In 2011, the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company opened its School for Advanced Performance Training. The school, which grants a two-year certificate in theatrical performance, is composed of forward-thinking theater-makers with a desire to forge new boundaries for live performance. The school trains its students in the skills needed to become a total theater artist, including physical conditioning, movement, acrobatics, voice, play, improvisation, theater creation and dance.
Former Lock Haven resident Caitlin Antram is a member of the school's inaugural class, which is comprised of 15 students from across the country.
Antram moved to Lock Haven from Allentown when she was 10. She graduated from Central Mountain High School in 2004 and earned her bachelor of arts degree in theater from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2008. Growing up, Antram performed in several productions at the Millbrook Playhouse in Mill Hall.
Former Lock Haven resident Caitlin Antram is a member of the inaugural class of Pig Iron Theatre Company’s School for Advanced Performance Training in Philadelphia.
Antram's Pennsylvania roots run deep. "My mom's family is from the Lock Haven area and my grandmother still lives there," Antram said. "My entire family is from Pennsylvania and have lived there all their lives."
As an undergraduate, Antram became interested in devising, a theatrical method which values original and improvised work over already-scripted pieces. "Devising is a word we throw around when we mean 'making it up,' " Antram explained. "It means gathering from observation and improvising, learning from what you see and translating that to the stage. In devising, we use themed improvisations to mine for little nuggets of gold to expand upon."
Antram was attracted to Philadelphia because of its reputation as a center for devised theater. "I was really attracted to the type of work I had seen in Philadelphia and knew existed there," Antram said. "I was aware that Philadelphia was a big - and getting to be bigger - devising city, a city where people make their own work as opposed to performing work that's already been written. One of the most prominent theater companies that I had heard so much about was Pig Iron. I knew they were a big deal and I knew they were a devising company."
Soon after moving to Philadelphia, Antram made a firm decision to pursue postgraduate studies in devised theater. Antram's first choice was to follow the Lecoq Method, a physical approach to theater created by Jacques Lecoq, founder and namesake of L'Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, France.
"I adamantly decided that I was going to go to the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA), which was started by a man who worked directly with Jacques Lecoq, who is kind of like the figurehead of this type of devising work," Antram said. "Up to that point you really couldn't get Lecoq training in the United States. It seemed like you had to go to Europe to get this kind of education."
As Antram explained, the basic difference between the Lecoq method and the standard American way of creating theater is that the Lecoq method comes from the body, while the standard American approach originates in the mind. "In the standard, realistic approach, you're supposed to find the internal story and the internal struggle and use your own memories and experiences to paint a psychological portrait of a character," Antram said. "The physical approach that we're working with is the complete opposite. It requires you build a vocabulary with your body that expands what you're able to communicate. There are ways of conveying things with your body that you wouldn't necessarily be able to based on your own psychology. The Lecoq method expands what you're capable of as an instrument instead of just as a person."
By sheer coincidence - or, as Antram put it, "serendipity" - Antram learned about a newly-created school in Philadelphia that was offering devised performance training based on the Lecoq method.
"Literally, the very same week that I was making my decision about where to go to school, I went on the Pig Iron Theatre's website and blazoned across their homepage was 'Coming Fall 2011: The Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training,' " Antram said. "So I read all about the school and realized 'holy crap, they're opening LISPA here in Philadelphia!' It just kind of happened and worked out for the best. It was totally meant to be."
Antram is just finishing up her first year at the Pig Iron School of APT and she was happy to rave about the curriculum. "It's pretty spectacular," she said. "They've been working on the curriculum for five or six years, developing exactly how they want the school to operate. The way everything progressed throughout the first year and the way tools were built on each other was flawless. A lot of what we're learning is from Lecoq's pedagogy, including specific body training and a vocabulary of movement that becomes a common way of working."
The first year curriculum is intense. Students often spend between four and seven hours in class every day. "The whole first year has been a foundation year," Antram said. "We've gone through all the basic tools that come from the Lecoq pedagogy as well as styles of working and creating that Pig Iron has developed in their 15 years together as a company."
As much as Antram has enjoyed the Pig Iron curriculum, she said her training has not been without challenges. "Taking risks is a constant challenge," Antram said. "You have to push the limits of what you think you're capable of doing and push the boundaries of how you understand character. Improvising is challenging, too - speaking when you don't know what's coming out of your mouth and making it work and making it live and coming to understand that there's a delicate art to making something work on stage. You have to be able to recognize when something is working and why it's working."
Antram said much of her time every week is spent working collaboratively on projects and practicing theater-making with her fellow students for faculty evaluation.
"Part of the program is that we devise on a weekly basis," Antram said. "There's a class called 'Creation' that meets every Friday. Each week, we're given an assignment - usually a title or prompt - that will be performed the following week. We spend every week devising the piece. We're creating theater constantly. It's practically coming out of our ears, which is awesome. It's like a muscle. You can only get better by doing it over and over again."
With so much emphasis on improvised and original work, I asked Antram if she ever missed doing a traditional play with a straightforward script. "I don't," Antram said. "I like diving into a good play and getting up on stage, but this is what gets my gears going and it always did. My world has been blown wide open by everything I've done with the Pig Iron School so far. And yes, I totally appreciate good playwriting, but I find this more rewarding. This involves working with other people. You have to collaborate and struggle. But when it succeeds, it's so much better. It's the biggest high in the world when you put something on stage that you made - something that you wrote on your feet - and it works."
Outside of theater, Antram - who works as a server at The Dandelion, a British pub-style restaurant in Philadelphia - also is a talented singer.
She is part of a vocal trio called "The Cherry Blossoms" and sings in a wedding band called "Wasabi." "Singing is a big part of who I am as a performer," Antram said. "It's something I hope to continue doing."
In terms of her long-term career ambitions, Antram said she remains "open to life." "I've always been very resistant to creating five-year plans for myself because I feel like life is constantly throwing wrenches in five-year plans. I do want to make work. I do want to perform and I would be open to teaching as well because I'm good at that aspect of the work and I like sharing it."
One thing Antram is sure of is that she will continue to pursue devised theatre, which she says is growing and gaining more recognition, especially in her home city of Philadelphia.
"Devised theater is getting to be more of a thing," Antram said. "The theatre community of Philadelphia has realized that this seems to be the direction that the artists here are moving in and they've really embraced it. I think the community is on board to seek recognition as a center for devised work. The Pig Iron Theatre Company is a big part of that initiative. They want to make Philadelphia a devising city in terms of America's theater world."
For a performer interested in 'devising' her theatrical career, it seems Antram picked a good home.