For better or for worse, Joyce Piven is most famous for being Jeremy's mom. She got what has to have been the widest media exposure of her life when she showed up at the 2005 Emmy Awards as her actor son's "date," to watch him win a statuette for playing slippery talent rep Ari Gold on HBO's Entourage.
But Piven mere is much more than maternal arm candy. An actor in her own right, she was an original member of Playwrights Theatre Club, the legendary ensemble whose 1953 founding foreshadowed both the off-Loop theater movement and Chicago-style improvisation. In the early 1970s she and her husband, Byrne, started the Piven Theatre Workshop, where they developed and taught an approach that draws heavily on their studies with another improv matriarch, the hugely influential theater-games theorist Viola Spolin. Along with Jeremy and his sister—actor/director Shira Piven—early members of PTW's Young People's Company included John, Joan, and Ann Cusack.
Now Piven has put what she's learned over the last six decades into a book. Written with Susan Applebaum, In the Studio With Joyce Piven (Methuen) collects and contextualizes the activities that structure PTW workshops. Here, in edited form, is what she had to say about it during a recent interview.
I'm wondering about the dynamic between you and Byrne. How did you work together?
With great difficulty. I'm joking. Well, let me put it this way. I was a perfect student, and I was enamored not only of Byrne but of the work, and Byrne's vision really is what propelled the workshop and all the way through. It continues today. It's a vision of community and ensemble and the richest kind of training.
But how did it happen on a daily basis?
Well all right, here's an example. I'd be teaching, and Byrne might walk by; he'd be walking through, and I'd be teaching a game of—maybe a game called "Give and Take." And he'd look over his shoulder and say, "You're doing it all wrong." And I would tell him, "I'm not doing it all wrong. No way." And of course I was. I mean, he was brilliant about the principles. And that's also what makes our work different: it was infused and guided by principles rather than recipes. That's what I learned through being with Byrne.
I am now, of course, the guardian of the principles. You know, recipes get used up right away. But if you have the principles, you can create new games, new recipes, which is what we did. We used the Spolin games and the basic principles of Spolin and created maybe as many [new] games as are in her canon.
I know it's in the book, but tell me what the principles are.
Well, I can give you an example. "Give and Take"—let's take that game. The basic principle is a focus on the other, the other person or the task at hand, and off of self. In "Give and Take" one person moves at a time. Everybody else is frozen. That person continues to move until he gives stage to another person, or until someone takes it from him. The goal, as people do this, is transformation. When someone gives you stage, you're receiving impulse.
What does that mean, impulse?
What it means is just what you think it means: something spontaneous.
So you receive permission to go on your impulse.
Yes. The person gives this impulse to someone else, and the other person receives it. Now here's the subtlety: the person receiving the impulse may be expecting the other person to come around and may make up something to give in return, rather than being spontaneous. So when Byrne walked by and said, "You're not doing it right," it was because that pure moment of receiving wasn't taking place. That refinement of principle was something that he was continually overseeing, until I mastered the principle totally myself. Once I did that, then I could begin to innovate in the work. And that's why I was able to carry the work on after he died [in 2002].
You were both at Playwrights Theatre Club. I'm wondering about the influence of Playwrights on what you ended up doing.
Yes, well, you see, Viola came in and taught us the games. It was right in the middle of our doing The Seagull at Playwrights. Those are her basic principles. Her games have actually been put in a box, like a recipe box, and sold.
Right, as cards.
Yes. And that's how they've been treated by a lot of teachers. But we took her principles, which were, I think, from God. Very mystical. We once asked her about a game and she said, "I don't know. I can't give you an answer, because I received it from on high." And I believed it. That story is in the book.
You also talk in the book about the feeling of your cheeks burning as a gauge of being in the moment, which has a mystical element, too. It's very intuitive.
One of Shira's students put it brilliantly. She said, "Oh I get it, you're training the impulse"—which, of course, is an oxymoron. But that's exactly what makes this different from all other training: how we treat all the games, or at least how Byrne and I did.
Let's go back to "Give and Take." We would call out, "All right, give and take in the playground." Or, give and take in the park." Or, "6 AM in the morning, give and take." "Sounds—6 AM-in-the-morning sounds." "The lake, 6 AM in the morning." "The lake, 12 o'clock at night, give and take." Any way you want to express it—sound, movement. And the people—that energy. Once you get a motor going in a pure way, you get a transformation going. I'm telling you, it's mystical. Because you go places that you couldn't have figured out in your head. The impulse of a body is so profound, and that's what we're trying to access. And that's related to being creative in the present, on the stage, in the text.
Are you worried about putting all of this into a book in the sense that someone might end up trying to use it as a set of recipes instead of the way you just talked about it?
No, I'm not, because I think the book stresses, all the way through, a reminder about the principles. And if they do that [i.e., treat the content as a set of recipes], it will come to an end. They'll exhaust it. It won't generate. It'll just die. It'll become boring and useless, as most games will if you use them up. Any game, if not used with the principles, is finally used up.
It's a very subtle thing to get. People want to control the situation. You know what I'm saying? They want to control the class and the games and everything, and you have to let go. You have give and take—you have to take. You have to receive. The beauty of doing what we do is that you have to receive and let go. You have to explore. Here's another principle: explore and heighten. You have to face the chaos of the unknown and explore. And you have to let people fail, make mistakes. So to get back to what you're saying, Be my guest, anybody who wants to [misuse] the book. They can't. But if they take the principles, that's what I'm trying to give. Take them. Run with them. Use them. Illuminate the text with them. Liberate the artist with them. Celebrate them. Use them. I welcome it.
How does the Method relate to what you're teaching?
You mean Method in the Actor's Studio [sense]. Marlon Brando.
Okay. Well, let me wander on this one. Byrne and I were trained by Uta Hagen and Mira Rostova, and this is why Methuen, our publishers in England, wanted to publish the book. They have books in England on the games galore. What was unique to our work was that we translated Method principles and Method work into games. We started doing that unconsciously from the very beginning, because we were trained by Uta, and we were teaching without the games for a while when we were in New York—teaching Uta's method, which was [based on] conflict. I want something and the other person wants that and we have a conflict about it. It's mine, no it's mine, etc, etc. Conflict. And we found that was pretty much unproductive because we didn't have any principles to work with. So later, when we had the games, we could easily— We invented a game called "To Get": I want your lunch. I'm hungry, I have no lunch. You have lunch. I want your lunch. And then you explore and heighten that. And it becomes an improvisation in agreement without negative. . . . You agree to disagree.
Do you find that these things play into the way you live your life, as opposed to the way you do your art or the way you teach?
Oh yes, I think so. You have to receive and you have to be. It's a cliche, isn't it, that life is an improv? The courage to explore and heighten. When you're in the moment and you want to pick out your response instead of facing the unknown—[instead] of saying, "I don't know what comes next. Let's see what happens."
Piven will participate in a panel at the Playwrights Theatre Club 60th-anniversary reunion event, Sun 6/23, 3 PM, Up Comedy Club, 230 W. North, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, free, but reservations required.