At the age of 48, the actor’s mom left her career, joined the Peace Corp, moved to Romania — and learned to change lives for a living.
When A Lie Of The Mind is performed next month at The New Group in New York City, proceeds from the show will benefit an organization called The Alex Fund, which is dedicated to helping children and their mothers in Romania.
It’s the first time the play has been revived in Manhattan since the original production, directed by Sam Shepard in 1985 — when it won the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critic’s Circle awards for Best New Play. This time around it’s being directed by Actor Ethan Hawke.
So, what’s the connection between the play and The Alex Fund, you ask?
The actor-director’s mother, Leslie Hawke, is Fund’s founder.
When I interviewed Leslie Hawke, she was the second woman I’d spoken to in two weeks who had altered her life in a single moment. The decision of both women was spontaneous, for the most part, yet not without intellect. Nor, of course, without the wisdom of a life lived (so far).
Both were, at the time, at about mid life. And both, when posed a question, gave answers that changed the direction of their lives. One was asked to teach English to a Tibetan in India (see Finding The Rhythm Of Family); the other, who was staying in Romania, was asked what was going to happen to her development programs when she left?
Hawke’s answer to that question took her by surprise: „I’m not leaving.”
At the age of 48, Leslie Hawke left her career behind, joined the Peace Corp, and was sent to Romania. During her stint with the corp, she was pitching a proposal to a USAID official — a program to make it possible for children to spend their days in school instead of on the street begging. „She thought my plan was impractical and naïve and she made a remark that rankled me,” Hawke says, recalling the official’s words. „‘Un-huh,’ she said, ‘and then what happens to the program when you leave?’”
It was December 2000 and Hawke had been in Romania for 11 months. „My response, partly involuntary and partly contrarian, was ‘I’m not going to leave,'” Hawke recalls. „I remember being surprised at my own audacity. It wasn’t something I had given much thought until she challenged me, but it was the only answer that made any sense”.
‘If you died tomorrow…’
For years Hawke had worked as an executive for an Internet start-up company in New York City. During the height of the IT craze it sold to a publishing conglomerate and her interest began to fizzle. It wasn’t until 1999 however, with news of the death of JFK Jr., that she seriously began to question the direction her life was taking. (That and a going-nowhere relationship). On her foundation’s website she explains, „I said to myself, ‘If you died tomorrow, wouldn’t you be embarrassed that this is what you were doing with your life?’ JFK Jr.’s death made me think of JFK — and the Peace Corps. So when I got to work that morning, I actually contacted the Peace Corps.”
With her son’s encouragement, she was soon on her way to volunteer in Bacau, Romania.
The program Hawke pitched to the USAID official was inspired by one boy whom she had come across early on in her volunteer service. „It all started with Alex. In the first weeks I was at my Peace Corps assignment I had a lot of time on my hands to look around at the workings of a society that was different from mine, but not that different. It was obviously a broken and largely dysfunctional society – but it was not a third world country. Except for this one thing: there were lots of small children sitting alone or in pairs on the sidewalk, begging to the passers-by in front of modern banks and beautiful churches.”
Alexandru was a young boy Hawke rescued from the streets soon after starting work in Romania. There is a law that if children don’t go to school for two years, they become ineligible to attend school at all; most kids she saw begging on the street, including Alex, were not allowed in school. However, it’s a complicated situation, and Hawke came to realize the importance of helping the mothers of these children too, if they were to have any chance at all for a better life.
And so, The Alex Fund was born. It’s primary beneficiary is the Fiecare Copil in Scoala or „Every Child in School Program.” It’s managed by an umbrella organization called Ovidiu Rom Asociatia created by both Hawke and a teacher by the name of Maria Gheorghiu, and is based on the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing and Able program in New York City. Its mission is to promote self-sufficiency among marginalized people through education, job training and community development. To date, the organization has directly reached over 5,000 disadvantaged children with its services.
A Mother by Example
„Somebody once told me my resume looked like a Jackson Pollock painting,” Hawke tells Tonic. „My application to the Peace Corps was the first time it all made sense! And indeed it all has served me well: the years in sales, the years spent in Editorial Acquisitions, the one year I was a 6th grade teacher in Trenton, the church youth group I led, the 3 years in non-profit development — everything was useful in starting up an NGO in Eastern European.”
Naturally, her famous son has also benefited from his mother’s capricious choices in life, and he speaks admirably of her. „One way to raise your children is to try to do things by the book, something my mother never seemed too concerned about,” he tells Tonic. „Another way is to lead by example. My mother is a terrific example for my kids, especially my daughters, by being utterly independent and working very hard for something she deeply cares about.”
„It makes me feel good to help people,” his mother says. „For many years I worked in business because it afforded me a nice lifestyle and allowed me to send my son to good schools, but I always felt ambivalent about spending my life that way. Lucky for me, Ethan became self-sufficient at a relatively early age (18) and that gave me the financial freedom to consider doing something different with my life. I am very fortunate to have found work that makes me feel useful and productive.”
Ethan supports his mother by being on the board of her foundation. A Lie Of The Mind should help bring attention to the cause in a big way.
You can help the children of Romania by coming out for the event on February 19th. The performance is at 8pm, followed by a reception at the theater with the actors and director.
Tickets are $150.00. For reservations contact Wendy Kahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212.865.7611. Tickets can also be purchased on the website at alexfund.org.
Photos courtesy Shea Roggio