Debate rages over Piven's plan to fix up Noyes Center

If you were to inventory the cultural assets of Evanston, you'd start with Northwestern University and then, very quickly, would get to the Piven Theatre Workshop. There is the famous, and famously complex, Piven family itself: Joyce Piven, now 83, and the late Byrne Piven, who for decades taught North Shore teenagers, including their own children Jeremy (the star of HBO's "Entourage" and "Mr. Selfridge" on PBS) and Shira (an actress turned Hollywood director who is married to Adam McKay, the movie director and co-founder of "Funny or Die"). There are the illustrious movie-star alumni: John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor. And then there are the many former Piven students who are lawyers or businesspeople by profession, but who spent their formative years learning to speak, emote and self-actualize in a Piven class and who now are resource-rich and powerful and who remain profoundly grateful for their eduction.

Evanston is not over-burdened with such nationally famous institutions, which made the spectacle early this month at the Evanston City Council's Human Services Committee meeting all the more bizarre. There were artists testifying against other artists; artists arguing that other artists should not get a sweetheart deal from the city; and Evanstonians furiously angry with the Piven Theatre Workshop and doing everything in their power to stop its scheme.

At that May 6 meeting, more than 50 individuals, the record shows, took to the microphone to urge the committee to reject a Piven proposal that would see the theater company greatly increase its footprint at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, a city-owned building at 927 Noyes St. that everyone agrees is falling apart, without funds available for repair. The Piven Theatre has said it wants to save the center through a complicated deal involving Piven fundraising and investments in the building in exchange for years of rent forgiveness (it currently pays more than $60,000 per year) and a construction loan of $2.2 million from Evanston. At the end of the build-out project, estimated by Piven to cost a little more than $3 million, Piven would have new offices, classrooms and a state-of-the-art, flexible theater not so different, really, from the Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works on Michigan Avenue. The Piven fracas — which has played out in public and been reported in exhaustive detail by such local news operations as the Evanston Roundtable and Evanston Now — has many different components.

To some people, it's a matter of a small acting school over-promising and over-reaching — empire building, really — at the expense of other artists and arts groups in the building, and putting a cash-strapped city on the hook. To others, it's a tale of a historic, well-polished city gem, and potential economic engine, failing to get a level of public support that it not only richly deserves but that is absurdly modest compared with the sweetheart deals that have been offered to numerous, less illustrious groups in Chicago. But it's also, clearly, a cautionary tale of the struggles many suburban arts groups face in communities that not only lack funding for the arts but don't have much of a plan to finance the care of the city-owned cultural facilities that do exist. In the case of Evanston, there have been plans and grants and focus groups on cultural development aplenty, but the result has generally been the same: Great ideas, folks, but who is going to pay for that? Not the city, that's for sure. There's no money.

The Noyes debacle offers another cautionary tale.

Some opposition to any new public building is de rigueur, but most major arts projects — say, the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago — tend to be new construction. Few can object to the filling of an empty lot with artistic worthiness. If it's not new construction, then such projects tend to be redevelopment and expansion of a building or footprint already owned or controlled by the arts group. That was the situation at the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, and is the current situation at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, now in the midst of an expansion campaign. That's also roughly the deal for Writers' Theatre, which wants to build a new theater on its current plot in Glencoe. But the Noyes Center, built as an elementary school by Daniel Burnham in 1892, is already full. The other tenants are a motley but articulate and organized crew of creative types, some for-profit, some nonprofit, including everyone from teachers to visual artists to puppet creators to musicians and movement specialists. Evanston's plan, therefore, has been seen by some as a zero-sum game: one arts group profiting at the expense of another. Many at Noyes think it inevitable that their own modest rents will be jacked up to pay for the Piven arrangement. Distrust is pervasive.

"This has been more like an airport expansion where people get moved from their homes," said Larry DiStasi, who runs the Actors Gymnasium in the old gym at Noyes and who has spoken out against the Piven plan, in part because he is worried about what will happen to his own office space. "In this case," he said, "it hurts the arts to support the arts."

In an interview this week, DiStasi spoke, somewhat wearily, of compromise but also of the inherent problems with the Piven plan.

And there's another component that has tended not to appear in the local newspapers. The Pivens long have felt they did not get the respect they deserved, especially as a producing entity, which is not uncommon in show business where those who are seen primarily as teachers often struggle for clout and respect. Joyce and Byrne Piven always saw themselves as arts-makers as well as teachers, even if some of their peers resisted that: Byrne Piven even appeared as King Lear in a Piven production of that famous Shakespearean tragedy, playing a valedictorian role he'd not been given the chance to perform elsewhere. In recent years, Joyce Piven has talked often of moving to Chicago, which, she has mused, would perhaps have been more supportive.

In other words, Piven's desire to be seen as far more than a school, and the resistance of some to that notion, goes back many years. For sure, Piven has produced relatively few professional shows, which has led some to wonder out loud why such a minor-league producing entity needs a state-of-the-art theater built, in part, with public money. Yet Piven is Piven. That name is nationally prominent and has potential. To some degree, the group has local officials over a barrel. Evanston did not, does not, want to see the Piven Theatre go.

To Leslie Brown, the managing director of Piven, the opposition expressed at that meeting was bewildering. "People had so many concerns that were so intensely personal," she said in a recent interview. "It just ran the gamut. 'Piven only serves white people.' 'Piven should move to Chicago.' 'Piven's numbers are wrong, and they will end up bankrupting Evanston.' It is hard to craft a linear response to 360 degrees' worth of responses."

As Brown sees it, an expanding Piven will only benefit the community. "We're trying to create a public-private partnership," she said, noting that the whole Noyes building project began not with Piven, but with Evanston officials worrying about the health of the building and asking for proposals from tenants. "We're bringing $600,000 in pro-bono work to the table," Brown said passionately. "We'd raise funds beyond that. We'd share our space with other arts groups. We'd do the work. We'd pay the bill. We'd donate our space to Evanston community groups." And, as Brown notes, Evanston will still retain ownership of Noyes at the end of the road.

"The city will own a brand-new building it can rent out to other groups," Brown said. "We're thinking about this in terms of maintaining our organization and in terms of a long-term strategy."

And what about the argument that Piven doesn't need the theater, since it produces so little? "It has been challenging to create the seasons we want," said Brown, "because we've been in a perpetual state of ambiguity. We're looking for a space where we can have a vision. We're just trying to do the best possible work we can do. Our mission includes the school, the producing and community service."

So what are the arguments against the Piven plan? There is no shortage of people making them.

"We have to come up with a better solution," said Ken Arlen, who recently left Noyes after running his Ken Arlen Orchestra there for 18 years. "This is not just a theater building. There are a variety of tenants in multiple arts disciplines working under the same roof and performing community service obligations in return for a slightly subsidized rent."

Arlen, and others, argue that Piven has understated the likely costs of its expansion and that it should not get such a good deal. "The big issue is that Piven wants this 25- to 50-year lease, at a dollar a year. The real elephant in the room is that if you amortize that over 25 or 50 years, you're talking $25 million. No one is blaming the Pivens for asking. But surely it would be better to figure out a way to make the building sustainable. I'd like to see the building become a vibrant, diverse building that serves all the arts, not just the theater community. This is a Daniel Burnham building with a diverse group of tenants. My worry is that people will start to think of it as the Piven Building."

Greg Allen, the founder of Chicago's Neo-Futurists and a member of the Evanston Arts Council, echoes those views. "Why build a state-of-the-art theater for a theater that does 27 performances a year, that has mounted 55 shows in 40 years?" he said. "This all has been handled incredibly poorly — I've heard endless horror stories — and that's partly the responsibility of Piven. Why don't we look at a plan that would help the arts in the entire city and not just benefit one group?"

Piven does have supporters outside of its own ranks. Jennifer Avery, the artistic director of building tenant Next Theatre, which actually produces far more shows than Piven, said she supports the Piven plan, believing it will lead to a much nicer building for the public and the improved efficiencies of a shared box office and lobby. Avery also said that she expects Next and Piven would be able to share space, meaning that the new theater would potentially be available to Next, which operates in an old auditorium inadequate by current standards.

So what's next? There's another public meeting Monday, and doubtless the arguments will continue, although there were also meetings among Noyes tenants this week aiming for some kind of compromise that all of the artists in the building could support.

However things shake out, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Noyes issue has been handled badly. Although Piven has argued, with foundation, that it will be an economic engine for the city, the Noyes center is not downtown, the obvious location for influential arts developments, where many eateries and bars would benefit from an influx of new business. And even for those who support the Piven plan, it seems a shame to expand one arts facility at the expense of other artists. Potentially, anyway.

Then again, Piven has come up with a bold plan and has promised to raise plenty of its own money, perhaps needing even more than it has currently admitted. Jeremy Piven, who already has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the old family business, and his sister are likely to be asked to open their wallets, joining Evanston's taxpayers.

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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