Hand to God is only the second play by its writer to ever make its way to the stage, but that stage is a big one. How big? Last month, the comedy, by local boy Robert Askins, opened at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. Set in the playwright’s hometown of Cypress and based on his youthful experiences working in St. John Lutheran Church’s puppet ministry, Hand to God follows the exploits of a young man with an irreverent sock puppet that takes on a life of its own, something to which the Lutherans do not take kindly. We spoke with Askins, who’s something of a secular preacher himself, while he was readying for the play’s April 7 opening night.
On his early life:
When my grandparents arrived in Cypress in the ’70s, it was very rural. Then all these oil and gas workers came in who were upper-middle class. Then, as the property values and the median incomes and education levels of those areas rose, these small communities of fairly rural people were exposed to a whole other strata of human being, some of whom did not like that they were in Texas, some of whom looked down on us because we were hicks. They were very wealthy, fancy people from the North who just had to be here to do a job. So it was an interesting time to be in that place.
On puppet ministries past:
You know, it’s a way to get kids involved, to keep their attention at Mother’s Day or Bible camp…. Kids who are interested in theater and performance oftentimes get funneled into the church in certain ways, either through singing or through church drama.
On puppet ministries present:
As we look at the rise of mega-churches, ministries are looking for things to spend money on. They’re not focusing on ministry or outreach to the poor, they’re focused on buying f*****g puppets. The puppet theater at the church my mother goes to now—Salem Lutheran Church in Tomball—has a lighting board that would put most Off-Off-Broadway theaters to shame. It’s about $50,000, that board. I don’t identify with mainstream Christianity, but I think there are some beautiful things about the religion. And that kind of thing is insulting. It’s insulting to people who have believed in a pure example of this thing.
On Southern playwrights and their undying affection for Sam Shepard:
You fall in love with a sort of weird gothic Texana or Southernness. And that Southernness is no longer true. We no longer live in a world where people have family farms—we live in a world of suburbs and Walmart. My first play was called Princes of Waco…. It was me trying to do Shepard, except it was funny. The Village Voice described it as Fool for Love meets Cheers. But…the audience wasn’t buying it. That’s just no longer the world that we live in. Listen, I see a lot of plays. I see a lot of plays by young men from the South, and all of them are trying to write like Sam Shepard—all of them. All of them are trying to talk about violence and alcoholism. I know this sweet young dude from Denver who’s writing these very dark, everything-is-about-to-fall-apart plays. And that’s one of the real tragedies of Southern writing: we’ve never gotten over the fact that secrets will destroy us, even up to Tracy Letts in August: Osage County. “Oh my God, everything’s going to f*****g fall apart!” It’s not. It’s self-indulgent to say that just because somebody was a drunk or somebody slept around we’ve got to pack up shop and destroy the culture.
On whether it’s true that the Booth, where Hand to God is playing, was the first Broadway theater he ever visited:
Yeah, I didn’t see a Broadway play until I was 25. I went to the Alley once when I was in Houston, but that was it.
On whether he thought he’d ever see a play of his own there:
Um, I think no. Actually, there’s no “I think.” I never did.