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By Brian Robin

What Is PigPen Theatre Company?

The New Yorker described their work as “… like watching child geniuses at play.”

Scott Brown in Vulture expanded on that theme:

“Every once in a while, a new group of absurdly talented young performers band together and show us how delightfully uninhibited, how effortlessly inventive, how unapologetically and how unpretentiously playful theater can be. …”

Not to be outdone, Time Out New York called them, “…witty, multitalented and adorable (if things had turned out differently, they probably could have started a very successful boy band).”

Actually, PigPen Theatre Co., did start a boy band—of sorts. But we’ll get to that later. First, it’s important to describe what PigPen Theatre Co. is, who’s in it and how their innovative, fun, dynamic brand of theatre creates works such as The Old Man and The Old Moon, this summer’s Outside SCR production that runs July 20-Aug. 11 at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Directed by SCR Associate Artistic Director Kim Martin-Cotten, The Old Man and The Old Moon is an epic adventure across land, sea and sky–all in the name of love! Indie-folk music and ingenious staging transform this tall tale into a thrilling theatrical event like no other. The Old Man who keeps the moon filled with light wakes up one morning to find his wife has gone, lured away by a mysterious melody. In his quest to find her, he encounters colorful characters, gets caught in an apocalyptic storm and is swallowed by a giant fish. Can he find her before the moon runs out of light and the world plunges into darkness?

Theatres from Williamstown, Mass. to Beverly Hills have produced The Old Man and The Old Moon, and it played to critical acclaim every time.

PigPen Theatre Co. began in 2007 when seven Carnegie-Mellon University freshmen—all hailing from different parts of the country—found each other in the drama program. After Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi and Dan Weschler realized they played different instruments, they began writing folk songs together.

As sophomores, they joined forces and wrote what Shahi calls “a dark campfire story about a hunter searching in the woods for a bear who killed his son.” They staged The Hunter and the Bear for CMU’s Playground Festival, a week-long festival of theatre created by CMU students. Featuring shadow puppets and the innovative use of everyday objects to tell the story, the play was the genesis of what PigPen’s works would become. It eventually earned several critics’ picks and award nominations during its 2016 run at Writers Theatre in Chicago.

Incorporating music in their next works, in 2010 and 2011, PigPen became the first group to win the New York City Fringe Festival’s top honor for a play two consecutive years, with The Nightmare Story and The Mountain Song. And the members were barely 20.

In between, the group wrote The Old Man and The Old Moon as their second play. Shahi said the heart of that show is largely the same as it is now, “but we were still very young playwrights.”

“When we graduated, there was a lot of heat behind the two shows we did at the Fringe Festival, so we had to tour those shows on the fringe circuit,” he said. “But we kind of wanted to write bigger shows, so we all decided to go back to The Old Man and The Old Moon. We rewrote that script and self-produced it off-Broadway. It was the second iteration of that show and it did very well. That put us on the map as far as being an actual theatre company.”

The “actual theatre company” was different in a lot of ways audiences and critics embraced. PigPen not only told relatable stories, but did so in a creative manner that invited audiences along on every fanciful journey. The company became known for its innovative, low-tech use of props, their original music that draws comparisons to Mumford & Sons, inventive puppetry and a chemistry that crackles on—and off-stage.

Broadway World described PigPen’s work as “Once meets Peter and the Starcatcher.”

“This wily group of recent Carnegie-Mellon University graduates tells folksy tales with their singing, puppets and shadow screens, employing common items like flashlights, crates and burlap sacks while conjuring dozens of characters. Their versatility is delightful to watch. Their hard work seems effortless,” reads Ken Jaworowski’s “Critics Pick” in the New York Times from 2012.

From there, as Shahi said, “over the years, it snowballed.” In 2018, PigPen created the first of two stage musicals based on novels: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, book by Rick Elice. The Tale of Despereaux premiered at The Old Globe in 2019, before moving to Berkeley Repertory Company at the end of that year. Water for Elephants, which featured PigPen’s score, opened on Broadway in March of this year. It earned seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.

Here’s where we get back to the “boy-band” reference. After the seven graduated from CMU, they were signed to a record label. Their 2012 debut album, Bremen, combined warm harmonies, layered instrumentation with soaring strings and even banjos in a rich, melodic stew, ranked the No. 10 Album of the Year by the Huffington Post in its 2012 Grammy Preview.

They later followed-up Bremen with the studio album, Whole Sun, and The Way I’m Running, which came out as PigPen was touring during the summer of 2013.

Experience PigPen’s theatrical genius for yourself. Tickets are on sale and can be purchased online at or by calling SCR Ticket Services at (714) 708-5555. 

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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