For the Love of Tyrone

In Robert Askins’ Hand to God, a hand puppet named Tyrone takes possession of shy teenager Jason’s arm, putting Jason’s relationships with the town pastor, his high school crush, and his own mother in jeopardy. In the play, Harrison Bryan plays Jason and Tyrone in a tour de force performance that requires extraordinary focus, skill, and comedic timing.

We met with Harrison to talk about his love of puppets, his ability to play two characters simultaneously – sans caffeine – and Tyrone’s disruptive behavior.

Hand to God plays in FST’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre through February 10. For tickets and more information, click here.

Describe what it is like playing two different characters that are attached to one another and constantly in conversation with each other.

It’s a trip! It’s truly the greatest and most creatively-charged challenge I’ve encountered as an actor, especially as a puppeteer. When Jason is talking, it’s imperative to keep Tyrone alive, to have him remain attentive, to listen, to breathe, and react; the same is obviously true for Jason when Tyrone is in control.

I imagine myself wearing a mask of sorts when Tyrone is talking, so that I can still listen as Jason and react with the upper part of my face. My eyes need to remain true to Jason, since the audience can connect with Tyrone’s emotional life in relationship to Jason’s reactions.

The hardest and most exciting trick of it all is allowing myself, the actor, to remain surprised by the puppet’s actions (and reactions). In reality, yes, I am manipulating the puppet’s every move, so I physically know what’s going to happen. But, in the moment, Tyrone does feel like he is capable of doing anything. Like any scene partner, he is capable of following impulses, exploring a choice, ad-libbing, etc… All this stuff still surprises me! He feels as real to me as any character I’ve ever created or imagined.

You’ve mentioned that Avenue Q inspired you to get into puppetry. Can you share with us a bit about your work with puppets? What do you enjoy most about puppetry?

I saw Avenue Q when I was just eleven-years-old. I think my parents thought it would be a different kind of puppet show, and I love them for that! That show absolutely changed my life. I didn’t know how badly I wanted to be onstage until I saw Avenue Q. I guess I always enjoyed puppets on TV, (The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Bubbe’s Boarding House), but I didn’t see myself doing it…until Avenue Q.

Since then, I’ve made a few sock puppets, worked a few birthday parties, done some corporate events with a puppet company (Puppets by Gwen, which was seen on a Super Bowl commercial), done a few shows, workshopped a new musical, and written a few plays with puppets in them. I also work for the Ronald McDonald House and sing at hospitals alongside other friends of Rescue Rue, a puppet show by the Stacey Weingarten that had a run at the New York Musical Festival.

Puppets, like any arts and craft, are physical embodiments of our imagination. I think what draws me to them is how connected we feel to them – how we, as an audience, allow ourselves to believe that this inanimate object is, in fact, very alive. It’s magic and a pure achievement of creative power that inhabits everything I love about the theatre and its ability to let our minds play, wonder, and believe in the impossible.

Robert Askins, the writer of Hand to God, drew from his own life while writing the play. You’re also a playwright; what’s your approach like?

Playwriting is so personal. Even when I’m not writing specifically about my own thoughts, feelings, or experiences, it feels like the deepest parts of me are exposed, even in comedies. So I am in awe of Mr. Askins’ play – his ability to access raw truths in the exploration of his personal life and mix in the dark comedic elements is extraordinary. This too, is the type of theatre I want to be creating and writing.

My approach differs, depending on the type of play I am writing. Sometimes the play writes itself in large splashes of creative outpour. Sometimes it takes shorter, more focused, stints, like a puzzle, piecing it all together. Sometimes it involves research. Sometimes it’s just a free-write. Sometimes it’s totally collaborative. Sometimes it’s lonely and self-satisfying at the same time. All-in-all, I find it therapeutic at times, because it keeps me feeling productive and creatively engaged in between acting gigs and auditioning.

This is not your first time working with a puppet in a theatrical production. What are the challenges of working with an object vs. a live person? How does this affect your approach?

I don’t change my approach when acting with “object” characters. By allowing puppets to feel as real as human beings, we are suspending our disbelief to such a degree, and allowing our imagination to play. That’s the whole point of theatre – to believe that something that’s not really happening, is totally happening. Puppets do that inherently when executed correctly and convincingly – and that’s magical.

Of course, there’s things puppets can’t do that people can do and vice-versa, so there’s obvious differences. For example, a puppet’s lack of animation makes their emotional reactions more difficult to read for an audience. So it becomes even more important for the human actor to respond with clear, specific reactions to give a clear indication to the audience what they should or might be feeling if they were in the character’s shoes.

What do you love most about Hand to God?

Its ability to pour truth into our throats as we rear our heads back with laughter, like notable director and theatre critic Harold Clurman said.

I love the play’s ability to consistently weave comedy in and out of the tragic subject matter at hand – pun intended. It is so wonderfully ambitious, and when it’s successful, it feels miraculous. The puppet, Tyrone, allows some of this to happen, but every character is written with such charm and efficiency of language, that it allows the actors to invest in ways that enable them to play on that hinge between laughter and tears effortlessly.

But of course the love I have for this play stems deeper than just the successful craftsmanship of the playwright’s intention. It’s the role. It’s the opportunity. I’ve been playing around with puppets my whole life – so this role is pretty special. There’s nothing else like it.

To create a role for a puppeteer that challenges on such a deep emotional and comedic level, as an actor, it’s just so unbelievably rare. I’ve never enjoyed a greater challenge in my life.

What would audiences be surprised to know about you?

  • I don’t drink coffee.
  • I meditate every other day.
  • I don’t make my bed in the morning – Sorry mom!
  • I love aquariums.
  • I held onto a camel’s neck for dear life once…while wearing a clown nose.
  • Someone thought I was actually Toby Maguire once – I was buying shoes at a Payless.
  • I was born half deaf, and had corrective surgery on my ear when I was three years old.
  • Sometimes, I legitimately do not know what Tyrone will do next in the play. On occasion, I actually do surprise myself (or he surprises me, rather) and he’ll change his blocking, improvise something he’s never said before, or whisper things in my ear. He’s a really bad scene partner because he makes it all about him and it’s a little hard to grasp that reality, but it’s real. I just really hope that he knows all his lines, because in rehearsal he would often scream at me or the stage manager and demand his lines in a really rude way. I know he loves me, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Hand to God plays in FST’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre through February 10. For tickets and more information, click here.