Byrne Piven, Influential Chicago-Area Actor and Teacher, Dead at 72

News   Byrne Piven, Influential Chicago-Area Actor and Teacher, Dead at 72 Byrne Piven, co-founder and artistic director of the influential Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, IL, where John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor and children Jeremy and Shira Piven were trained, died Feb. 18 in an Evanston hospital after a battle with lung cancer.
Byrne Piven.
Byrne Piven.

Byrne Piven, co-founder and artistic director of the influential Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, IL, where John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor and children Jeremy and Shira Piven were trained, died Feb. 18 in an Evanston hospital after a battle with lung cancer.

Mr. Piven was 72. He and his wife, Joyce, celebrated the workshop's 30th year this year. In the 1950s, the Pivens were founding members of Playwright's Theatre Club in Chicago, according to the Piven workshop website. Under the direction of Paul Sills and David Shepard, that troupe featured such players as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Ed Asner and Barbara Harris. The Playwright's company spawned Compass Players and Second City.

Mr. Piven appeared in a wide variety of works over the years, including Shakespeare. In the Windy City, he played Hotspur in Henry IV Part I, Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Antonio in The Tempest. In New York, Mr. Piven played leads with the New York Shakespeare Festival for several years, and moved on to a dozen Off-Broadway productions including the Obie Award-winning A House Remembered.

After touring as King Arthur in Camelot in 1964, Mr. Piven and his family settled in the Chicago area again, in 1967 (he was born in Scranton, PA, and had originally come to Illinois to attend the University of Chicago). The Pivens rejoined Paul Sills, Sheldon Patinkin, Bernie Sahlins and Joyce Sloane in forming Second City Repertory and then Story Theatre. They remained in the Chicago area, living and working in Evanston, just north of the city, and set up the Piven workshop by 1972.

Among Mr. Piven's Chicago credits are The Man in 605, for which he received the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actor, the Piven Theatre Workshop-Famous Door production of The Shoemakers, directed by his daughter Shira, Victory Gardens' The Value of Names with Shelley Berman and This Old Man Came Rolling Home, The Sunshine Boys at the National Jewish Theatre, Robert Falls' Hamlet (starring Mr. Piven's then-student Aidan Quinn) and the Workshop's futuristic production of Macbeth. Mr. Piven's film and TV appearances include "Being John Malkovich" and "The Jack Bull", both with Piven Theatre alum John Cusack, "Creator" with Peter O'Toole, "Pandora's Clock," "Very Bad Things," "The Untouchables," "Miami Vice," "Quantum Leap," "L.A. Law," "Frasier," "The X-Files" and a guest star role on son Jeremy's ABC series "Cupid." Byrne and Joyce Piven were honored as 1996 Artists of the Year by the Chicago Tribune and received the Evanston Arts Council Youth and Education Award, the Evanston Mayor's Award for the Arts, the University of Chicago's Glorious Gargoyle Award for lifetime achievement in the theatre, and the Chicago Drama League's Crystal Award, and a Joseph Jefferson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mr. Piven is survived by his wife, Joyce, son Jeremy Piven, daughter Shira Piven, son-in-law Adam McKay, granddaughter Lili Rose McKay, sister Miriam Piven-Cotler, and brother Herman Piven.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Piven Theatre Workshop for the production fund established in Mr. Piven's memory. Visit piventheatreworkshop.com.

— By Kenneth Jones