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Photograph: Chris TzoubrisOlivia Cygan and Gabriel Stern in Tusk Tusk at Piven Theatre Workshop

Polly Stenham’s Tusk Tusk at Piven Theatre Workshop

The British playwright’s drama rests on young shoulders.


“It’s a serious piece about young people that’s not children’s theater,” Jennifer Green says of Polly Stenham’s play Tusk Tusk.

Green, the artistic director of Piven Theatre Workshop, is helming Tusk Tusk’s U.S. premiere at the Evanston theater. The play tracks a trio of young siblings who fear their mentally unstable mother may have abandoned them.

“They’ve just moved to a new flat in London and are holed up waiting for their mother to call them,” Green says. “And they’re just terrified of going into foster care, the terror of being found out.” The play’s lead characters are a teenage brother and sister; they also have a seven-year-old brother.

British playwright Stenham was a teen herself when she authored her first play. At age 19, she wrote That Face, which was produced in 2007, when she was 20, by London’s Royal Court Theatre. After huge critical praise, it transferred to the West End. Tusk Tusk, her follow-up, bowed in London in 2009.

Green notes that Stenham penned That Face as part of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme. Piven’s own long history as a training center for young artists, she says, makes it the perfect match for Tusk Tusk. “Polly very much wanted young people to be playing these roles. She wasn’t necessarily interested in savvier, 23-year-old graduates who may be small performing these roles,” Green says with a laugh. “She wanted the authenticity of these words in actual young people’s mouths.”

Since it was founded 40 years ago by Byrne and Joyce Piven, Piven Theatre Workshop has offered training and opportunities for young performers; it currently serves about 1,000 students a year, with offerings for those as young as fourth grade. Notable alumni of the theater’s youth classes and Young People’s Company include John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor, playwright Sarah Ruhl, director Jessica Thebus and Steppenwolf ensemble members Eric Simonson and James Vincent Meredith.

“One thing that we’re trying to do at Piven is look at pieces that are really multigenerational, that find for performers that bridge from training into a professional experience,” Green says. With its meaty roles for young actors, Tusk Tusk fit the bill, but Piven had to wait while interest was gauged in a New York production. “We’ve been on the wait-list for this play for a while.”

One of Tusk Tusk’s teen leads, Olivia Cygan, a recent graduate of Evanston Township High School and an entering freshman at Northwestern, has been studying at Piven since fourth grade. Bryce Lunsky, a sophomore at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, portrays the other teenaged sibling, while nine-year-old Gabriel Stern, whose credits include appearances with the Lyric Opera, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble and the Music Theatre Company, plays the youngest.

“It’s risky to write and it’s risky to do,” Green says of asking young performers to shoulder an adult play. “You quite possibly are dealing with actors who’ve never really experienced what a professional run is like, the rigors of doing four shows a week over a long period. It’s a two-hour show, and they’re holding the stage pretty much every second, balancing dialect and fight choreography and really gritty emotional resources.”

“These parts are really demanding for performers of any age,” Cygan says. “It’s scary to watch these kids spiral into dark places. [Piven]’s been a wonderful place to get to explore this; we feel very cared for.”

Tusk Tusk previews Saturday 8 and opens Wednesday 12 at Piven Theatre Workshop.

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