'A twisty tale of mayhem and allegorical ridiculousness" - that is how the Pig Iron Theatre Company described its own dizzying 2015 production I Promised Myself to Live Faster.
The description could well stand for everything the interdisciplinary ensemble has done in its 20 official years of existence, with more than 24 original works (not counting daringly athletic takes on, say, Twelfth Night, as they did in 2011) and an educational program (the seriously clowning Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training).
Saturday brings the Pig Iron Anniversary Festivities, held in and around the company's headquarters on North Second Street. It's something of a madhouse dinner party with a slideshow and friends old and new - plus, of course, the hosts, Pig Iron's fire-starters and CEOs, Dan Rothenberg, Dito van Reigersberg, and Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel.
Was Pig Iron meant to endure this long?
"Super-not-built-to-last, which is maybe why it did," van Reigersberg says. "The three of us were really interested in working together on projects, not in creating an institution, so we fashioned just enough infrastructure to support the plays we wanted to make - an impulse that kept us pretty scrappy."
The three local theater scene/Swarthmore College friends brought their version of The Odyssey to the 1995 Edinburgh Fringe Festival even before they had a name. They bandied about some candidates: Bricks and Bones, the Rafters, and Lettuce Sea Theatre Company, before coming up with Pig Iron, inspired by the prominence of that material in David Mamet's play American Buffalo. Pig iron also has a stage significance, as van Reigersberg points out, as "raw metal used in the theatre in fly systems as counterweight for set pieces that fly in. That image is kind of cool."
In 1996, the trio brought Pig Iron to Swarthmore, with the show Dig or Fly. The next year, they did Cafeteria at Philly's first Fringe Festival. That show was at the Seaport Museum. Ten minutes past the scheduled start time, no one from Fringe had shown up to emcee.
Pig Iron started to panic, recalls Rothenberg: "We found out that there was a line around the block, and the box office volunteers were overwhelmed. To this day, we have no idea why, in 1997, with no track record in Philly, we drew such a large audience." From there, the big audiences never ceased.
What is the ultimate Pig Iron show?
Bauriedel says it's their 2004 effort Hell Meets Henry Halfway. "If Cafeteria is about image and action, Henry is about language, and the way that words and actions wound.
"Pay Up [from 2006], too . . . broke certain rules about theater and gave audiences an active experience. A number of our pieces ask audiences to walk around, to get involved in the action."
Bauriedel also names 2001's Shut Eye, a dream-play about sleep: "The collaboration with Joe Chaikin was amazing, and he gave the company nourishment that we continued to build on in the years after." Shut Eye will be part of Saturday's 20th anniversary celebrations.
The whole soirée celebrates the establishment of Pig Iron on North Second as a school and a company headquarters. "We really like having a space, a school, and roots in a neighborhood," Bauriedel says. "We have a home base. Our studios have sweat and dirt in the walls that we put there."
Now in development is A Period of Animate Existence, a five-act music theater piece about the fragility of the planet.
"I still can't believe it, the serendipity that brought us together at Swarthmore College so many moons ago," van Reigersberg says. "We want to keep surprising each other, and the audience, for many years more. We want to keep doing the next hardest thing."
The Pig Iron Anniversary Festivities start at 4 p.m. Saturday at Pig Iron Theatre Company, 1417 N. Second St. Free; some events are donation with RSVP. Information: pigiron.org