Originally, Robert Askins wanted to be a tortured artist, writing hypermasculine plays in the style of Sam Shepard.
“I was writing these surreal, aggressive, violent things,” he says. “Then I realized I’m a lower-middle-class white man dripping with privilege. And the fact that my dad died when I was 16 and I didn’t handle it well is sad, but not police-violence sad and not growing-up-in-war-torn-Middle-East sad. I have all my fingers and all my toes, and I managed to realize my dream.”
His dream was to be a successful playwright, which Hand to God, which opens tonight at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has made him. It’s the story of a sock puppet who takes possession of a teenager in a church youth group — more or less — and it was the most produced play in the country last year.
Askins is in Houston, near his hometown of Cypress, Tex., workshopping a new play and sitting outside drinking coffee.
“I’m living the dream!” he says, having just eaten lunch with his high school best friend’s parents, who’d reminded him that he first wrote a play as a teenager for a problem-solving contest. (It was about a self-sorting mail system.)
His love of performing and theater came from growing up in the church. Askins wrote his second play at Baylor University, where he studied acting. Considered a wild kid at the Baptist school, he wasn’t getting cast in plays — so he decided to write one.
“The goals aren’t too different whether it’s to feel the presence of God or to feel a catharsis,” he said. “They live right next to each other.”
Askins was in the church’s youth choir, and his mom started a puppet ministry. After accepting that comedy, and not just edgy drama, could have value, he drew on his personal experiences to write Hand to God.
“I was a young dude from Texas trying to be taken seriously, but people want to laugh, man,” he said. “Every show is about things falling apart and how everyone’s failed and what you should do. You don’t know! You’re not that fucking smart! I don’t know what the world should be like, but I know what’s weird about it.”
Askins has loved seeing audiences respond to Hand to God, which won an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony. He thinks there are a few reasons it’s attracted audiences and good reviews.
“It’s funny, it doesn’t demonize religious characters, it’s aggressive and it’s not reciting talking points,” he said. “And it’s got a puppet in it.”
The sock puppet Tyrone was fun for Askins to write.
“He was saying everything I wanted to say when I was that age, Askins said. “He’s telling the truth, but he’s also wrong because there is love and people do care about each other and you can’t crystallize your views after a tragedy when you’re 16.”
Hand to God, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, Feb. 3 – March 19. $29-$97, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org