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MelKrodman-canvas.jpg Johanna Austin

Inadvertent Cathedrals: Pig Iron’s Superterranean, Part One

What happens when the authorship of a production shifts away from the playwright or director to the designer? How do you create a show beginning with the space rather than an inquiry, prompt, or text? These are the kinds of questions that Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company is asking in its most recent collaboration with MacArthur “Genius” set designer Mimi Lien: Superterranean, presented in this year’s Fringe Festival in Philadelphia.

Lien began her collaborations with Pig Iron in 2006 when she designed the set for Love Unpunished, a response to 9/11 which took the form of an evacuation staircase, directed by artistic director Dan Rothenberg and choreographed by David Brick. For Lien, “That was a really eye-opening experience,” she says. “From the very beginning, Dan started to muse about what kind of emotional state must one be in when descending 80 flights of stairs, and so he basically knew at that point that the piece was going to be on stairs. We couldn’t make a piece about the rhythm of descending stairs without the stairs. That was the first time they had to [build the set before the process of creation started]. Even back then the seed was planted to build a designed environment first.”

Johanna Austin www.austinart.orgMelKrodman3.jpg

And so, a long collaboration was born: “I guess it’s easy to forget the depth of the conversation at the time,” says Rothenberg. “That was the beginning of a lot of trust. Of being interested in the same things. Mimi was not just interested in her own part. She was interested in the whole thing.” Since then, Lien has become a Pig Iron company member and worked with the company on a number of projects including the massive 2017 A Period of Animate Existence.

As an artistic directorial choice, Rothenberg has been leading the company towards “experiments in authorship.” Their most recent project is an example of this idea. As Lien explains, he is “interested in the notion that a different kind of artist takes the first step. He invited me to do that.” And so, the idea for Superterranean was born.

Lien began by exploring just what kind of starting place she wanted to have: “Oh this is what playwrights feel like! I started thinking another situation where you have a designed environment, and then you put people into it as we were going to build a set and then put actors in it who were going to respond.” Relatively quickly, Lien was drawn to the design of cities and, from there, she “started thinking of utopias which is always something that has interested me. How design can dictate human behavior.”

Johanna Austin www.austinart.orgRollsAndré_IsaacCalvin.jpg

She arrived at the first workshop in the summer of 2017 with research about utopias to share with a small group of company member/performers. Things perhaps didn’t go the way Lien had planned: “I basically started to feel that it was cerebral and dramatically inert. It felt like an idea but it didn’t feel like rich territory. Meanwhile, I had planned for a few field trips.”

They began visiting the Quaker Meeting House on Arch street in which “the square ground plan is meant to support the way people behave in those meetings,” Lien remembered. They also visited the Ephrata Cloister, an intentional religious community founded in the 18th century. Finally, Lien and her collaborators visited a waste water treatment plan in Philadelphia: “I was thinking about this idea of cities, and in turn, the infrastructure that is necessary. And it was kind of following a hunch and a personal aesthetic interest. When we went there everyone basically had their minds blown. We got this amazing four-hour tour. It just was so complex for this very mundane thing that we do. It was just really amazing.” Those four hours seemed to change everything: “It felt very rich in terms of material. It was one of the first signs that it was that particular kind of design. We were moving from the ideas of city as a larger design to these very particular structures.” The group began to work with this material quite closely. Rothenberg pointed out that these kinds of structures are “not [considered] architecture. It’s large-scale technology.” And company member Dito Van Reigersberg named structures like this an “inadvertent cathedral.”

Before even bringing on other designers, Pig Iron brought on Flannel & Hammer as the technical directors. Lien explains, “If the set is going to come first, I wanted to have conversations about to do that. I love collaborating with engineers and technical folks.” Lien and Rothenberg asked them to join the group on “an early kind of mini-design retreat where [Lien] produced five or six different rough models and invited them up to take a look and talk through the possibilities of them.”

Read Part Two on the lighting design and Part Three on the sound design.


  • Concept/Scenario/Set Design Mimi Lien
  • Scenario/Direction Dan Rothenberg
  • Performers Jenn Kidwell, Melissa Krodman, Dito Van Reigersberg, Tony Torn, Saori Tsukuda, Evelyn Chen, Chelsea Murphy, Isaac Calvin, Rolls André
  • Original Music Lea Bertucci
  • Lighting Design Barbara Samuels
  • Composer and Sound Design Lea Bertucci
  • Costume Design Olivera Gajic
  • Stage Manager Lisa Iacucci
  • Dramaturg Geoff Manaugh
  • Choreographic Consultant Rosie Herrera
  • Puppetry Consultant Shayna Strype
  • Movement Consultant Chelsea Murphy
  • Props Artisan Noah Mease
  • Production Sound Engineer Toby Petit
  • Associate Scenic Designer Colin McIlvaine
  • Assistant Director Francesca Montanile
  • Assistant Lighting Designer Catherine Girardi
  • Assistant Costume Designer Scott McMaster
  • Assistant Sound Designer Amanda Hannah
  • Assistant Stage Manager Adam Swez
  • Technical Director Lauren Tracy and Joe Daniels, Flannel & Hammer
  • Venue Manager/Master Electrician Sydney Justice
  • Audio Engineer Amanda Hanna
  • Master Carpenter Scott Halstead
  • Wardrobe Supervisor Seana Benz
  • Dresser Kate Tenen
  • Run Crew Sam Wall and Eli Marsh
  • Production Assistants Gary Bowman, Emma Gordon, Kelly Hayes, and Nancy Merlin
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