mentioning Barbara Mackenzie Wood’s influence. “She simply wants to nurture you and your future,” specifically citing her “endless energy to search for a fuller and richer life” as catalysts to keep the hero going.
Shahi interprets the goddess role in a more literal, romantic sense, calling out the group’s girlfriends whose collective intelligence helps keep them on the right track. “PigPen has seven goddesses, and if they ever formed a theater company, we’d be out of work because they’re all smarter than us.”
The Brooklynite’s Journey
Okay, so you get it. PigPen has had its fair share of heroic, Pericles-esque trials in the journey from their inception to their critically-acclaimed production now running at TFANA. But where might you, readers, find yourself along such a journey?
“It’s easy to fall into a pattern of comfort and habit,” Weschler said, “but the truth is we’re living in [New York], where anything is possible. Each day is a Hero’s Journey. As you approach your art, breakthrough and cross that threshold.”
The thing is, we’re not all theatermakers. In fact, some of us out there don’t even make art. Some of us are just questing to afford living in the city on a freelance salary, or journeying toward a coveted job title at the office. The journeys come in all shapes and sizes in this borough. So how do you stay the course when the primers for success in movies and literature don’t fit the experiences you’re having?
As far as modern-day Brooklyn was concerned, here’s what Shahi had to say: “The danger is that intellectuals become cynics.”
Weschler echoed his sentiment. “Cynicism is the great enemy of storytelling.”
In other words: if you’re going through life doubting your every move, or planning for the worst because that’s what life has taught you to expect, then you probably won’t be reaching your holy grail anytime soon.
“The Hero’s Journey gives stability where nothing else does,” Shahi offered.
It may sound corny, but is it? Maybe the key to having your next major epiphany is to see your life as following the structure of the Hero’s Journey. Look for your “Call to Adventure,” and trust it when it seems insane. Cross whatever boundary needs crossing in order to do it. Get help (mentors) along the way. Don’t freak out when you lose the things you thought you could never lose. And let all the shit that happens along the way make you stronger, not more jaded. You’ll reach that much-coveted “rebirth” yet.
Pericles runs through April 10 (recently extended!) at the Theatre for a New Audience (262 Ashland Pl.) $20 New Deal tickets are also available for anyone under 30 and for full-time students. Otherwise, tickets start at $75.