Monday, February 12, 2018

Directing the undirectable; an inside look at the process of directing HAND TO GOD with Stray Cat Theatre's Ron May

Michelle Chin and Eric Zaklukiewicz
photo by John Groseclose
by Monica Sampson

It’s raunchy, its rough and its religious. Hand To God is sweeping the nation. This Tony Nominated Play was voted by American Theatre Magazine as one of the top 10-most-produced-plays nationwide in their last theater season.

New to the show? That’s okay- considering the concepts are age-old theater standards, exploring the coming of age, religion, God, sexuality, loss, oh and a demonic puppet.

Hand To God is the story of a Christian congregation in Cypress, Texas where, following the death of his father, Jason and his mother, Margery participate in the local Church's Bible Education program, where puppets are used to teach bible lessons.

In a dark and humorous twist, Jason discovers his puppet is more satanic than one would like from a holy puppet; leading a life of its own, spilling secrets, demonizing the congregation, and along the way, maybe even teaching some lessons about humanity amongst the malarkey.

If you aren't a Southerner who was raised in a Fundamentalist Christian congregation where Sunday School and sing-alongs to Bible verses were the norm, the phrase, “Hand to God” might be new to you. According to the Playwright, the phrase derives from an old Southern regionalism meaning, ‘to be honest’ and at its core that’s what the show is all about; honesty in moments of pain, reflection, and finding the truth.

Following the opening of Hand To God’s Arizona debut, a co-production between Stray Cat Theatre and Phoenix Theater, PHX Stages had the opportunity to speak with the Artistic Director of Stray Cat, and director of the show, Ron May.

For sixteen years, May’s work with Stray Cat has been featured around the Valley, his iconic brassy, boundary-pushing, and like the namesake of this show, truthful-storytelling style is well known. However, a veteran to the Arizona Theater scene, this was May's first time directing both actors and puppets.

Ron May
That's where the interview began as May bellowed with laughter when asked about the process of directing puppets.

“I cursed puppets to many people,” May chortled, catching his breath from laughter he added, “I’ve always heard about those directors that want to be as prescriptive as possible with actors, and maybe a strictly puppet show is their dream.”

May confessed that personally, he shies away from this hands on acting style preferring the development of working with actors as a natural acting process.

Yet, as May admitted it seems all hope of this directing style happening goes out the window when puppets are added.

With a smile breaking through his words, May noted. “Now that I've worked with a puppet I know a puppet doesn't do anything unless you make it.” This he said, was a key step in the rehearsal process.

As the actors, who have to be puppeteers, switch between their roles, and the puppets on stage, there must be a perfectly timed, and choreographed understanding of their character as well as the character of the puppet.

“For the person handling the puppet,” says May, “they think it's moving one arm, gesturing, head movements, eyes, or whatever, but one wrong move and the actor is up there acting, and the puppet looks like it's having a stroke,” he chuckled.

The key May noted to the overall success of the duel actor and puppet choreography was the use of mirrors in Phoenix Theater’s rehearsal space. In addition to this, local actor Toby Yatso assisted in a Puppet workshop for the actors.

This was important to the triumph of the show, because May noted, “The human wrist can only do so much.”

Then the conversation turned naturally as it does while laughing about wrist flexibility, choreography, movement and the overtly sexual nature of the show to a question four years of journalism school can never prepare an interviewer for:

“So, let's talk about the puppet sex,” I said.

This caused such a trumpet of laughter from May that my pen taking notes against my yellow legal pad actually fell to the floor.

“That was my favorite part!” bellowed May.

In the play, two characters, both with hand puppets, have a dialog while their demonic puppets go through a rather lude, laughable, and vigorous sex session.

May noted, that this puppet sex scene, was not only his favorite to direct but also a cast favorite. It started from cast improv, noticing what made them laugh, and in turn adding it to the choreography. “We didn't actually finish blocking it until opening night,” he added.

During a preview of the show, May took time, especially during his favorite scene in the show, to notice moments of laughter, and worked with the actors before opening night to elongate rich  moments, adding to the overall hysterical scenes audience members enjoyed from the production.

In a very artistic manner, May finished with a warm laugh, as he noted the musicality of the entire process.

“Playing with a puppet, is like playing jazz,” says May. “One has to master the basic notes, and then whole scales and finally improvisation opportunities are available for some really beautiful and creative moments.”

CLICK HERE for more information on Hand to God, which runs through February 22nd

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