Lifecasters Week: "Profound personal change is possible" - An interview with Shira Piven

Posted on: Tuesday, February 05 2013
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By Matt Sussman, Marketing & Development Associate 

On the occasion of the Lifecasters premiere this Thursday, February 7 on PBS (check local listings or watch it via Livestream) here's an interview with director Shira Piven that was originally posted on the Lifecasters blog. Shira directed The Beast and the Angel, the Lifecasters portrait of former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who in addition to composing scores for film and television now works with the nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors to provide prison inmates with the opportunity to express themselves through music.

Shira Piven has done it all: act, produce, direct, and write. Together with her husband, director Adam McKay, she has made THE BEAST AND THE ANGEL, a portrait of former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and his efforts to let incarcerated felons express themselves through music. We caught up with Shira to find out why she was drawn to Kramer’s story and to learn more about how LIFECASTERS let her bring together her passion for filmmaking and effecting change through creative means.

Tell me a little about your background. How did you get involved with Lifecasters?

Adam and I are close with Wayne and Margaret Saadi Kramer.  Margaret was the music supervisor on my first feature film “Fully Loaded” that was recently released, and we all met acutally when Wyne did some scoring on Adam’s movie Taledega Nights.  Margaret was contacted by Gita and Aron about Lifecasters and she recommended Adam and I as filmmakers when PBS chose Wayne as one of their subjects.  I am a theatre director and grew up in a family of theatre artists and started making films about 6 years ago.  

Adam was a writer and performer and wrote for Saturday Night Live in the mid 90′s and started directing shorts at SNL before he directed Anchorman in 2003 and started his feature career.  He has always been very outspoken politically—he blogs for Huffington Post and is active on Twitter as a political/comic animal. We share many of the same poltical points of view and were drawn to Wayne as a former radical and current activist.  I also teach an extremely physical and emotional style of acting with the actors gang theatre (TIm Robbins artistic director)  to inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco.  This gave me a familiarity with prisons and inmates and the arts which helped me navigate the world of Wayne and Margaret’s Jail Guitar Doors organization, which brings instruments into prison.

What attracted you to Wayne Kramer’s story?

I am obsessed with the idea of how people change deeply.  How does real inner change happen?  How does a man who could not would not get clean until the age of 50, give up his addictions and turn his life around so totally?  I also believe there is something heavy about helping people whom society has abandoned–prison inmates.  My experience teaching Commedia Del’Arte in prison has shown me that these men and women are no different from us.  We share this belief with Wayne and also the notion that people are nurtured through being allowed to create art, and that inmates benefit from it in a very tangible way.  It is like giving water to people who have been stranded in the desert.  You see joy and gratitude on their faces as they hear the music or receive the guitars.

Many folks probably came to Kramer through the MC5, but might not know about his outreach work with inmates or his personal connection to it. 

Yes.  Wayne was in prison in his 20′s because of his involvement with drugs.  his work in prison both connects with the addict in him and the musician in him.  Those who know his music know that the scene he was part of was often a heavy drug using scene.  He used his knowledge of the darker side of the rock and roll lifestyle to connect with people who have made mistakes in their lives too and wound up in prison. Bringing guitars into prison is a way of bringing music to those who need it–it is another type of concert, another way a musician connects with an audience.

Finding a renewed sense of creative purpose is one theme that connects each Lifecasters portrait. Have you ever experienced your own moment of “creative recharge” and what was the outcome?

I was a theatre artist from a very young age.  I acted and taught and wrote music for the stage and directed my first stage piece at age 17.  I became a theatre director full time at age 29 or 30.  I always wanted to direct film but was frightened of the technical aspects and the scale and scope of the production side.  When I shot my first feature film in 2009  I was thrilled I was finally making a movie but did not know that I would fall in love with it.  I discovered I loved almost every creative aspect of filmmaking from shooting to editing to casting to the collaboration with all the many creative heads of department. The outcome is that I want and plan and am delighted to have the opportunity to make more movies.

What do you hope viewers will take away from “The Beast and the Angel”?

I think different viewers see different things and that is part of the beauty of any artistic experience, but Adam and  I hope viewers see something that is of value to them in this short portrait.  We hope they see themselves somewhere in the film.  It is essential to the piece that we expose inmates as vulnerable and human and we  hope we have at least achieved that.  We also hope they see through Wayne’s life that profound personal change is possible.