Joyce Piven has come to directing theater relatively late in life. Since her undergraduate days at the University of Chicago in the early 50s Piven has found herself again and again in the vanguard of the ongoing evolution of American theater, but usually in the role of performer or teacher.

At the U. of C. Piven (then Joyce Hiller) became involved in the school’s active theater scene. Even though there was no drama department–there still isn’t–a group of bright young actors, among them Mike Nichols, Fritz Weaver, Ed Asner, and Zohra Lampert, had gathered around a pair of creative young directors: Paul Sills and David Shepherd. Sills, the son of Viola Spolin, famous for her improvisation games, was impatient to make his own mark. Shepherd, a Harvard graduate with dreams of creating a “workers’ theater” similar to those in Weimar Germany, encouraged Sills’s theatrical experiments. Together they formed the nucleus of a driven group of young actors.

In 1953, Piven was a member of the group led by Sills and Shepherd that took over a Chinese restaurant in Old Town and converted it into what was in many respects the first off-Loop theater: the Playwrights Theatre Club. Piven and her future husband Byrne were among those who built the theater, performed in shows, and even lived illegally in the theater, sleeping in the cubbyholes where restaurant booths used to be.

“We were all creative and intellectual and very arrogant,” Piven remembers, “in the way young people are when they know what they want.”

The Playwrights Theatre Club folded after only two years, but in its short life it managed to present 25 productions, including an unauthorized version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in which Piven appeared as the Governor’s Wife, and a much-acclaimed production of The Dybbuk, in which she starred and which was directed by Byrne Piven.

When the theater company fell apart, Joyce Hiller and Byrne Piven left Chicago for New York and got marrried, while those who stayed behind, among them Sills and Shepherd, formed the Compass, the company that would later evolve into Second City.

For several years the Pivens lived as gypsies: studying acting with Uta Hagen and Mira Rostova (who worked with Stanislavsky), teaching acting “in all five boroughs” of New York City, touring the country with a production of Camelot, and in the middle of it all, beginning a family. By the time they returned to Chicago in the mid-60s to work with Sills at the short-lived Second City Repertory (a Second City spin-off), they had two children in tow, Shira and Jeremy.

One day Sills came to the theater and said “I’m going to read you a fairy tale.” He read a story called “The Blue Light,” and when he was finished he said “Why don’t you get up and do it?” “Paul’s entire direction can be summarized with that phrase,” says Piven now. “I remember once when I got stuck playing Nina in The Seagull, I pleaded with him, ‘Please, help me,’ and he said ‘Just do it.'”

Soon after, Sills formed a company to perform story theater, the form he’d developed in which fairy tales were simultaneously narrated and acted out. It was housed in Second City’s recently vacated space, just a few blocks north of their current home on Wells. Piven performed for a while with the company, before Sills, ever restless, closed the theater and moved to New Haven to develop a story theater company at Yale. “Paul was always shedding forms and people. Byrne and I went a long way with him. But eventually he shed us as well.”

From Chicago the Pivens moved to Houston, where Byrne had a teaching job. After a year they moved back. This time they landed in Evanston.

“Byrne was working at Northwestern then and we were living in a retirement hotel that was on its last legs.” It was in Evanston that Joyce Piven experienced one of the turning points of her life.

“Jeremy was going to some sort of summer school, and every morning, cigarette, cup of coffee,” Piven mimes a cup in one hand, cig in the other, “I would walk with him to the corner to put him on the bus. And every morning there was this girl waiting there, with pigtails, snub nose, glasses. She made contact. She said, ‘Can I take care of Jeremy on the bus? I’ll take care of him, make sure he’s OK.’ And then, later, she’d give me a report–did he behave, was he OK.

“And I started looking forward to going to that damned corner,” she chuckles, “because of that bright kid, with that face and that spirit. There was something about her that was very unusual. This bright child was like a little flame. Turned out that that was Ann Cusack.”

Ann Cusack and Shira Piven became close friends, and Joyce Piven began thinking about holding a drama class for them. Shira, Ann, and Ann’s sister Joan became the core of a group of students taking Joyce’s class at the Evanston Art Center. In the past, teaching had been just a way to make money; this time around, Piven says, the experience energized her.

“What we did in those classes was use Viola Spolin’s theater games to explore the performance dynamic. I think Viola Spolin’s a genius. The games are inexhaustible. And Spolin explored every single aspect of performing art. Ensemble work. Those magic times in theater when everything is new, and everybody is working together.”

At the same time, Byrne Piven was teaching classes for adults at the art center. After two years of sharing studios with artists, the Pivens moved their classes into their own rented space on Davis Street. In 1975 they moved into Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center and incorporated as the Piven Theatre Workshop, and the school gradually gained a national reputation, particularly as a training ground for young people, with such well-known alums as the many Cusacks, Rosanna Arquette, and Aidan Quinn.

In 1979, Piven went in for minor surgery, to have a polyp removed from a vocal chord.

There were complications. “They changed the geography of my whole setup here,” she says, gesturing to her throat. “So that I was unable to make any sound for almost a year and a half. It was very traumatic. Like being a dancer without feet. The doctor who had done the operation assumed I was having a hysterical reaction to the operation. The speech pathologist who took over told me, ‘Mrs. Piven, you have every reason to be hysterical. You can’t speak.’ And so I spent the next decade regaining my voice.”

Needless to say, her acting career was curtailed. Piven could only communicate by miming or, later, when her voice returned as a whisper, by speaking into a bullhorn.

Up to this point Piven had been primarily acting and teaching, though once a year she directed a production of the workshop’s Young People’s Company, the best of the school’s teenage actors. Now she turned her attention more to directing, staging among other things adaptations of short stories on which she and Byrne collaborated.

It was during this period that Piven met Lili Taylor. “Lili was in my high school classes. She was auditioning for movies and wanted a coach. She wanted to do a monologue from Mud; she was in love with the material.”

Maria Irene Fornes’s somber, harrowing play concerns three destitute people, two shiftless men and a woman who makes her living ironing, who live a life of Beckett-like despair in rural Tennessee. “It’s only an hour long, very compact, very intense. It’s like a piece of electricity, live.”

Piven became as enamored of the play as Taylor was, and soon they were making plans to do a workshop production of it, with Taylor in the lead. “We ran Mud for four or five weeks, but it never had a full, committed, professional run. We didn’t invite the Chicago critics.” Piven did, however, invite the playwright herself, who was in town conducting a writing workshop at the Organic Theater. Fornes came up to Piven’s Evanston-based workshop, and was very taken with the production. She hung around afterward talking with the actors, discussing the intricacies of the production. “She stayed and stayed. She was amazed with how young Lili Taylor was and liked us very much.”

From the moment that production closed, Piven and Taylor “dreamed of doing it again.” In the meantime, Taylor landed roles in several movies, including Mystic Pizza and Say Anything . . . And four years passed before Piven and Taylor could finally get together for a professional production of Mud. It opens this Sunday featuring Taylor, Paul Quinn reprising his 1988 role, and Tom Webb.

Mud will play at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln, through December 20. See the theater listings in section two for show times and ticket info, or call 871-3000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.