On Travel & Boston with Entertainer Ryan Melia of PigPen Theater Co.

The multi-talented actor, musician and writer shares his passion for his hometown and his craft, plus a few tips for being on the road

Boston-area native Ryan Melia is one of the seven supremely talented entertainers that embody PigPen Theater Co., a theatrical collective and band that The New Yorker has described as "child geniuses at play." Indeed, since graduating from college in 2011, PigPen has toyed with its own, original form of expression, presenting minimalist visions on stage of epic journeys rich with indie-folk melodies. They're also on the brink of releasing their sophmore LP, rich with said indie-folk melodies. When we recently sat down for a chat with Melia, we learned that he's full of pride for his hometown and that when it comes to traveling he's not keen on group road trips.

So, you're from Massachusetts?

Yeah, I'm from Acton.

But, you live in New York now.

Yeah.

Okay, then pick your allegiance. Pats or Jets?

Patriots. I'm a Boston fan all the way. I like sports a lot. It's a big part of being from Boston.

What is it about Boston that makes people want to come here?

The history. People—especially people who aren't from the East Coast—are kind of shocked at how old everything is in Boston. Like walking around, just how the city has such a zigzaggy, strange layout. That's because it's so old; it probably hasn't changed much. The history is here, and Bostonians love the city, and there's a huge amount of pride. When you go to a city and that is there, you automatically see why it's so loved.

What are some of your favorite Boston music venues?

The Middle East in Cambridge, and The Sinclair. We've gotten to play The Sinclair twice now, and it's awesome.  

If you were organizing your dream music festival, what's your lineup?

Like from all of time? Oh man. I'd like to see Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo play together, do the whole "Graceland" CD. Led Zeppelin would be good, just to get them back together because they never will. Elton John would be awesome. The Beatles would close the night out. I think that's a pretty good lineup.

I'd agree. So tell us a little bit about your PigPen Theater Co.?

Well, we met when we were freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University, and we all studied acting there in the School of Drama. We started off just being seven friends. They have this thing at school where they give the students a week off of classes. You could devise your own pieces of theater, and you had a week to write them and direct them. At the end of the week there was a huge festival where there would be 45 pieces in three days shown. So, when we were freshmen, we decided to do a show together, as the seven of us. We had no idea what it would be, but then people really dug it. We did a show every year and started doing shows outside of school. Since we were college students and didn't really have the money to make it a grand Broadway show, we used what we had in our dorm rooms, like sheets and flashlights, and we cut out shadow puppets. Separately, we played music, so we added music to the show. Our freshman year we just came up with this aesthetic that we really, really liked, of telling folk tales really simply. We have kept doing it since.

Is that what we can we expect at a live performance today?

We've gotten to the point where we are performing as a theater company and as a band. If you come to one of our plays, you'll see original folk tales that the seven of our brains have come up with. They're usually epic journeys, where the character is forced to go through a hero's journey, and at the end of the story have gone around the world or across the ocean. We use the simplest things to tell the story. Simple puppetry or found objects like a lamp or a bottle to make a dog, and that's accepted. It's a way to make an adult audience use their heads like a kid would.

If you see one of our musical performances, then it's really just the music. We started off as a band because people wanted to hear the music from our shows. The shows are full of music, and the songs act as the soundtrack, more so than a musical theater score. It's not really character-driven stuff saying what's going on emotionally for them; it's more like a movie would use a soundtrack. We have songs interspersed throughout the show. We recorded the songs and then we started traveling around.

Do you ever get confused for Ed Sheeran?

Ha ha. I haven't gotten Ed Sheeran. Redheads are grouped together a lot. I've gotten Ron Weasley and Shawn White a lot.  

If you weren't a performer, what would you be doing?

An illustrator. I really wanted to be an illustrator when I was younger.  

What are your own specific interests related to your craft?

Animation is a huge inspiration for me in terms of milieu, but also in terms of me enjoying how something that is usually used for kids can also be enjoyed by adults. Pixar is the perfect example.

You travel a lot. What's it like to be on the go so much? Do you have any tips for us?

My family and my parents are from Ireland, so we used to go there every summer, because all our family lived there. With family summers, I never got to travel [other places] much because of that, because that was our thing. But I've grown, and we are able to hit the road ourselves now. With PigPen, we've got a very specific kind of travel, because it's seven guys in a van with all our stuff, so my first suggestion is: Don't do that. But, if you are traveling on a road trip, I'd say try as hard as humanly possible to be as healthy as you can. Sitting in the car for hours and hours is the least healthy thing. Find ways to run around and eat not horribly. And also, when you go someplace, look up one or two things that are there in that place. No matter what they are, if they are museums or whatever. Sometimes you get to a place and you're like, I don't even know what this place is known for and what I should do. You kind of waste your time there. So have a little bit of a game plan.

Do you have a favorite memory from the road?

We went to Charlotte and we didn't know what that would be like because we had never been to the South before. It was an amazing, fun show. We had nowhere to stay; we were going to get a hotel. There was a guy who worked at the place, and he came up to us, and he was like, 'Hey guys, do you want to stay at our house?' Basically, what they do is, him and his wife, if they like a band, they'll bring them back to their house and house them. It's called the Rock and Roll Motel. They feed you out of the goodness of their hearts. There's no reason, but they do it.

When you travel for fun, what's your vacation style?

I'm not a huge beach person, so vacations are usually more city-oriented. Me and my brother just went on a trip. First to Ireland, just to visit family, but then we made our way to Barcelona to see a soccer game. We were only there for two days, and we saw as much as we could. Then we went to Edinburgh, and we were there for two days, and then we went down to Manchester to see another soccer game. Then we went back to Ireland. It was just a whirlwind of going somewhere and doing something very specific, that we meant to do, and then going somewhere else. That's just usually the way I do it. I'm pretty well prepared when I get somewhere, but also have some time to walk around and try to be surprised, not let yourself be in some kind of blinder situation.

Where are you headed in 2015?

2015 is going to be a lot of music. We are recording a new CD for release midsummer, and we are going to do another big tour in May and June. We are going to the West Coast, East Coast, South, just a huge national tour. In the middle of all that, we are writing two new plays. We don't know when they'll be put up, but writing that stuff is filling in the gaps.