The Triangle is rich in theater, but there is one theater company that is different from all the others: Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Inspired by Martin McDonagh's play The Pillowman, in which one little green pig holds out against the conformist pressures of all the pink pigs, this Concern takes on the broadest ideas and deepest feelings with an aesthetic rigor and iconoclastic swagger that is fast making Durham one of the best cities in the country for daring dramatic art.
Although led by artistic director Jay O'Berski and managing director Dana Marks, Little Green Pig is a collaborative venture, an ever-expanding ensemble of actors, writers, musicians, filmmakers, designers and other creative people. Everyone who does anything for a production becomes a member of equal standing. This non-hierarchical membership is about respect for the artists, says O'Berski, a way of demonstrating that they are "not replaceable or interchangeable." Although other members ascribe a central role to O'Berski and Marks, they insist LGP is not theirs alone.
To make LGP's special kind of brilliant, synthesizing total theater—like the recent Fistful of Love, or the earlier Three Sisters (on Ice), or the voodoo A Streetcar Named Desire—requires thinking people with talent, commitment and very little need for sleep. The company's success also requires a willingness to push every element, to skew every angle, to invert every perspective, to heighten every effect, until they achieve the desired "360 degree experience." Says Marks, "Jay and I are a very small part of how it gets done." In her years in New York, she says, she "never encountered anything like this collaborative, cross-pollinating group that cares about and supports each other. ... Jay is an amazingly curious person and a visionary, but we can only do this work because of the pool of people here. It's a whirling pool, a vortex of people."
Michael O'Foghludha has been board chair of Little Green Pig since its inception. In a way, he says, LGP grew out of his and O'Berski's "larger conversation about culture and life." But a project such as this has many sources. It grew out of O'Berski's own previous companies, the groundbreaking Shakespeare and Originals, and the earlier Somnambulist Project (which received an Arts Indie in 1995 and included the Indy's theater and dance critic Byron Woods), but O'Berski is quick to credit Manbites Dog Theater's importance in LGP's genesis. "They were the only omnipresent art theater force here for 20 years. They took a chance on me when I was producing things that no one came to see. ... They still nurture us." O'Berski also credits Kathy Silbiger, former director of Duke Performances, for the push that formed the company after a year of cogitation. She had a space and a time slot in September 2005, and suddenly the brand new Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern coalesced and filled the vacuum with Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. Since then, as Marks says, "It kinda snowballed."
"What Jay has always done is surround himself with people with ideas about things to do," says O'Foghludha. "He has a knack for seeing the things people can do." Back in Shakespeare and Originals days, he saw that Tom Marriott would be a great Lear. He realized Marcia Edmundson should take on Happy Days. More recently, he saw that Lamont Reed, a skinny young black actor with enormous eyes, should play Adolf Hitler in LGP's original adaptation of the sprawling Europe Central. "No rational human would think of Lamont Reed as Hitler, but Jay saw that," O'Foghludha says.
Reed has been in the area only five years, but he has worked with several troupes. "LGP is one of the few companies that has such a diverse mix," he says. "Theater is for the masses, all the people, and when you put limitations on it—by ethnicity—it doesn't reach everyone it could." O'Berski says that the pool of trained talent in the area is now such that "we are truly able to say, 'We want to put the best person in the role, and race is not a factor,' and [the cast] ends up being a quilt."
For Reed, working with LGP is a "wonderful experience. What makes LGP different from most other companies is its non-traditional approach to everything." As an artist, the work is both challenging and renewing to him. "Not in a million years!" would he have thought of himself playing Hitler. "Working with LGP, you have to stay on your toes," he says. "That's one of the joys—it's so refreshing." It is, he says, "a true ensemble. Everyone is taking care of everyone else. There are no loners."
LGP collective member Tom Marriott has been doing theater in the Triangle since 1966. He and his wife had returned to the area with the goal of helping to make regional theater happen. "I did everything I could," he says of his decades of involvement with scores of productions. "One day I woke up and realized that finally it was happening, because here was Jay!" For himself as an artist, LGP is exhilarating. "It's really, really good theater, really satisfying theater, and it's wonderfully independent, not attached to corporate culture. It is community culture, inspired by community artists—who are as good as it gets."
Actress Rachel Klem, who with Jeff Alguire has her own theater company (Ghost & Spice) and own theater (Common Ground), is also a member of Little Green Pig. "I'm a company member just because I was in a play," she says, underlining the group's fluid inclusiveness. (Once you've turned green, apparently you always will be green.) "There is a huge artistic difference between Ghost & Spice and LGP. LGP shows are a lot more avant-garde, more experimental, and cross over aesthetic boundaries. It's a different theatrical voice, and it informs our work at Ghost & Spice. LGP uses a full spectrum of art for a complete physical body experience."
One of the LGP team who contributes to that full body experience is musician Jason Fagg, who is also the company photographer and designer. (He and fellow LGP member Bart Matthews perform musically as The Watercallers.) "The music is never just there" in an LGP production, he says. "We get together and discuss the play and figure out how the music needs to be. ... The music that's added to the text is almost like an added inflection, giving it an emotional power it wouldn't have alone."
Sometimes LGP productions can get pretty strange, but it's all in a day's work. "The role of the artist," notes Fagg, "is to live on the outskirts of what is normal, and to take normal people by the hand and guide them into uncharted areas before sending them back."
Klem says that O'Berski "is tying the theatrical community—and the broader artistic community—together" and finding ways "to make theater pertinent and significant in this day and age. He's bringing younger audiences to theater and making it meaningful." He brings younger people to the stage and the back of the house, as well.
Emily Hower is one of the collaborative's youngest members. She was drawn to working in the theater by a Shakespeare workshop she took with O'Berski when she was just 13. Now 20, she has been creating complex and intriguing sets for LGP shows for two years. She sums up the LGP experience succinctly: "There's so little of the word 'no' involved."
Saying "YES!" takes a lot of resources, most of which LGP acquires by scrounging (tickets are a bargain). Says O'Foghludha, proudly, "We live show-to-show, and live to fight another day. ... We don't have our own stage or building, but we have our ideas."
To carry out the ideas takes something other than money. Says Marks, "You need people with enthusiasm and passion. We've found our people and they live in D-Town!"
Little Green Pig's collaborative nature casts a wide net: Among the approximately 75 members listed on the company's Web site are Douglas Vuncannon, a frequent Indy contributor, and Katja Hill, the partner of Indy culture editor David Fellerath. Fellerath, though not listed, worked on several Little Green Pig productions, most recently in May 2007.