Magic Time! Left-Handed Complement: Liam Forde on Acting With a Puppet in ‘Hand to God’ at Studio Theatre

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Studio Theatre’s fourth floor has been turned into an amazing facsimile of a Lutheran church basement, complete with inspirational posters on the walls and seating at folding tables as if for a confirmation class or potluck supper. I dropped in there yesterday, and I can report that for someone whose upbringing included exactly such places and circumstances, it was an eerie déjà vu.

 This is the immersive scenic design for Studio’s production of Robert Askins’ Hand to God, an irreverent and libidinous comedy that was a hit on Broadway and is having its regional premiere in DC. The play takes place in Texas in the context of a Christian puppet ministry (which is a real thing), and in it three teenagers along with the mother of one of them are assigned by the pastor to put on an edifying puppet show for parishioners at next Sunday’s service. Things go wildly off scriptural script, however, as a puppet named Tyrone becomes, hilariously, a loud-mouth, foul-mouthed little demon.

 Liam Forde, who plays Jason in Hand to God at Studio Theatre, with his Tyrone rehearsal puppet. Photograph by John Stoltenberg.
Liam Forde, who plays Jason in ‘Hand to God’ at Studio Theatre, with his Tyrone rehearsal puppet. Photograph by John Stoltenberg.

New York–based actor Liam Forde plays Jason, the teen whose left hand is possessed by Tyrone. I was curious to know how Liam has been handling, ahem, this dual role—a puppet character and a puppeteer character who are like Jekyll and Hyde as conjoined twins. Liam kindly made time before a rehearsal so that we could have what turned into a fascinating chat—during which we were joined by Tyrone.

John: The last time I saw you at Studio was in Jumpers for Goalposts, a play I loved.

Liam: Thanks, me too.

And your performance was fantastic.

Oh, thank you.

You were playing Luke, a shy, introverted, socially awkward, young gay man. Now, in Hand to God, you’re playing Jason, an on-the-make straight guy who gives voice to Tyrone, his demonic puppet. What’s that been like for you?

Something about Luke felt very true to me. Jason is more of a stretch. He’s living in this world where he feels the need to be a certain way. Luke could only be what he was, because he didn’t know how to be anything else. But Jason feels the need—from the world around him, from the church and from his peers, and from his father—that he has to be manly. To be a man. He has to be strong. For his mom. He has to be her rock. So there’s a lot more resistance with Jason—resistance to anything that’s traditionally thought of as weak or effeminate. It’s this hyper-masculine world where things are black and white, and there’s a lot more pressure piled on Jason.

Puppets have always been big in kids shows; now generations who grew up with Sesame Street are used to seeing puppets in adult-themed shows like Avenue Q and Hand to God. Why do you think that is?

Like any art form, it’s growing, and people are realizing that puppets can be used to tell stories in a variety of ways instead of just something that’s kind of cartoony. I’m thinking of The Woodsman, a play in New York that had puppets, and you’ve got those amazing puppets in War Horse.

Plus in Hand to God and Avenue Q, the puppets can be pottymouth.

Right [indicates a bag beside him with a puppet in it]. I’ve been rehearsing with this Tyrone, and he’s adorable. I’m going to get my new Tyrones tomorrow. I can’t wait.

Can I see?

Sure [taking puppet out of the bag]. This is rehearsal Tyrone. He’s a little bit more Muppet-y looking than he’s going to be. He’s filthy and he’s falling apart ’cause I’ve been using him so much. But he’s going to be made of a more sock-like material. Our puppet designer Chelsea Warren is sewing, sewing, sewing. Here he is. [As Tyrone:] Hey!

[Tyrone claims Liam’s left hand for the rest of the interview.]

What’s your own background with puppets? Did you play with them as a kid?

No, I didn’t.

Ever?

I watched Sesame Street, but I have no experience with puppetry at all.

So he’s your—

He’s my introduction to puppets.

This is like going into the deep end then?

Oh, it’s terrifying, yeah.

Jason/Tyrone is a split role. You’re playing two characters at once. You have to flip back and forth fast. How do you do it?

 A lot of practice. I got this part in late March, and I’ve been working on it every day since. It’s still really hard.

What have been your biggest challenges doing this role?

There are so many. I can’t believe we’re starting tech tomorrow, ’cause I feel like I need another month of rehearsal. But I also think that’ll be part of the challenge. Thank God for Joanie Schultz, our director. I honestly don’t know how I could do this without her. Most actors will tell you they keep working on their part until closing. But I’m really feeling it on this one because oftentimes Tyrone’s trying to help Jason realize something, something dark that maybe Jason doesn’t want to admit, about his father, about who Jason wants to be. And while Jason is making these dark discoveries, Tyrone’s over here like [laughs mockingly as Tyrone]. So it’s very, very difficult to stay with Jason while Tyrone is going after a different goal.

What about breakthroughs?

A lot of the time Tyrone is trying to free Jason, so even though it’s scary, it feels good to finally to express things that Jason was told his whole life—from the church, from Mom and Dad—you can’t feel these things, you can’t say these things, because that’s bad.

I’m intrigued by what’s going on between Jason and Tyrone regarding religion and repression.

I think it’s absolutely something that the play is addressing and that Tyrone’s prolog and epilog refer to. In many ways Tyrone is the voice of reason. Even though he’s saying it in the most aggressive way, Tyrone is right about so many things. He doesn’t have to be so rude. But he’s right, he’s absolutely right.

I was watching a video (Watch it below) of a bishop who was saying religion is in the control business.

If you have a good paradise that you’re rewarded with if you do everything you’re supposed to do and a fiery scary place when you don’t do the things you’re supposed to do, then you have control over the population. And that’s part of what this play is about: Jason’s freedom. He’s getting set free.

The prolog Tyrone delivers sets the play up like a fable or a parable. It’s about the day that someone invented right and wrong. Right is for all of us. And wrong is for just you. So it’s isolating.

For being a fun and sometimes silly comedy, it’s got a lot of depth.

You know, when you’re inside of this play as Jason, there’s not one funny thing about it. I’ve never done a comedy like this. I know it’s funny. I saw it on Broadway three times. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I was crying with laughter. But it’s not funny seen from inside Jason’s life.  It’s the most unfunny comedy. Tyrone, however, thinks he’s hilarious. He’s a huge ham.

How as an actor did you find Tyrone’s character?

For some reason the Tyrone character came a little bit easier to me. He’s hyper-masculine. He’s kind of like a college bro. But he also has a lot of knowledge on all kinds of show-business routines. He’s a stand-up comedian, bully, philosopher, and life coach all rolled into one. But he’s not as tough as he acts; he’s just a great actor. And the question the audience has to decide is: Are Jason and Tyrone different?

I’m also intrigued by what’s going on between Jason and Tyrone about masculinity and sexuality. You said earlier that Jason has pressures on him to be a certain way, having to do with his sexuality, his relationships. How is Tyrone part of that pressure—or is he part of the release?

It’s a very complicated, nuanced relationship between these two. I would say Tyrone wants Jason to go about it in a different way. In the bedroom scene, Tyrone wants Jason to toughen up. He wants Jason to tell everybody that they’re full of shit. He wants Jason to hurt the guy who’s making fun of him. He wants Jason to fuck the girl he likes. Does Jason want those things or does Tyrone want those things? Sometimes they’re the same, sometimes they’re not.

It goes back to resistance. Jason can’t want those things. That’s bad, he’ll go to hell, his mom will be disappointed in him. The pastor says good men don’t do that. And Jason just makes big, big discoveries with the help of Tyrone.

You’re not only an actor but also a singer and vocal coach. And I have some idea from watching videos that Tyrone has vocal demands.

You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

So what vocal coaching do you give yourself to give the little devil his due?

Well, my voice training has helped a lot with this. I met with a voice coach at Juilliard before I came here, basically for reassurance that I was going to be okay. When I’m in New York, I also work with my singing teacher once a week, and she’s been enormously helpful. Zach Campion, our dialect coach, has helped a lot too. I’m steaming before and after every show. Warm up and cool down every day. Lots of hydrating. I don’t talk a lot during the day. I can’t go out for drinks after a show, because the vocal demands of this are insane.

This is a very intense role.

I can’t believe I’m doing it.

Hand to God plays July 7-August 7, 2016, at The Studio Theatre’s Studio X –1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

LINK:
Tyrone’s Instagram page

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.