Puppetry was a pretty unfamiliar art form to actor Nathan Robbins — until a couple months ago.
A graduate of Indiana University's musical theatre program, Robbins is starring as the lead role in Phoenix Theatre's regional premiere of the Tony Award-nominated show Hand to God. The play "follows shy student Jason (played by Robbins) as he discovers an outlet for his burgeoning creativity at the Christian Puppet Ministry," according to the Phoenix's show description. At this ministry Jason's hand puppet Tyrone "takes on a shockingly irreverent and dangerous personality all its own."
"You have everything in this show," says Robbins. "You have puppets. You have sex. You have violence. You have blood. It's a very serious show, but it's also incredibly funny."
Prior to the start of rehearsals, Robbins went through a brief series of puppetry classes to help him prepare for the show. From there, the next obstacle was balancing his roles as both Jason and Tyrone.
"I've been faced with some challenges that I've never been faced with before," Robbins says. "The script is written as each individual character. So at first, I was a little bit intimidated by it, but I finally realized, 'Now I get to be my own favorite scene partner and give myself everything I've always wanted.'"
While he may be new to puppetry, audiences will have a hard time telling.
This sentiment is one that the show's director, Mark Routhier, shares as well.
"It's been amazing working with Nathan," says Routhier, who recently left a directorial role at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater to pursue a freelance career in directing. "That kid is insanely gifted. He only got a solid week of lessons. And when I say a week, I'm talking about between eight and 12 hours total."
With Hand to God, Routhier has really pushed his cast to lock into their roles on stage, which has been a plus for Robbins.
"The only thing you can ever hope for as an actor is to have a director who inspires," says Robbins. "Mark Routhier does that to the nines."
In the end, Bryan Fonseca, producer, director and founder of The Phoenix, believes Routhier's efforts have been successful too.
"I'm proud of the way that the cast and the director truly found the heart of the piece," Fonseca says. "Without a heart, it's either parody or satire. With a heart, it's real, and I think that they have truly managed to find the heart of the piece."
With Hand to God, Fonseca believes there are relevant themes woven throughout the production.
"It's showing us events that we're reading about in the newspaper: teachers having sex with students, bullying, feelings of abandonment," says Fonseca. "All of these situations and themes are rolled into one play."
But when push comes to shove, Hand to God is ultimately just a show about the everyday struggles we face as humans.
"What's beautiful about this play is it shows how we as humans are flawed in incredibly baffling ways and how insane our needs and our desires are," says Routhier. "And in a complex way, it really shows the human condition and the things that we need to get through the day."