Staging a comeback

Abbie Vansickle

She was the quiet one, with fierce, dark eyes and a gift for acting and directing. He was the loud, boisterous one, with a commanding presence and a way of working with actors that made characters spring to life.

Together, Byrne and Joyce Piven created a legend with their theater workshop, forever changing Chicago theater and the lives of countless youth.

But now that Byrne is gone, after surrendering in his long fight with lung cancer in February at the age of 72, Joyce is working hard and trying to cope with the loss of her fellow actor, business partner and companion.

Tonight, she’s likely to realize just how much her life has changed when the first show she has directed since Byrne’s death previews.

“I spend most of my days in my own private space,” Joyce said, her bony fingers tightly weaving in and out of the telephone cord. “There are days when I think I’ll just go somewhere, lock the door and not come out for a couple of months. But I go on teaching. I’m still thinking and processing.”

Joyce and Byrne Piven were made to be a team, colleagues said. Meeting and falling in love as leading actors in Chicago’s Playwrights Theatre, they married and left Chicago for New York City to pursue lives on the stage. Success came, as did two children, Shira and Jeremy.

The Pivens eventually decided to go home to Chicago. Byrne began teaching at Northwestern in 1967 and both acted and directed in companies around the city.

The Pivens also helped actor Paul Sills form the Second City Repertory Theatre and the original Story Theatre.

As their children grew older, the Pivens had an idea: They would start a children’s theater workshop and company, giving their kids something to keep them busy after school and allowing the experts to pass on their experience.

So the Pivens started teaching at the Evanston Art Center. Soon, family friend Nancy Cusack and her husband, actor and documentary filmmaker Dick Cusack, enrolled their five children, Joan, John, Susan, Ann and Bill. The Piven Theatre Workshop was born.

The workshop, now headquartered at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., is still flourishing as people of all ages learn the Pivens’ unique acting approach.

“We had a great collaboration,” Joyce said. “We had a unique process. We live in a world where the process is an endangered species.”

The couple’s relationship, both on and off the stage, was vital to the development of their acting technique, said Jennifer Green, Speech ’93. Green is co-directing playwright David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” an exploration into the world of Hollywood producers, which previews at the Piven Theatre tonight.

“They had an incredible, symbiotic relationship,” Green said. “Their philosophy is very much about play. Together they built an incredible place.”

It’s this process of combining spontaneity and theater “games” with close textual readings that has made the Pivens’ technique famous.

The workshop has spawned some of the most distinguished actors and directors of the past 30 years, including Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor, John and Joan Cusack and, of course, the Pivens’ own children, as well as helping thousands of other people learn creative thinking.

Their son, Jeremy, known for his roles in television’s “Ellen” and recently released movies such as “Black Hawk Down” and “Serendipity,” is still active in his mother’s endeavors and flew into Chicago from Hollywood on Wednesday night to critique a dress rehearsal.

Jeremy, who helps financially support the workshop along with the Cusacks and other famous alumni, said he could not imagine his life without his training there.

“This is where I came from and where so many people learned the work,” he said. “My parents have so much gratitude and love. They don’t believe in giving up. … I grew up in the work and I’m incredibly lucky.”

In addition to cultivating several well-known artists, the Piven’s technique has garnered them national recognition over the years. In the past three years, three of the Piven Theatre’s productions have recommended for Joseph Jefferson awards, the Chicago version of New York’s Tony Awards and two were listed among the Top Ten Shows of the Year by the Chicago Sun-Times.

In 2000, Joyce and Byrne received a Joseph Jefferson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Byrne is the “guardian” of that theatrical technique, Joyce said. She still speaks of him in the present tense.

“In creating our technique, we went further than anyone else to bring life to the script,” she said. “Almost everything I teach now came to me through Byrne. I’m the translator of his method.”

Joyce plans to continue translating her husband’s ideas and maintaining the Piven Theatre Workshop’s dedication to shaping the technique of actors young and old.

Mounting a production of Byrne’s play, which he was still finishing during his illness, with the help of her children is one way Joyce hopes to continue her husband’s creative vision.

Jeremy called his mother’s return to directing so soon after his father’s death “very courageous” and said he would take on whatever role his mother wanted for him in the workshop.

“I think the fact that my mom’s going back into the work is significant,” he said. “This is all a nurturing experience. I told her that my dad’s with her when she’s up there directing and she knows it. She’s the strongest person I know, that’s for sure.”

Joyce said she acknowledged her husband’s continuing influence over her life by dedicating the Piven Theatre’s production of “Speed-the-Plow” to her husband.

“When Byrne got ill, the plan for him to direct his play got put off,” she said. “But the creative work we started goes on and it’s my job to make sure that job continues.”

“Speed-the-Plow” opens Friday at the Piven Theatre in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston and runs through May 26.

Showtimes are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $22 for adults and $17 for students and seniors. Reservations are recommended. For tickets, call (847) 866-8049.