Hand to God
Interview by Beth Herstein
The show revolves around five residents of a town in Texas: The recently widowed Margery (Geneva Carr), at the encouragement of Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), has gathered three teenaged churchgoers, Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), Jessica (Sara Stiles), and her mild-mannered son Jason (Steven Boyer), to design their own hand puppets in preparation for a Christian puppet show at the church. Things get out of hand when Jason's puppet, scene-stealing Tyrone, begins to assert his own profane and possibly Satanic personality. Though the show, and Tyrone, have the audience laughing throughout, at its core Hand to God examines deeper issues about repression, faith, and disappointment.
Shortly before the show's opening, I had the pleasure of meeting Marc Kudisch to discuss Hand to God. As readers know, Kudisch is a reliably wonderful, constant force in New York theater with a beautiful baritone voice and a broad dramatic range. Along the way, the versatile performer has picked up several Tony and Drama Desk nominations, for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Assassins, and 9 to 5. He's also shown his diversity outside of traditional theater, co-creating and co-starring in Baritones Unbound, performing with the New York City Opera, and teaching a class in the business school of University of Maryland with his brother, business Professor Jeff Kudisch.
Marc's intelligence and energy, his self-proclaimed love of talk, and his enthusiasm for his profession were all evident when we spoke. Our discussion ranged from his work with Sutton Foster (one of his favorite collaborators because, among other things, "we giggle a lot when we work together") to his roles in Assassins ("nothing was more cathartic" or topical than that show, he states, in 2004 on the eve of the Republican convention), Thoroughly Modern Millie ("From the minute I started working on that play I was in love. I knew it was gonna be a big fat hit."), and The Wild Party ("My character was a mess, and I had to explore that every night. I felt pretty crappy. I don't know how long I could have done that piece."). But of course, our focus was his current work in Hand to God.
Beth Herstein: What is it like performing in this show?
Marc Kudisch: Personally, it's fun for me because I can say with 100% certainty, it's great to hear an audience genuinely not knowing what the hell is going to happen nextto hear genuine spontaneous reaction. Because the response from the audience is different every night. Literally every night. I made some small adjustments at certain parts in my performance the other night, and suddenly there were laughs in places no one had ever heard. And so, again, your timing changes. Even Geneva was like, wow, that was kind of wild.
You saw the showwhen was the last time you went to a show and heard [reactions like] that?
BH: It is really exciting to be in that audience.
MK: Yes. Wham, in the face. Because it's unapologetic, it's not tugging at heartstrings, it's not result-oriented. My God, that epilogue leaves with more questions than answers. You're going to leave the theater and think about that epilogue for a week. Audiences want to be challenged. They're spending a lot of money. They don't spend it so they can sit back and do nothing. If you do your job right, people are going to think about a play or musical for two weeks, three weeks. If you add that up, how many days that is, you're getting a bargain at the end of the day. You're getting a meal that's gonna last you for a long time. Or I can throw a Dunkin' Donut in your face. It's your choice. I like Dunkin' Donuts, now and again, but I prefer to eat a meal that is well balanced and can satiate me for the rest of the day.
BH: In an earlier interview, when the show was at MCC theater, you said the actors who'd already done the show had to work harder to keep it fresh.
MK: Absolutely, because they'd already done it once, and they already knew where they could get laughs the first time, and the tone of the show was very different then as it is now.
BH: How so?
MK: It's much more real. There it wasand I don't mean this disrespectfully, but it was a little more camp. There were moments that went more for laughs and for shock value, and now it goes for something more truthful. It still gets a massive laugh, but the laugh now is laced with a depth. And the joy this time around is that now I'm in the boat with everyone else. I've done a performance before, I've done a round of this, I also know where there are some laughs. Mind you, I don't care. I'm always going to hunt for something.
BH: This play is so physical and so emotional. It must be exhausting to perform.
BH: The characters are broadly drawn at the outset, but as the play progresses they reveal their complexity and their dual natures, as well as their flaws.
MK: For an actor, when characters have flaws, they are swords. That's the stuff you go to town on. That's the stuff you want to explore. I don't want to play someone who's easy. I can't. In Millie, there was nothing easy about Trevor Graydon. He may have looked like other stock characters, but if you looked closer, he very much wasn't. I always said to people, the great thing about him is that he's an operatic character caught in a modern musical, so the laws that apply to other people don't workwhich he finds out as the play progresses. His rules don't work in this world. That's just the bigger metaphor, obviously I'm not being completely literal. But his morality and his sensibilityhe's sort of like this Lancelot where no one needs a Lancelot.
BH: How do you feel about Pastor Greg?
MK: This is a character who has a Lancelot complex. But he has to get out of his own head. Because his job is not to save other people, but to help them save them from themselves.
BH: As a man navigating relationships your character has a lot of trouble, but when he has to be the pastor and connect
MK: Yes, he's very good. It's so much easier to help others than to help ourselves anyway. He's trying, and trying, and he continues to try. And at the end of the day, I think he's a pretty good pastor. He really does minister.
Does he cross boundaries? Yes! Does he do it maliciously? No. But if anything, that makes it more dangerous, because he's not as clear, which means that he could keep doing it.
BH: Yes. In addition, he is one of the least over-the-top of the characters.
MK: My role in the play is to undercut much of what is going on. Because so much of it is heightened and gets to absurd levels. So, in some ways I'm the grounding of the show, the moral center of the show. Which tells you how uncentered the show is. But that's a really fine line, and I do walk thatnot for me, but for them. I love to hear an audience think they know, and then discover they don't. I like a conversation. And, as an actor I want it to stay spontaneous. I don't want it to get into a rhythm because then I might get lazy.
BH: You have to keep it fresh for yourself and the audience.
MK: It's never about us, it's never about a singular personit's got to be about the conversation. It's got to be. Why else are we asking people to spend a lot of money? Because if you don't know the why outside of "Because we're going to make a lot of money. Because we're really smart and really clever," I'm sorry, but that does not float for me. For others, it's a different storyand it's not a judgment. It's just my particular taste and talent. I'm not somebody who's going to highlight his own one-man evening. I'm not a personality that way.
BH: You could carry a one-man show.
MK: I can tell you now, I've done it once, and it was completely scripted. And it's structured, and there's an arc, there's a point to the night. I'll never do my greatest hits. There's always got to be a point, because if there's not a point, there's no conversationI don't know, I'm Jewish, I like to talk. But more important, I like to get into it. Because, I don't know how much longer I want to be an actor.
BH: Are you thinking of directing?
MK: Writing, producing, directingyes. I think I understand this process very well, I've done it a very long time. I believe I understand how to help create a collaborative environment in which to build. And I understand execution. In our business in the theater an idea is nothing without the skill to execute it. A great idea without execution is nothing but a great idea.
And in this business of ours, unlike the film industry, or the television industry, it happens in the moment all the time. You don't get to go back and edit. You can't shoot it, then put it in front of test groups and reshoot it. No. It's present every day, that's how it happens. Which means, you've got to show up, every day, and you've got to execute, every day, and you've got to do it with the village you've put together. And whenever you have an idea, you've got to have your ears wide enough to be able to listen to 12 more of them, every day. There's a reason we only have one mouth and two ears. That's what we do, and then we go into previews and we've got to listen every time. Every time we go out there, it's a different organism.
BH: How much do you feel thatthe audience, the organism?
MK: You feel it every nightif you listen. Listening, real listening, is the greatest skill any actor can have. Zoe Caldwell was a teacher of mine when I was in college, and she said to me, "There's nothing more exciting than watching someone on the stage genuinely listening."
BH: What makes you interested in moving away from acting, into directing and writing?
MK: I like process more than performance, and I think there are people who love performance more than me. I've been [acting] for a long time, and I've been wildly fortunate, and I'm thrilled about that, and I've had the great opportunity to learn the thing that I love the most. But for me, it's always been about process. I love finding the show and creating the show. Building the hat. Now there's a hat where there never was. More than that, watching different people wear that hat and bring more styles to that hatthat's exciting. If you build something beautiful, the play is the star. When we're done, Hand to God will be done, by 40, 50, 60 different theaters in this country alone. You can cast whoever you want in the play. Because it's good.
BH: I remember seeing Proof with Mary Louise Parker. She was great, but then other people came in and got great reviews also.
MK: That's just it. She's a brilliant, wonderful actress,. What she helped to build was so beautiful that other actors could come in and create something of their own. Steven Boyer is the singular performer in this show, no question that't what he's helped to build. It was written for him, and for Geneva. What he's built, there's a tone and a quality, and when others come inbecause of what he's helped to build, others will excel as well. There is no greater compliment than that. If a show relies on a singular personality, it's dead. But if you're a smart actor and help create something so that other people can create something singular – that's it.
I know my particular talents and I know my skill set and I know my point of view. I don't think like most other actors. I'm logic driven, I'm a logic monster. I don't go from the outside in, I go from logic out. When I understand the thought process of a character, everything else follows suit. So sometimes, I'm intent driven not result driven. That will always help when it comes to crafting and building a play. In most cases, that's where I like being an actor. If there's something that needs to be finished, that needs to be definedand then let someone else do it.
BH: What draws you to theater?
MK: The theater is one of the last genuine places where it is socially acceptable to discuss topics that are not socially acceptable. That's what the theater is, man. It was made as a place where people can come together and have that kind of argument. There's no other reason for a thousand people to want to be in a room together for 2 ½ hours. For 2 ½ hours, it is an actual organism that lives and dies within three hours. That group of people will not ever be in the same roomever, ever again. It is a unique experience. Why, why, why must we come together this way? I love film, I love television, I really do. But this will never go out of fashion. Never. Ever. Networks will die.
BH: Because of Netflix?
MK: Yes, and Amazon, exactly. Reality shows, they may go on, but maybe they will die too. But theater will never die, because this is the only way this happens. There is something sacred about this to me. We're not curing cancer but maybe, a little, we're curing cancer.
BH: Any concluding remarks about Hand to God?
MK: The play is not about religion; it's about faith, and how to hold onto your faith. And it's about not being afraid to ask for help ... The thing that I'm most proud about this show isas challenging as it is to digest, we don't poke fun at anything, we don't wink. We don't apologize. We are a family show. But it's the tough family stuff. I think if anybody's got kids 14 and olderI think they are ready for that. Kids are smart, and they are ready for the play. The play represents teenagers, the play represents 40-somethings. It's a wide swath of Us.
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