Peter Pan's Matt Hawkins takes flight

December 9, 2010

A word to the wise from Matt Hawkins: To fly, first suspend disbelief. With your rediscovered courage (or stupidity), push yourself. The movement director of Lookingglass Theatre’s “Peter Pan (A Play)” says he spent the show’s first two workshop days teaching the actors “to play, and play hard. That point when play turns dangerous—how far can you push that?”

“A three- or four-year-old—everyone wants to be a dragon or knight,” Hawkins says. “But by eight or nine, they want to be astronauts, cowboys, Indians. Imagination becomes smaller, and it can be hard to unlock the inner child. Early on, we asked all the actors to bring in a toy from home. First off, how many even HAVE a toy at home? Then we shared our toys and the stories behind them.”

“Peter Pan,” which Lookingglass has extended through January 23, requires all the actors to throw themselves with a child’s fearlessness into the physical, whether it’s flying upside-down or leaping onto the Darling children’s communal bed. In the climactic scene, Peter Pan and Captain Hook—perched at the tops of scaffolds on wheels—get whirled around the space, swords flashing and crashing, by actor/stagehands pushing and turning in a truly head-spinning sequence.

Hawkins says this “moving obstacle course” was “extremely hard to choreograph, partly because we weren’t in the theater. The Lookingglass rehearsal space is in the John Hancock Building—an office building, right?!—and there’s no room! So I got a floor plan and had the scenic designer build me a little model of the space. Trying to figure out the traffic was hard, it’s not that big a stage! I was really worried. I didn’t know which cast member would push which scaffold. To get the actors up to speed before opening was really, really tough.”

The production, directed and adapted from J.M. Barrie’s books by Amanda Dehnert, is also loaded with physical comedy. “Physical comedians are born, I think,” says Hawkins. “We all know people with great comic timing, but that’s something you can’t teach.”

Hawkins, a founding member of the House Theatre of Chicago, has got a resumé a lot longer than your arm. He got into fight directing first at House, has taught clowning, and gave a critically acclaimed performance as Stanley Kowalski in Writers’ Theatre’s “Streetcar Named Desire” this year. Though he says he’s “kinda sneaking in” his MFA at the University of Iowa (he’s almost done), he calls his ten years in Chicago “the best grad school.”

“Looking back, I moved from an actor to a fight director to clowning to directing,” he says. “But as a director it’s my job to keep up my other skills; it’s like a muscle.”

The constant in his career: fearlessness. “How do you teach someone to risk?” he asks. “With jobs, relationships, anything?”

“For me, there was a specific night and performance. 500 Clown was playing ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Macbeth’ in rep at Steppenwolf [June 2007]. One Friday night Paul Kalina couldn’t be there, and I went on for him in ‘Frankenstein,’ playing the monster. I had a truly raw, emotional experience. When it came time to change the man into the monster, the other clown is beating me, and it’s real physical and emotional pain, it really hurts. I believed I was that person at that moment. Imagination is the key. It allows you to have a real emotional experience. But when the storytelling is over, the emotions are over. I learned I can do anything.”

“That night in ‘Frankenstein’—that’s what ‘Streetcar’ was for me every night. Being in ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Streetcar’ were life-changing events.”