Members of Piven’s Theatre Workshop’s Young People’s Company present “Who Are We This Time?”, marking the company’s 40 years of story theatre.Photo courtesy of Piven Theatre Workshop

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Here is how an esteemed Evanston theater company celebrates a big anniversary: It puts on a show.

The Piven Theatre Workshop’s Young People’s Company, started in 1972, will mark the occasion with a “best of” selection of segments developed from its improvisation and story theater programs over the past four decades. The production is called “Who Are We This Time?” and opens on Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.

“The Young People’s Company is a wonderful way to help kids learn how to contribute to an ensemble, which is like a community, and also to empower them to make decisions,” said Rebecca Kling, a former Evanston resident who started at Piven as a fourth-grader and now teaches there. She will direct one of the segments, “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.”

Other pieces are “The Princess and the Pea,” directed by Joanne Underwood, an original member of the Piven Acting Ensemble; and “J and the Robbers,” a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story, directed by Tom Herman, a Piven alum and WBEZ weekend anchor.

The title sketch comes from a Kurt Vonnegut short story and will be directed by Jennifer Green, Piven Theatre’s artistic director. “It has to do with discovering your voice and discovering your identity,” she said. “It speaks to the reasons why people get involved with theater in the first place.”

The program will also include a segment called “Without a Net,” which was developed by co-founder Byrne Piven to demonstrate how a fully realized story with narrative and dialogue can be developed on the spot from an audience suggestion or theater game. The method is routinely used by improv groups and was first employed by innovators like Mr. Piven and Paul Sills, another Chicago theater legend and founder of Story Theater.

Executive director Leslie Brown explained that Piven classes allow kids to move through the program from grade school through high school, advancing at their own pace and according to their own skills. The students utilize folklore, myth and fairy tales as building blocks. Teachers help them reshape these elements to develop and stage contemporary stories. More than a thousand students a year take part, Ms. Brown said.

Ms. Brown comes from a long line of Piven associates. Her son, husband, mother and mother-in-law (Township Assessor Bonnie Wilson) have all participated in Piven programs at one time or another. As a youth she trained with Joyce and Byrne Piven, developing challenging work from such sources as Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury. The best thing about the program, she says, is that “everyone’s voice is important to the process. It’s a true ensemble experience.”

Information about times and tickets is available at 847-866-6597 or

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...