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Cap T Interviews HAND TO GOD Playwright Robert Askins

8 September 2016

robert askins interview
Cap T Literary Manager Carrie Klypchak  was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Tony nominated HAND TO GOD playwright Robert Askins.


CK: You have spoken elsewhere about certain occurrences in your life that inspired the writing of HAND TO GOD. Could you speak a bit more for our Cap T audiences about what inspired this piece?

RA: The play comes from several different places. The first place that it comes from is of course from personal experience, as my father did pass when I was sixteen. And I grew up in the church, and the apparatus of the modern Christian church actually doesn’t have a lot of great ways for you to deal with grief. There isn’t like designated mourners or people shrieking . . . there is not a great big show of grief. There’s not a way that one processes it. And actually, the . . . sort of sanitized version of American Christianity does not acknowledge darkness. . . . And it just doesn’t work well for something like the death of a father at a young age. And that’s a problem.

I grew up in the church, and I was a choir boy, and my mother had the puppet ministry. . .  So, being very steeped in that dogma and in that doctrine and having the impossible task of squaring it to the outside world . . . was a shock. And so the rejection of one code can often times trigger the rejection of all codes and lead to a sort of anarchy. And that was where I spent about ten years of my life after my father died. Just sort of experimenting with drugs and sex and alcohol and just trying to fill the void in any way. So that’s the first place it comes from. That’s the personal stuff.

The second place it comes from is old Sam Shepard. The history of divided-self plays. . . . So, I would always watch that: “Old Sam’s talking to himself.” . . . I think when you have the convention of actors trading roles, it highlights that in a very sort of obvious way. And so, I was like, “Wouldn’t it be cute if we had some sort of theatrical convention by which we could acknowledge that.”

I actually think that the way that we think about character and narrative onstage often is horseshit. Because, we all have a dozen different voices yelling at us at any given time. And there will be a confluence of convoluted issues that create a behavior. And these terrible Greek notions that there is a tragic flaw, there is a thing. In a way, the play is sort of a scream against simple solutions. The kid is longing to find one cause for his father’s death. He’s longing to put blame on a person. In fact, death, life, problems, neuroses – are a clusterfuck; a perfect storm. Every one of us is a perfect storm of issues that creates different presentations of our neuroses; our problems.

So, personal tragedy, the desire to confuse character onstage . . . and then, I was standing at a party . . . and I saw some of my favorite actors standing together – the actors who would end up playing the characters of the show in the first version. So . . . and then, my friends – who were just the most brilliant humans, and who just really have an amazing combination of humanity, and humor, and physical dexterity.  All of those things came together, swirling, and became HAND TO GOD.

What is your experience with, and/or interest in, puppets? And could you share what drew you to include a puppet as a primary character in this play?

So, my mother used to have a puppet ministry – that’s where it starts. And I was always fascinated to find out that no one knew what that was and something everybody thought I had made up. . . . And so that’s where it started.

And I had sort of a sincere revulsion toward any sort of psychotherapy when I was growing up. Some of that comes from having a summer birthday – so I wasn’t advanced to first grade, I was in kindergarten right away. The school system had this program called “Transitions,” and I think it only lasted like one or two years. But, the school counselor would talk to us about this process – about being sort of like “held back” – and she would do it with a puppet. The puppet was a dolphin puppet. . . . And you’d have to sing to the goddamned puppet in a cardboard cave on her desk. You’d have to sing to the fucking puppet to make the puppet come out, and then the puppet would tell you stupid things. And we also had an Art teacher that was obsessed with Howdy Doody, and we had to sing that stupid fucking song. So, there was a lot of it where I was like: “Are you people fucking kidding me???” And in general, in American culture . . .  the “all you need is love, put a happy face on it, power of fucking positive thinking horseshit makes me so  upset. Because, it is intellectually bankrupt, emotionally dishonest, and deeply fucking manipulative – not to mention passive aggressive. And the puppets seemed to be a lot of that. . . .   So, that was young life. And then, I didn’t think about puppets again for a million years.

Then, in college . . . I took a couple of trips to Prague and studied scenography there with a Czech scenographer who specialized in puppet design . . . so, that’s when it sort of re-appeared. But, again, then I went underground, and I didn’t think about it for a million years.

Then, I started working in a fish restaurant in mid-town Manhattan. . . .  It was one of these places that had the whole fish on the ice, and you’d sell the whole fish to the customer. . . .  Standing and staring at these dead fish all day, feeling sort of – you know, you are in your mid- to-late twenties – feeling sort of: “Jesus. What have I done with my life?”. Looking at the dead fish on the ice and feeling a sort of kinship to. So, I wrote a play about one of the fish coming to life and coaching a young man from Texas through how to take over the restaurant. Sort of MACBETH – except in a restaurant with a fish instead of witches. And that was sort of, I guess, the “trial run” of “puppet as Id” for myself. . . . It’s a great way to theatricalize the psychology. . . . So, having a puppet – it made it weird; it delighted the audience; it also made it funny. It made it funny. . . . Puppets are funny.

So, you know, HAND TO GOD was kind of strange, because it didn’t come from a hard core puppet background.

What is the significance of the show’s setting of Cypress, Texas?

Primarily, because that’s where all the shit went down. But, I also think Cypress – Cypress is an interesting place . . . gentrification in America. It interestingly straddles the line between urban and rural.

When I was growing up, it was more towards the rural side of things. My grandparents had moved down from the Panhandle to Cypress during one of the oil booms. . . . A lot of that community in the Panhandle was German farmers . . . who had come up through Galveston and the Brazos River to find themselves almost on Oklahoma, and the communities were centered around the church. The church was everything. It was socialization. It was theatre. It was relief.

And so, when economics made it more feasible to sell-off those farms to like “Uncle Carl” and have him turn it into . . . one of these larger farms, everybody moved. They also moved in mass. . . . For us it was kind of around one or two neighborhoods in Cypress. So, you had cousins, and uncles, and great uncles, and great aunts not too far away. And they all tended to gravitate towards one church. So, it was an interesting sort of time to be there, because it seemed like everybody we knew went to our church.

It was a very self-consistent community, but, also, permeable. Because, right next to our subdivision was a newer subdivision, and that newer subdivision had more people from outside of Texas . . . to work in oil and gas. So, the sort of self-consistency of the religious community was compromised very early; and also the self-consistency of the culture. . . . Then as more and more people moved to the area, and the median income shot up . . . it was being exposed to very different lifestyles – to a very different class. . . . And not understanding when I was younger . . . I still get pissed off because people condescend to Texas . . . workers who have come from somewhere else, and they believe that they are stepping down to live there. That bothers me. But, regardless of all of that, it was an area in flux.

Many playwrights believe that “you should write what you know.” How does this idea intersect with your overall body of work?

RA: I think that when you don’t know the people that you are writing about, you can be really didactic. And you can be really aggressive about how people should live . . . condescendingly.  The knowledge of an outsider is a flat, shallow knowledge. The knowledge of an outsider is the knowledge of somebody who does not understand the emotional terrain, just the intellectual terrain. People writing about the South who did not live in the South, who have no affection for the South, who do not understand the perspective of those people – it is shallow and it is condescending, and it is frankly, oftentimes, insulting. And you don’t know what goes on in the church, and you don’t know how those parents know their children, and you don’t know the history – the history that goes into their emotions. And so, you can beat the shit out of those people mercilessly. And that’s not good theatre. Without love for the people that you find problematic, you cannot write a play. . . . The thing that makes a good play is mercy and conflict. And I think to get that, you either have to have all the empathy of a saint . . . or, I think you have to write about your family. Because, your family is the thing that you love and hate most in your life.

What has most surprised you about audience reception of HAND TO GOD thus far?

Old ladies love to watch puppets fuck. . . . Everybody loves to watch puppets have sex. . . .  There’s something about watching a thing that is not real, with no genitals, mime the behavior that allows people to lose their minds for it. Also, I’m constantly thrilled with the way that actors rise to the challenge of the part. . . . And the way that . . . this weird little story has spoken to so many people is probably the biggest wonder, and blessing, and gift.

Capital T is currently producing the professional, regional premiere of HAND TO GOD in Texas.  How do you feel about HAND TO GOD playing for Austin audiences?

Oh, I think Austin audiences will dig the shit out of it; I feel like they’ll understand. I feel like there’s a lot of frustrated old church kids that end up in Austin – you know, who wanted to get real rowdy. . . . I feel like it’s a good place for HAND TO GOD.  It’s pretty aggressive. It’s pretty weird. And I feel like Austin, despite all the tech money is still pretty weird. . . . The thing about the play is that you go in for probably comedy, and then you find that it has heart. And I think that’s a little bit like Austin – it’s a weird place, but it’s got intense heart. I hope the audiences feel that.

What do you hope that Austin audiences will be considering after seeing HAND TO GOD?

I feel like every solution’s a dogma right now. Because we seem to have, by and large, rejected religion doesn’t mean that the current liberal ethos doesn’t have its own intense dogma that it’s sometimes easy to lose humanity in. We need to continually reach out to people and to deal with them where they’re at. Even the tribalism in rejecting the religious is part of the issue the play is trying to talk about.

I want people to come away with a sort of confusion of tragedy and comedy – things are really sad; things are very funny. And sometimes, the disease makes you pay attention, and so, that can be really important.

I also think it’s really important to take away from the play that plays can be fun; plays can be rowdy. . . . We can do anything. The theatre has permission to do anything in that blank space. . .  and I don’t understand why we tell the same stories over, and over, and over. If the play can give permission to people to tell their stories and tell it in a weirder way – just be their fucking selves in their life and in their art – do it. Get weird. Get rowdy. Scream.

So: I hope people have fun.