What began as seven college students with a creative spark has morphed into PigPen Theatre Co.’s rocket-fueled success story, punctuated by two full-length albums, sold-out national tours, a feature film cameo alongside Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash, and acclaim from highbrow publications like the New Yorker. In 2017 they enchanted local audiences with their readymade instruments in The Old Man and the Old Moon, a completely original tour de force of music, puppetry, and campfire folklore. Since then, theater companies across the country have begun licensing the rights to that show, including Coronado Playhouse. This month the talented troupe returns to The Old Globe with a world-premiere musical based on Kate DiCamillo’s beloved book The Tale of Despereaux. Here, we chat with actor Ryan Melia about PigPen’s new project and the art of telling stories en masse.
For The Tale of Despereaux, the cast will include additional actors beyond the original seven members of PigPen. How will that affect the dynamic?
We’re calling it a "PigPen plus" show, so it’s going to be a little enhanced. We’re just excited about having more voices and some female voices. The leads are going to be four people who are going to help take the story off the page in a way we couldn’t if it were just the seven of us.
How did your unique style evolve?
It came from all of us having similar tastes in what we liked growing up and what things we liked in theater. It’s theater that’s not about realism, but about the event of being in a room and telling a story and not putting up a wall between the audience and the performers.
Who were some of your main influences?
A theater company called The Suitcase Royale. They were just three guys from Australia, and their style of storytelling directly affected us in the sense that it was handmade, music driven, super goofy and ridiculous at points—kind of like a cartoon onstage—also with a sense of mystery. And Pixar is a big storytelling influence. Their audience is so broad; young people and older people can all agree that their movies are moving and funny and engaging.
You’ve had so much success over the last few years. What has been the highlight?
The first time we did a national tour as just a band. That was a really big jump, to say that we’d go to places in the middle of nowhere, and bring our music there, and people would come. That, and when we got to meet Meryl Streep.
What do you hope audiences take away from your new show?
It’s a story about people who have to go outside themselves and listen to other stories to get the full picture. If that comes across, that would be great, because that’s something we believe everyone could stand to hear.