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Melissa Hawkins
Melissa Hawkins

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

October 3, 2006

NIU-trained actress receives, inhabits role of a lifetime

DeKalb — Melissa Hawkins stands alone on the stage, inhabiting the body and soul of a woman who is possibly dead.

The woman, whose name is Juliet, tells stories of the desolate Romanian prison where she was captive after the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

Her husband was imprisoned elsewhere, she reveals, and her seven children clamored around her for any morsel of food. Juliet clung to memories of her husband – his photographs, his love letters – and longed to hear his voice, touch his hand and share his bed.

When she succumbed to illness and was carried to the prison camp’s morgue, she met God, the one in whom she had placed so much trust. Their encounter was not peaceful.

“She grabbed him by the shirt collar,” Hawkins says, “confronting him about abandoning her and her family.”

“She refused to be Job,” adds Christopher Markle, head of performance in the NIU School of Theatre and Dance and the play’s director. “ ‘Why did you cast me in the role of Job? Why are we being persecuted? What did we do to make us suffer?’ ”

Juliet is the only character in “Juliet: A Dialogue About Love,” a one-woman play to which Hawkins holds the English-language rights. A 2002 graduate of the NIU School of Theatre and Dance, Hawkins has performed “Juliet” seven times and will take the production to Europe this month.

Her tour will include the Hungarian National Theatre and possibly the playwright’s birthplace. She also hopes to take “Juliet” to Canada, Ireland and Israel in the coming months.

The 90-minute drama opened in Rockford this summer as part of NIU’s SummerNITE season, and has been staged since in other venues throughout the region. Hawkins’ European tour is partially funded by a grant from the Theatre Communication Group/International Theatre Institute, which earlier awarded a travel grant to Hawkins and Markle to develop the work in Romania.

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The “beautifully spiritual” play’s intense exploration and treatment of faith is what originally attracted Hawkins.

She was raised in a Christian home – the first 10 years in France, the rest in Wheaton – but grew to find the worlds of religion and theater generally destructive to each other. Playwright Andras Visky’s supple balance prompted her to find him.

Hawkins was living and working in Hungary at the time. Tomas Fodor, a prestigious Hungarian director who served a residency as a guest artist in the NIU School of Theatre and Dance, had invited her to join his company.

When Hawkins met with Visky in Transylvania, she learned that his prize-winning play is a dramatized telling of his mother’s true story in the prison. Visky himself lived there with his mother and six young siblings in captivity.

His mother later published her memoirs in a book titled “The Orphans and the Ravens,” a work that moved one reader to commission the story as a play and to hire Visky as its author.

Given a year’s deadline, writer’s block plagued Visky until the final week, when the concept of death and arguing with God brought a flood of words over 21-hour days. Visky changed nothing, the only of his plays completed without self-editing.

It’s been produced four times before in the Hungarian and Romanian languages, including on radio broadcasts and in a dance treatment that discarded more than half of the script. A filmed version is planned, and a French translation is in the works.

After Hawkins spent a week with the playwright and his family, Visky put the new English translation of his “Juliet” script in her hands and blessed her with the rights.

“Andras asked me to do the English-language premiere,” she says. “I came home with the rights, but no director or producer.”

Enter Markle.

Hawkins’ former professor counts Liviu Ciulei, one of the great directors of Romanian theater in the 20th century, as a mentor. “Andras told me, ‘Melissa, if you’re going to do this, you should get Chris to direct,’ ” Hawkins says.

The NIU School of Theatre and Dance agreed to produce the play, and Hawkins and Markle set off to Cluj, Romania, to work with Visky.

Visky urged them to drop entire scenes if they feared a U.S. audience wouldn’t understand. The Americans resisted, choosing instead to tweak the words rather than discard them.

“It’s a beautifully woven-together mosaic of stories,” Hawkins says. “You can’t just extract pieces without destroying it.”

“Andras is a force of nature. He’s extraordinarily talented – extraordinarily warm – and his openness to this whole process has been key,” Markle adds. “He’s a poet and a theater person, and he also works in the theater as a dramaturge. He knows a lot about the working of theater. The production is more important to him than the preciousness of his words.”

Ultimately, they say, “Juliet” is a love story.

Life in a wartime prison camp takes away “everything that makes you human,” but Juliet already had sacrificed the comfort of her wealthy upbringing for her marriage to a clergyman. She also learns her love of God can’t erase human feelings of loss and loneliness.

Juliet’s husband, meanwhile, buries his pain at the urging of his cellmate. He writes eight separate eulogies for his wife and children, ceremoniously inters each in his cell and never thinks of them again during the rest of his imprisonment.

That luxury is not afforded Juliet, Hawkins says. The presence of her children and her mementoes from home make imagined distance impossible, she says, yet her love for her family is what keeps her alive.

For Hawkins, the play offers deeper meaning as she grows with it.

The former Melissa Kapp is a mother now – to her husband’s 5-year-old son, who helped her rehearse by following her around like Juliet’s herd – and continues to explore her faith and her connection to God.

“When I first read the play, in one sitting, I was truly inspired by the nature of her relationship with God. Once Andras gave me the play to perform, my relationship with it changed a little,” she says. “I think I wanted to have what Juliet had. I eventually came to realize I have not earned that relationship, and I’m not entitled to it – yet.”

The role – the only one she’s known for three years, and one that leaves her alone on the stage without fellow actors for support or interaction – has propelled her on a “personal journey as an actress and a woman.”

“Hopefully,” Hawkins says, “it’s a long life.”

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