Recontextualizing puppets: Religion, sex, violence and more - from the director
Patrick Cleary, directing "Hand to God" at AFD November 15-24, offers insights into the cracked, funny, insightful play...
I've been a puppeteer and a puppet maker for about 5-6 years. I've had a channel on YouTube where I and my partner Peter created and performed with puppets in short skits, www.youtube.com/xingcat.
When I first saw "Hand to God" on Broadway, I knew it was a play I wanted to direct at some point. There's a tradition of puppets being used in Southern Christian churches (any puppeteer who has any sort of online presence is used to getting requests to build puppets for church performances), and using that tradition to tell a story about the challenges that faith can be presented with when handling deeply human problems worked for me.
Puppets are usually seen as for kids, so to re-contextualize them as showing the basest instincts of the characters' minds was a great twist on the idea of using puppets in theater.
To me, "Hand to God" isn't a play about God, or about puppets, or sex or violence. It's about how limited we are, as human beings, in understanding how to love ourselves and one another in our entirety.
We often think about the good and bad in all of us, but we think that the "bad" things, like jealousy or lust or anger or sadness, need to be removed from us in order to connect, be love, or be good people. Putting all of those base instincts into a representation of ourselves (like the ancient folklore of Golem) allows us to see what we value, and what we're trying to hide, and how limited the church or our relationships or parenting skills can be when we're talking about embracing ourselves as whole, complicated people.
If you ask someone who has heard about Hand to God and ask them to describe it, you'll most likely get some variation on, "It's an adult puppet show," or, "It's a vulgar comedy about religion," or something about sex and violence. While all of those things are absolutely true (as well as being hilarious and well-written), to me, "Hand to God" is about so much more.
I'm thrilled that Arlington Friends of the Drama has taken on this play. Community theater often has to balance the new and controversial with the expectations of our audience and the bottom-line, and "Hand to God" can be a polarizing piece. I'll be forever grateful to have the opportunity to direct this script in this space.
With a hopeful message underneath it all, the play was truly a challenge for me as a director and as a puppeteer.