Theater Y's Melissa Hawkins

July 19, 2011

A loft in Pilsen with a “stage” that’s actually the old refrigerator room at a macaroni factory are a bit outside the usual theater loop—but they represent just a fraction of the traveling done by actor-director Melissa Hawkins, who brings her experience in Eastern European theater to Theatre Y, performing “The Exiles Trilogy” through August

Born in France, Hawkins came to this country when she was nine. After graduating from NIU in 2001, she joined Budapest’s Studio K, where “I performed in Hungarian, which I do not speak,” she says. “The lines were learned phonetically, and the performances were essentially an exercise in communicating through gibberish. It was extremely challenging, and a lesson that I will never be as potent a performer in a language other than my mother tongues.”

Studio K, she says, “had been underground throughout all of Communism, and a good portion of the company members had spent time in jail for their involvement in the company. So the degree of commitment to the work was just way beyond anything I’d experienced here. There’s something sacred about the art form now that it’s been given back to them.”

Studio K introduced Hawkins to the plays of Andras Visky, associate artistic director of the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj in Romania, and later she jumped at the chance to visit him there. “He became my mentor, in every sense of the word. And again, I feel like what he brings to the theater is a holiness, a sense of sacred representation, sort of the altar on which we burn things and see what remains.”

As director, Hawkins burns away the talky story of Philip Ridley’s Vincent River to expose its existential roots, as an East End woman opens her door to a mysterious teenager after her son has been murdered. “The endless exchange of monologues, and the fact that they’re in the present tense and they’re suddenly there—it didn’t really leave room for it to be realistic,” says Hawkins. “But Ridley does a nice job of making both characters infinitely complicated.” And ultimately, as played by Kevin V. Smith and Laura Jones, extremely moving.

“One of the things that Kevin [Smith] and I are both very excited about is stepping outside the black box and letting non-theatrical spaces inform the work,” says Hawkins. She calls the loft they rented for the summer “very bizarre, with two rooms in the middle of it.”

One of them is the Vincent River “set”: an enclosed white box cut open on one side for the audience to look in. As soon as she saw “this very claustrophobic room,” says Hawkins, she knew she had to use it for Vincent River. “It’s a two-person show, it gives the feeling of caged animals, and the more we looked at this room, the more we felt it would fuel the actors. When we started playing with the actual design, it was very important to me that it was sterile and clean, a sort of quarantine for both of them as they were being repaired and prepared to go back into society. And it’s a sort of interrogation room.”

Another Theatre Y staple is non-naturalistic movement. Hawkins says that Smith—who directs the other two works in the trilogy, James Joyce’s Exilesand Albert Camus’ The Misunderstanding—has “more faith in his instincts when it comes to movement than I have.” So she asked four Hubbard Street dancers (“friends I’d collaborated with in the past because we all embrace this notion of cross-breeding”) to create the stylized movement of Vincent River. “I gave them the specific moments that I wanted to stretch, and they were so attentive to the text,” says Hawkins. “So we’re coming out of this experience saying, ‘We really need to do more of this.’ There’s just such a lack of … air in work that’s from the neck up only.”

Asked whether her acting reflects an Eastern European aesthetic—Hawkins performs in Exiles—she cites a remark Visky sometimes makes. “Whenever Andras is praising an actor for their work, he says, ‘So-and-so died on the stage.’ I come off the stage and ask myself if I died. It’s a lot of pressure, but I feel like it’s necessary.”

Next up for Theatre Y: La MaMa has invited the company to bring its production of Visky’s I Killed My Mother (performed at the Greenhouse last February) to New York. And Hawkins hopes to bring Hungarian Theatre’s Gabor Tompa to Chicago to direct two Visky plays, Alcoholics and Backborn. Karin Coonrod, who also staged I Killed My Mother, will direct Visky's Porn, which uses secret police files as its source.

“Everything’s very fluid at this point because we have no funding,” Hawkins says. “But this summer happened because all these past projects have been so belabored and so expensive, and we couldn’t wait for the next one—as a company we just had to keep working and developing internally. And it’s exciting to discover that we can do that.”