‘Hand to God’ Comes Home to Texas at WaterTower Theatre
Robert Askins has had puppets in his life since he was a toddler. When he was 5 years old, a counselor in the school district in the town of Cypress, Texas (near Houston), had to explain to him why, because of where his birthday fell, he would have to skip a year between kindergarten and first grade. The counselor tried to convey this with a dolphin puppet.
“I remember being 5 and clearly thinking, ‘This is stupid,’” he says. “Who do they think I am?”
Puppets were also a tool for ministering to youth at the conservative Lutheran church his family attended. His mother, having had a mother who was active in the church as a piano player in the Texas Panhandle, wanted to become involved. She learned about the puppet ministry; and a new outreach was born in Cypress. Young Akins eventually became a puppeteer in the ministry. Looking back, he realizes it was strange — the conceit that puppets were spreading the Word of God.
It’s that sense of the ridiculous that Askins hopes audiences connect to with the character of Tyrone, demonic puppet at the heard of his hit play “Hand to God,” which had a nine-month run on Broadway in 2015. In the summer of 2016, Joanie Schultz directed a popular, immersive production of the play at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.; and she now revisits the work as the title that closes her first full season as artistic director at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, Texas.
In “Hand to God,” Jason is a teenager struggling with grief after the death of his father (Askins’s own father died when the playwright was a teen), and he gets involved with his church’s puppet ministry. Except the puppet he creates, Tyrone, has a mind — and a foul mouth — of its own.
Askins wrote the play while living in New York and working as a bartender in Brooklyn, after graduating from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His aunt, Sally Askins, was a costumer there, and had been part of Paul Baker’s company at the Dallas Theater Center. The story is somewhat autobiographical, but Askins says it goes beyond that.
“Jason is somewhat autobiographical, but you can also read it as a Jekyll and Hyde story,” he says. “Tyrone is more expressive than most [humans].”
“Hand to God” premiered at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011, and then MCC Theater produced it at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2014. From there it made its Broadway transfer, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, and was nominated for five Tony Awards. A year later it landed in London’s West End, picking up Olivier nominations.
Askins, who admits he has always had an interest in philosophy — “I’ve always been obnoxious,” he says — didn’t expect his playwriting career to take him to Broadway.
“Sam Shepard was a model,” he says. “I wanted to write hard-hitting expressionist realism, hyper-masculine dark-truth plays.”
Because commercial Broadway plays don’t typically don’t fit her aesthetic, Schultz was skeptical when the Studio Theatre producer brought the script to her. The first thing she remembers hearing about the play was the viral news story when a Broadway audience member plugged his phone into an outlet on the stage. She read it and fell in love.
“It reinvigorated my faith in American theater if a play like this would be considered for a commercial Broadway run,” she says. She knew that, coming so soon after the Broadway run, her production should look differently. So Studio was turned into a church basement, with audiences sitting at tables, a puppet-making station, and refreshments.
“The Studio Theatre committed to the immersive idea, and the community really took to it,” she says. “It ran for about six months.”
That’s also the concept at WaterTower space, which is a bit bigger than the Studio Theatre. There will be tables and chairs, also traditional theater seating at the edges.
For Askins — who was first introduced to North Texas in 2011 when Rite of Passage Theatre Company produced his play “The Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef” at the Festival of Independent theatres, thanks to a Baylor student who asked Askins for a script — Schultz’s production fit the play beautifully.
He’s even coming to Texas for the opening night on Aug. 6, and participating in an audience talk-back on Aug. 8. The notoriety of Broadway opened him up to regional productions of other plays and TV projects; he’s currently creating a musical with Alex Timbers.
His knack for questioning everything around him keeps him going as a writer.
“Without a desire to endlessly explore, without a desire to poke at these things, without that unrest … there’s no reason to write a play.”