As Melissa Hawkins bounced from one stage to another during a recent European tour of the play “Juliet,” she was never really sure whether her audience was even paying attention.
For the last three years the 27-year-old actress focused her attention on nothing but this play, and now her performances in Romania and Hungary are drawing a deafening silence. As she acted out the scenes of the 90-minute monodrama in which she is the lone performer, Hawkins was almost overwhelmed with the gravity of the situation.
Here was a young American trying to tell the true story of a woman imprisoned in Romania with her seven children during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Her audience, including several of the protagonist’s children, was not so far removed from the era that they couldn’t muster very strong reactions to its fictionalized portrayal.
And the play’s author-who was one of the seven jailed kids-had trusted her with the rights to the English translation of his play.
“The performance at the Hungarian National Theater was by far the most terrifying,” Hawkins said of her mid-October tour.
But when the curtain fell the silent crowds leaped to their feet demanding curtain call after curtain call. In one local newspaper a full two pages were devoted to the production and a local critic gave the performance a perfect five-star review.
Director Chris Markle, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University where Hawkins graduated in 2002, received four stars for his work.
“That’s pretty damn good,” Markle said with a laugh. “We’re happy with that.”
Hawkins’ interest in “Juliet” began innocently enough while she was working for Studio K in Budapest, Hungary. She was moved to tears by playwright Andras Visky’s work and contacted him simply with the hope of shaking his hand. During their meeting in Transylvania, Hawkins stayed with Visky and his family for a week before the playwright offered the rights to the English translation.
“It was a real act of faith on his part,” Hawkins said. “He had never seen me do anything.”
While the play was already enjoying a level of success in Europe-performances have been steady since the fall of 2002 in Budapest-Hawkins was a relatively inexperienced actor who considered her work with Studio K to be “shallow.” The only time she had enjoyed any creative control was while studying at NIU when Hawkins co-directed a production.
“It was definitely over my head,” Hawkins said of her directing experience.
“Juliet” has since been translated to Romanian and opened at the Romanian National Theater in the central city of Cluj last fall, according to NIU’s theater department. A radio production of the play also earned recognition at a festival in Berlin, Germany in 2005.
And now Hawkins, a Des Plaines Avenue resident, is hoping to launch her career by furthering the play’s success for English speaking audiences.
Though she had worked with the material for several years, Hawkins’ performances prior to last month’s tour had been limited to community theaters and college campuses. “Juliet” debuted in Rockford, Ill., this past summer under the production of NIU’s student theater company.
All the while Hawkins rehearsed the play in her sixth-floor apartment where she lives with her husband Eric, and worked in an office during the day.
“She doesn’t allow me to be in the room,” Eric Hawkins said of his wife’s rehearsals.
Markle and his former student have discussed opening a theater company in which they would partner with Visky for additional scripts. Markle has already brought a group of NIU students to Romania and is working to secure additional trips over the coming years.
“I think Romania might be a very interesting place to create a center for artists,” Markle said. “Right now there’s a lot of interest from (financiers) in the west in supporting exchanges in that part of the world.”
Meanwhile, Hawkins is slated to perform “Juliet” at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in November, and then she heads to Greensboro, N.C., in January. In April of next year she takes the production overseas again, this time to Turkey.
At the age of 27, Hawkins has positioned herself well for financial success as an actor, Markle said. Many performers her age wait for casting directors to call them rather than trying to guarantee their own work. Having the ownership rights of a monodrama gives Hawkins the freedom to rework the performance in any number of ways, potentially for decades, Markle said.
Hawkins said she is aware of her somewhat unique situation and finds she can’t always relate to the starving artist stereotype some of her friends and colleagues live by. The groveling that occurs in the industry simply so that actors can pay their bills can be tough, she said.
“It’s like two steps above prostitution,” Hawkins said. “You take what you can get.”
Hawkins has had to work hard handling some of the less creative tasks in addition to honing her performance. She serves as her own booking agent and lugs the set from stage to stage in her minivan. But she’s grateful for the income and was able to quit her office job.
The stages of Europe are a long way from the makeshift stage in her living room, but Hawkins isn’t ready to declare success. However, the path that “Juliet” has her on appears to be the right one.
“It feels like it’s going somewhere,” Hawkins said. “Finally.”