Noses or no, Matt Hawkins is all smiles.
“I loved to perform, but I hated going to see theater. I was bored out of my mind,” says Matt Hawkins. The Killeen, Texas, native is describing the path that led him to the Chicago theater scene with his fellow founding members of the House Theatre. He recalls a eureka moment while doing children’s theater in college. (Like many of the House founders, Hawkins attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas.) “Goods and bads come from children’s theater, but one of the best things was these kids were so invested in the story we were doing on stage. I loved that energy.”
In 2001, the House was (now famously) formed with the intention of bringing that energy to adult theatrical experience. After years of relative self-containment, many of the company’s founding members have branched out into the wider community. Hawkins was at the forefront, taking his first non-House gig in Mark Lamos’s 2005 Romeo and Juliet at Chicago Shakes.
That tiny job—“I don’t even remember if I was a Montague or a Capulet,” Hawkins says—turned into an ongoing relationship with the Navy Pier institution. He went on to work both as an actor and as assistant director and fight choreographer on a number of CST productions. (At SMU, the burly ex–high school football player supplemented his acting-focused B.F.A. with independent study in movement and stage combat.)
Hawkins came to a crossroads two and a half years ago (“I was pushing 30, y’know?”) and decided to step down as the House’s development director and quit his other day job as a personal trainer. The risk has paid off: Having established himself as an in-demand fight choreographer, this year he’s displaying the full spectrum of his stage talents.
In the spring, he directed Peter Barnes’s allegorical clown comedy Red Noses for Strawdog Theatre Company, bringing to his staging the same sprawling, quick-clip creativity and pop-cult sensibility he showed with the House’s Hatfield & McCoy in 2006. An undeniable high-water mark artistically, Red Noses was also an unlikely box-office success for Strawdog. Artistic director Nic Dimond proposed Red Noses after the two discussed Hawkins’s interest in the intersection of religion and violence. “The thing’s huge. No one does it because it’s such a beast,” Hawkins says of Barnes’s 1985 Olivier winner about a medieval priest battling the plague and the capital-C Church through clowning. Hawkins came back with a cutting that emphasized Barnes’s striking visual metaphors.
Hawkins now takes on a very different kind of clown, performing with the punky physical-theater trio 500 Clown in Elephant Deal, a new work loosely inspired by Brecht’s Man is Man. He and Jessica Hudson are the first performers to take the stage as clowns with Molly Brennan, Adrian Danzig and Paul Kalina in one of their slow-gestating pieces. “My wife [actor Stacy Stoltz] first introduced me to them as a fan. We saw their Frankenstein a long time ago,” he says. After later meeting Brennan through the House, where she became a company member, Hawkins understudied Kalina and Danzig in a 2007 run of 500 Clown Frankenstein and 500 Clown Macbeth at Steppenwolf.
“They got me really excited about how they work, taking proposals from the artists in the room,” Hawkins says. “That’s a mentality I’ve stolen from them as a director. In Red Noses, if an actor proposed an idea, I was, like, ‘Great, let’s try it’—instead of people just talking about it. It drives me nuts when people just sit at a table and talk.”
For his next directing gig, Hawkins tackles another big story. He’ll stage the musical Cabaret for the Hypocrites next spring. “There’s two ways you can go: the classic Cabaret with the stage picture we all know, or you can go the Peter Brook empty-space idea: There’s just a room, and seedy shit goes down. That seems more awesome to me.” Whatever it looks like, it’ll likely be anything but boring.
500 Clown and the Elephant Deal starts previews at Steppenwolf Saturday 20.