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InDepth InterView: Marc Kudisch - An Inside Look At HAND TO GOD


Today we are presenting a special Inside Look section of an upcoming InDepth InterView with acclaimed stage and screen star Marc Kudisch all about the searing and provocative new Broadway play HAND TO GOD and his many recent endeavors. In this preview portion of the complete conversation, Kudisch and I analyze all aspects of his brand new Broadway hit HAND TO GOD and parse the finer points of the religion-themed comedy as well as touch on his thoughts on the daring, thought-provoking and edgy Robert Askins play, with today's preview touching on many of the themes of the piece, the importance of the play's message to a modern audience, an exhaustive analysis of the complex character dynamics that exist in this world and what initially drew Kudisch to the idiosyncratic project in the first place, as well as how it has changed throughout the course of its run Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway to Broadway and what perhaps happens to the characters after the drama has concluded. Additionally, in the full chat coming next month, Kudisch and I look back at some of his most notable roles, as well, ranging from THE WILD PARTY to 9-TO-5 to his recent Shakespeare turn opposite Paul Giamatti in HAMLET and stint on Netflix's hit drama series HOUSE OF CARDS as well as much more.

More information on HAND TO GOD is available at the official site here.

The Big Listen

PC: What was your first exposure to HAND TO GOD?

MK: Well, the first time I came in contact with it was when my producing partner and I were working on another project and I had heard about the show through a business partner of ours - he said, "There's this young director of this play that is getting a lot of buzz Off-Off-Broadway and I hear it is amazing." So, he went and then I saw it and I really liked it - I just felt like, "Gee!" I mean, I like things like that - I just found it to be so unapologetic, which I thought was great. It was so off-the-wall and crazy and really unique, you know?

PC: There's nothing quite like it, that's for sure.

MK: So, after that, it got picked up at MCC and they contacted me about it and said, "We'd really be interested in you for this play, HAND TO GOD." So, I was like, "Oh?!" They really took me off-guard because the role of the pastor was very, very different then and I was obviously interested, but I just figured that if they wanted me in the show I would have to be able to ask a lot of questions. I said to them, "I have a lot of questions, but I love the play."

PC: Some things needed to be clarified further for you.

MK: Yeah. You know, you get to a certain point in your career and you just have to say to people, "This is what I am interested in. If this interests you, then yeah, let's explore this - but, if it doesn't, then I am not going to be your guy." I've worked with a lot of people with very strong voices, so it is at a point now where I want to go for it if I see the possibility in something. It doesn't have to be all about me, but if I can see how I can personally add to a project something of my own in some way - to benefit it - then I am going to voice that idea. If that idea doesn't work for you and that isn't a process you are interested in participating in, then I am not your guy.

PC: What did they say to that?

MK: They basically said, "Well, that's why we are interested in you!" I love the director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel - he is such a good guy.

PC: With a name like that, he's got to be special!

MK: I know, right?! Moritz von Stuelpnagel - everyone laughs at it, the same way they used to laugh at James Van Der Beek, and say, you know, "Oh, you've got to change your name!" I've known James since he was 16 or 17 and everybody told him at the time that he had to change his name, but he didn't. In the same way, a year from now, everybody will be pronouncing Moritz von Stuelpnagel just fine, I am sure. He's incredibly talented.

PC: How did the role of the pastor change once you became involved?

MK: Well, first of all, he was older. It was its first draft, so the play in general was a campier piece - it went more for the laughs. Not that it didn't have edge - obviously it had edge - but it was just the beginning of what they ultimately thought the play could be. I think that the pastor was just a little bit more obvious, you know?

PC: A less layered character.

MK: He was more the butt of the humor - just a sort of sad sack. At least for me, I find that what I love about the play - and this is what I love about theatre, at least if I am going to continue to be an actor - is that I like finding the shape of things and how those things are shaped to make something complex enough for an audience to relate to, whether or not they agree with it. For me, it's about being able to relate to the play somehow so that you actually care. The only way that we can get away with the horror of the play is if you believe it - and the only way that you are going to believe it is if you are able to get close to those characters.

PC: You have to have a sense of connection somehow.

MK: Exactly. If you don't care, you won't believe it - any of it. I mean, if when Jason is banging on his hand with the hammer and you are not feeling that in your own hand then we haven't done our job.

PC: The staging is so visceral and effective.

MK: Right! Right. But, if the journey does not add up to that, it's less effective. And, listen, Steven [Boyer] is brilliant - brilliant. This role was written for him and he is perfect in it. What I love about watching him work on the piece - along with everybody else, but especially Steven - is that he is very funny and the humor is always there, but that doesn't mean he throws away the pathos and the complexity of the situation - he sticks to that, too.

PC: A delicate dance, no doubt.

MK: And let's not forget he is playing Jason and Tyrone! I have to say, I am even more impressed with his Jason than his Tyrone - because Tyrone is something we all have inside of us; who doesn't want to go out there and say those things? So, in some way or form, that is a much easier success to me to pull off. Anybody going out onstage saying some of those things is going to have a modicum of success with it, but it's Steven's Jason that has really impressed me - the sweetness, the heart, the fear, the confusion; holding onto all that while he is also playing Tyrone is what makes it all work. We don't care that it's a stunt - and, beyond that, it goes for every other actor in the play, too.

PC: There is a duality to everything because of the fantastical and supernatural element of Tyrone.

MK: You don't believe the kid having this happen to him unless you believe the situation that he is in and the tension that exists between him and his mother - and she doesn't have the same tension with her character if not for her relationship with Timmy, the bad boy. Then, you have the pastor, who is creating his own form of tension for the mother and for the son. Then, there is the one place where Jason can be heard - his one friend, Jessica - but, yet, that creates yet another form of tension because she is so available to him and wanting him to open up to her.

PC: What is the basic backstory for your character, do you think?

MK: It's interesting, because we did explore a little bit of it - just a little bit. I mean, I am their family pastor and I have been caring for this family now for a while - I tried to help their father, but he didn't want it. He didn't accept it. Then, things happened and immediately after he died the pastor was there for them - as someone for them to go to and confide in. So, I have been doing everything in my power to help them, especially the mother, Margery, to find something useful for her to siphon her anguish into in a positive way.

PC: All coming from a good place.

MK: Yeah. And, you know, in a small town like that, there is basically the mayor and the pastor - that's it. I mean, that's the center of that community, hands down - it's Cyprus, Texas, so I'd imagine there are about 8,000 to 10,000 people there; I've been to Cyprus, so I know it a little bit. It's sort of like a town that you drive through between Houston and Texas A&M University.

PC: The quintessential small Southern town.

MK: Right. So, there is a community there and there are two leaders of that community - the mayor and the pastor. There are probably one or two churches in that neighborhood and that's it. So, as we have all seen, as well-meaning as those people might be, other shapes start come into play. I personally think he is generally a good guy, but he has his own stuff, too - like anyone else in this world. He is better at ministering to others than himself, I think.

PC: You don't think he is manipulative, especially with Margery? Being a widow, with a teenage son...

MK: I can't say - that would be judgment. You know, your job as the audience is to feel whatever you feel and as an actor I have to be very, very careful because my job is to be non-judgmental and treat my character in a non-apologetic way in order to be able to offer the audience the opportunity to come to its own conclusions. If I am doing my job right, then you as the audience will be changing your mind every five minutes as to how you will relate to these characters and what you think about them. Is he taking advantage? Probably - but, yet, don't we all do these things? Is he a manipulative man, maliciously so? I don't think so at all. Is he manipulating? Yes, but I don't think he is doing it consciously - and I do think he recognizes that in the later part of the play and realizes that maybe what Margery says carries truth.

PC: How fascinating - there's so much depth to it all.

MK: I think, again, that's one of the great challenges about this play in many ways - these are people who need help. Everybody on that stage could use a little help. Really.

PC: And can't we all?

MK: Exactly. And, also, I think one of the big themes of the play is learning how to ask and listen. That's why I say part of the horror of it is that it is strangely approachable - all of these characters. What has been happening with this play in the process of development is, interestingly, it has gotten more and more real.

PC: How so?

MK: Oh, these characters have become much more fleshed out; these characters have become much more complex; these characters have become much more relatable; the situations have become more believable - even as crazy as all this sh*t is, it's possible, because you care about these characters.

PC: If you didn't care, you wouldn't believe it.

MK: No, you wouldn't. Like, for instance, the sexual play between Margery and Timmy - it definitely went more for the laughs of it and the shock of it at MCC and before that. But, now, they've both infused their performances with something else - I remember seeing them completely re-block everything. It's a testament to Rob [Askins] that in writing so much of this play he realizes that there are things that words cannot express but physical activity can - or silence can. The physical and sexual play between Tim and Margery is not something you can really write as a playwright, you kno? You can only write that it happens. So, what it is now is its own little one-act story.

PC: A mini-play within the bigger structure of the piece.

MK: It is. I mean, I remember watching them in rehearsal re-blocking their scenes and working through them and thinking to myself, "Wow, this reminds me of a relationship that I had in college." It was infused with this anger and this hurtfulness that made me remember that and recognize it in what they were doing because it was coming from such a real place.

PC: How do you view the humor and the perceivably anti-religious elements of much of the comedy in the play?

MK: Well, the thing is, we're not making fun of anybody.

PC: Not at all.

MK: That's what's important - everything is real; we are not winking at the audience at any point.

PC: There are so many ways you could have taken this character, so to make it feel as real as you do is a testament to that.

MK: Listen, let's be clear: I had no interest in making fun of anybody or anything - that, to me, is easy; as a performer, it's not what I do anyway. I like tension - as a performer and as an artist. I like a conversation - a dialogue - with an audience. As a performer, I have no interest in people liking me; I have no interest in people thinking I am fantastic when I am doing a show. I am not looking for the big laugh - I am looking for the big listen. I am trying to find that moment that you can hear a pin drop with an audience - and, I am listening for that low rattle of release after it; or, a big release.

PC: How instructive.

MK: What I want is release - I don't want a punch-line. What's really great about this play for me is that nobody knows how to respond to the pastor - nobody. They never respond the same way twice - ever! There are nights that Geneva [Carr] and I go out there for the whole proposal thing - it starts off with the meditation that turns into something very different...

PC: A confession turns into a proposition.

MK: Exactly! Exactly. Some nights, the audience won't shut up - some nights, there is not a sound. Not a sound. I mean, I do what I do every night and I am as spontaneous as I can be every night and I listen to the audience every night - and every night they are different! There is no calculating our rhythm or anything beforehand - every night we go out there and play the scene and it is completely different every time; and the audience responds accordingly throughout it. Every individual in that audience has their own experience, so, as actors, we don't tell them where to laugh or how to respond - that's what I love about the play: the audience can respond how it wants to respond wherever they want to respond and they are never shot down in doing that.

PC: The pastor has a fascinating through-line in being immediately perceived as perhaps the villain of the piece only to ultimately be revealed as the hero who finally brings Jason and Margery home, or at least attempts to do so.

MK: Right! Right. I mean, for me, the pastor really begins to listen by the end of the play and finally begins to do what he should be doing - which is to genuinely minister to this family. And, maybe part of starting to actually minister is for him to realize that maybe there are some things he is not well-suited to doing, too. People ask, "What happens after the play? Do you and Margery get together?" People want to talk about that all the time with me and I am like, "I think there is some hope for Margery and the pastor to get together - but, I also think the pastor loses his job."

PC: Most likely, given what happens under his watch at his own parish.

MK: Ultimately, though, in my opinion, you can't make fun of the fact that a woman messes around with an underage kid - she does. The pastor is not kidding when he finds out and says to her, "I have to call the police." He is not kidding - he has to call the police! He doesn't have a choice. I mean, "I'm sorry, but I just walked in on you having sex with an underage kid."

PC: In your office!

MK: In my office! And, then, I lay hands on him and violence occurs - and then I am culpable, too. It doesn't matter what he's doing or why I am trying to stop him or that I might even be trying to defend myself - it doesn't matter. I hit that kid and that kid is now going to tell somebody. "Look at me, look at the bruises on me - the pastor hit me!" And, with that, that's end of my job.

PC: An impossible situation.

MK: It is, but if you don't consider all of those things while you are going through the play then I don't think you are giving full credit to the situation, to the environment and to the consequences - and I think that's what makes it an exciting night for everybody involved. Again, nobody is doing these things to be malicious, but I think that in some ways that's what makes it more dangerous - these people are in a boat without a rudder; they are driving without steering wheel, yet they have their foot on the accelerator.

Be sure to check out the first part of this InDepth InterView with Marc Kudisch available here and stay tuned for even more next month!

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Joan Marcus, etc.

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