There are two main characters in “Hand to God,” the irreverent Tony Award-nominated comedy by Robert Askins. One is a shy and slightly repressed teenager named Jason. The other is Jason’s sock puppet, Tyrone, an “Elmo-y” figure (as described in the script) who may be possessed by the Devil. He spouts profanities, terrorizes Jason’s churchgoing friends and mother and grows more demonic as the play goes on.
Steven Boyer, who was nominated for a 2015 Tony for portraying Jason/Tyrone on Broadway, said the role was “like getting shot out of a cannon.”
That’s because “Hand to God” requires its lead actor to talk to his hand, have a fight scene with his hand and engage in one of the longest puppet sex scenes to ever grace a stage. Mr. Boyer reportedly sustained numerous bruises during his time with the show, which started off off Broadway and has gone on to be the most produced new play at nonprofit theaters around the country this season.
“I don’t know how Steven Boyer did that for three years,” said a marveling Karl Gregory, who recently played the role at Kitchen Theater Company in Ithaca, N.Y. “I had to see a physical therapist.”
Actors who have done the part report it to be one of the hardest (if not zaniest) challenges of their career. Here’s a look at several of them, plus insight from puppet designers on what inspired their own Tyrones. Simple answer: It wasn’t all Elmo.
Kitchen Theater Company
Ithaca, N.Y.; closed Sept. 25
Actor Karl Gregory, 37
Preparation Puppetry workshops. Twice-weekly visits to a chiropractor, plus physical therapy.
Biggest challenge “I’ve done a lot of one-person shows. In a one-person show, you have to switch out of characters. In this show, you have to keep two consciousnesses going at all times. So when Jason is talking, Tyrone isn’t dead — he has his own thoughts and reactions and feelings. To keep two complete consciousnesses alive at the same time is mind-bending.”
City Theater Company
Pittsburgh; closed Oct. 22
Puppet designer Stephanie Shaw, 38
Total Tyrones 4 (plus 2 backups)
Inspiration Kermit the Frog, Gary Busey (“He has very inspiring facial expressions”).
Evolution ”He starts out nice and everything — happy face on him, button eyes, little eyebrows.” But as the play progresses and Tyrone becomes more unhinged, his eyebrows grow bushier, and he gets sideburns and a sparse beard. “It reminds me of kids going through puberty. They don’t understand what’s happening, and they’re mad.”
Houston (closed Sept. 18)
Actor Steve Pacek, 38
Preparation Meditation. Weekly massages during the run, courtesy of the Alley (“Anyone reading this article, think about negotiating that into the contract”).
Biggest challenge “I’m still recovering! If and when I get to do it again, I’m definitely going to do a bit of strength training for my shoulder, that was the thing that would go first. Stretching is the key thing, stretching the forearm, stretching the pectoral muscles — it gets tight surprisingly quick when your hands are above your head.”
Coral Gables, Fla. (closed Oct. 30)
Actor Wesley Slade, 23
Preparation Puppeteer for MicheLee Puppets and played Nicky in “Avenue Q.” Chiropractor every two weeks.
Bonding ritual “Since the table read, day one, he was never not on my hand.”
Albuquerque (closed Sept. 24)
Actor Jamie H. Jung, 27
Preparation Watched “Being Elmo” documentary. Steamed his voice two hours a day during the run, with vocal rest after each performance.
Bonding ritual “In the rehearsal process, I was walking through downtown Albuquerque with Tyrone on my hand, talking to him a little bit. Especially in the bedroom scenes, you need to be able to look into his beady little eyes and get something out of him.”
Washington (closed Oct. 9)
Puppet designer Chelsea M. Warren, 35
Total Tyrones 4 (with 4 backups, plus extra arms)
Inspiration Kermit, Ernie, Cookie Monster.
Evolution “We had him originally in a baby onesie T-shirt that we actually got at Walmart. And he tears it up to become a muscle shirt showing off his muscles. He gets a little bigger.”
Curious Theater Company
Denver (through Dec. 17)
Puppet designer Cory Gilstrap, 54
Total Tyrones: 4 (plus 36 backups)
Inspiration “Fraggle Rock,” Skeksis from “Dark Crystal,” Oogie Boogie from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Evolution “The guiding principle in this one was: Let’s take it from ugly to uglier.” Tyrone starts as a gray puppet made from an actual tube sock and ends up “larger than life,” manipulated by two puppeteers.
Victory Gardens Theater
Chicago (closed Oct. 30)
Puppet designer Rachel Christianson, 31
Total Tyrones 8 (plus 2 backups)
Inspiration Kermit, the Muppets.
Evolution “We wanted to play a little bit into the lizard quality. I went to a fabric store and walked the aisles and picked a few shades of green. That teal jumped out to me. And I laid him out and it just looked the best with that bright red hair — that’s kind of a hell imagery. We put it together and everybody’s like: ‘He looks like Kermit but not. He looks cute but not.’ I was like, ‘Great, we’re done.’”