Gavin Hawk's agenda: Improve improv, start a theater company, play Richard III

Gavin Hawk is about to take improvisation to a new level.

The talented actor, who together with the equally skillful Ricky Wayne has been delighting audiences with the improv hit The Dumb Show over the last year, will present, again with Wayne, 321 this Sunday at American Stage. If it works, it should be stunning.

The concept is provocative — and hard to pull off. Hawk and Wayne will start by asking their audience for three sets of relationships — say, doctor/patient, mother/son and captain/shipmate. Then they'll ask for a venue — for example, a submarine — and they'll section off the performance space into three separate rooms, and put each relationship into its own room. Then the improv begins "and somehow we have to make that all make sense," says Hawk. "So it ends up being more like a one-act play than The Dumb Show was."

The improv lasts about an hour, and moves from scene to scene just like a scripted play might. "And sometimes characters from one room can enter another room, that's entirely possible, or if somebody fires a gun, for instance, perhaps the person in the next room gets shot through the wall. So anything can happen." The show has never been presented before a live audience, so this Sunday's performance should be telling in lots of ways.

I met with Hawk, 35, recently, and asked him two rather large questions: Where did you come from and what are you doing here? He answered both with real modesty, and with a winning sense of humor. It turns out he's had great training — and has impressive intentions.

He grew up in Los Angeles, and then went to college at prestigious Juilliard in New York City, where he learned to admire non-realistic theater — work with masks, Japanese Noh, non-linear story-telling, presentational work. After graduating, he spent four years trying to make it in the Apple — and had the oh-so-common experience of struggling to be noticed among the hordes of avid performers. He did some Off-Off-Broadway plays and went out of town for regional gigs, but "I woke up one day and I had an apartment with no bed, I slept on a blanket on the floor... and I said, 'You know, I've got to get out of here. This is not fun anymore.'" He went back to L.A., acted in a few plays and then decided that it would make sense to support his acting with a career in teaching. One MFA degree later (from Cal State Long Beach), he applied for professorships — and was hired in 2006 by Eckerd College in St. Pete.

Once he got here, he started looking for local acting opportunities, and "immediately got pretty depressed." The problem is, he's an Equity (union) actor, "and quickly found out that I could not do shows for most of the theater companies that were in town." An exception was American Stage, but since it held its rehearsals during the day, Hawk couldn't fit them into his teaching schedule. He was able to appear in an evening of ten-minute plays, but it wasn't until he co-produced Circumference of a Squirrel at The [email protected] that he had a chance to really show his chops. Then a loophole in the Equity contract allowed him to work with BAIT (Bay Area Improv Theatre), and that led to The Dumb Show, presented monthly at American Stage. He performed in one other show at the Studio ­— Hate Mail with Meg Heimstead — and eventually decided he'd have to make his own opportunities.

Which brings us to now, or, rather, to the future. Because next spring Hawk will start the Hypokrite Theatre Company, and will offer (at the Studio, most likely) familiar plays like The Caretaker, Death of a Salesman and Picnic, performed by actors in half-masks. In summer, 2011, he wants to direct an all-female show, and eventually he aims to present Shakespeare's Richard III, playing all the parts himself — Richard being live, all the rest appearing on digital video. He'd further like to stage an adaptation of Pinocchio, in which every character but the title puppet will be played by puppets. In general, Hawk says, he wants to bring non-realistic theater to an area in which fourth-wall realism predominates.

How will he fare? Get a hint at 321. And when he asks for audience suggestions, let your imagination run wild. Hawk is smart and he's fearless.

Expect to be hearing a lot from him in days to come.

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