A Conversation with Joyce Piven and Jennifer Green
On May 6, 2017, the Piven Theatre Workshop celebrated its 45th anniversary with a gala. Joyce’s adult children, Shira and Jeremy, were there, and so was her Playwrights Theatre Club colleague, Ed Asner. A number of former students, including Aidan Quinn, James Vincent Meredith, Lecy Goranson, Harry Lennix, and Ann Cusack were also present to honor Joyce and the work.
Shortly after the event, I visited Joyce at her apartment for my last of four interviews before she moved to California to be closer to her children. We were joined by Jennifer Green who, in 2006, became the next and only other artistic director after Joyce.
JENNIFER GREEN: Byrne and Joyce Piven were such a profound partnership. It was a personal partnership. It was a professional partnership. It was an artistic partnership, a spiritual partnership. When Byrne died [in 2002], there was a real question about how does the workshop continue, how does the work continue? Is this something that Joyce is wanting to continue on her own? They had been co-artistic directors since the founding. Is she wanting to take the mantle of sole artistic director? What's that process going to be, institutionally? What's that process going to be, personally? That's a profound personal transformation. It's looking at the future of this organization and the legacy of this organization through the lens of grief, through the lens of history.
We found that Joyce had a passion to continue this work and to see Piven as not just a founder's organization but a cultural institution that has its own lifespan, its own journey to take. That conversation started at Byrne's Shiva–– Joyce and I sitting on the steps of their old house and feeling the weight of that change.
She often uses this phrase, “Keep this is no motion.” It just means let it be there. Let it be there. It's not a freeze. It's not an end. There's so much else going on. Let's let this thought be in process.
I remember well my early impressions of Joyce. She made a powerful impression when she walked down the hallway. She was the person that everyone wanted to study with. She was the person that was just so talented and so present and didn't want to suffer nonsense. I remember when I got into Joyce's class it felt very special, and it felt like you had to earn being there. I still think you have to earn it. I think you always have to earn it. You needed to jump with two feet into this method or you shouldn't be in Joyce's class. It doesn't seem a casual idea that's being talked about. It's principle. I was present in this very specific way that I had not ever felt before, or that I didn't know how to access with regularity. It's a joy, but it's a discipline to play. You need to jump in. You need to have that fearlessness and you need to take risks. [She turns to Joyce.] It felt like your class had that energy, and it felt like I was getting this from the ... I'm struggling for the word ... the source—not getting a translation, not something handed down. But from the source.
JOYCE PIVEN: It was interesting. When I started teaching, I felt like I started in a very pure way. I didn't know how to teach. And I didn't know how to teach this particular method. I really didn't know. So: I think I'll fake it. I think I'll do various things like call games––slow motion, double time, body whisper––and see what happens. And people sometimes connected. All of the teaching depends on what you're getting [from students]. You're being changed; I'm being changed. I'm not pushing my agenda the way most acting and teaching is done where it’s spewed out. I'm interacting, so I learned to teach by doing it and seeing how the students respond. It’s good to remind oneself that the idea is to deepen the moment, find the depth of the moment.
[As Piven moves forward] I see challenges that Jen will face that I didn’t have to. Just the simple matter of the world moving faster. Now everything is instant. So the challenge is, how to communicate process which requires patience and time. That'll all be a challenge. Technology too, I think, makes this a tricky time for theater. I think this idea of instant access to information and being present in so many different places electronically is something that we struggle with that we didn't struggle with 10 years ago. People feeling like theater is a place where they can multitask. That they can be on their phone.
No. It’s not a place for that. They need to know that this is a place of privacy and disconnection.
JENNIFER GREEN: What do I feel I am the guardian of? The short answer is of the work. Of the process and the training of the teachers so the process can continue. It's being the guardian of something very experiential, something very elusive. When it's gone it's gone. Even if you have a video, I don't think it communicates the actual event of what theater is in the moment of seeing it in real time and space. And that's the way we train, through that lived experience and that chain of lived experience and story. Joyce, you always say, "We're all a part of the same company." We're all a part of that living chain that goes back for 45 years, and that's what you've hoped for.
JOYCE PIVEN: It’s all one company, yes.
JENNIFER GREEN: There’s a common language where story after story after story can be told. It's like knowing French. You could meet someone you've never spoken to before but if you both speak French you can communicate in the same way. People speak “Piven.”
JOYCE PIVEN: That reminds me of a story. One time, Aiden [Quinn] and Joan Cusack were auditioning for Mike Nichols, and they were preparing in the hall. Joan was using imaginary objects. And Aiden looked at her and said, “Piven.” And instantly, there was family.
I recently had an experience while watching the Young People’s Company perform. I remember a moment. It was a feeling of waves of energy, enormous energy from a past coming across the lights. And I remember standing in the back of the audience, and I thought, This is like the first company. We didn’t lose them; they're still here. The energy is here. It goes on.
JENNIFER GREEN [Takes Joyce’s hand. Pauses.]: Joyce, you taught me how to live a life in the theater. You taught me something about the long haul of the theater and how obligated we are to the next generation and how obligated we are to create something beautiful while we're here. I will be very lucky if I can do what you did. I would be very lucky.
JOYCE PIVEN: Me too. I would be lucky, too. We can only aspire.