Playwright Robert Askins who grew up in Cypress "where 290 meets Huffmeister" and went on to Baylor University says he finds its best to write about things he knows. His plays aren't autobiographical exactly, but they are based on similar things he's experienced.
And, he says dryly, he's got a lot to draw on. "I've got a long and Gothic family history and when you've got that kind of stuff you don't just leave it on the table. As a playwright when you find out that you have family members that had been hidden from you all your life you write a play about it. That's just what you do."
His latest play, The Carpenter, will be a world premiere for the Alley Theatre after being work-shopped here two years ago. This time around, instead of questioning religion complete with an evil hand puppet, Askins explores family secrets and how they can sometimes be revealed at the most amazing times in a twin comedy that, of course, employs some mistaken identity (a la Shakespeare or Mark Twain's Prince and the Pauper.).
"I started writing this right after it happened," he says. This would be in 2013 when a previously unknown half brother reached out to him on Facebook. "I was like of course this is what happens in my particular family," he says. He called his mother, who knew about it. He called his sister who said: "Yeah, this makes sense; it's been a while since something fucked up happened."
The Carpenter isn't this exact story. In the play — a comedy — a blue-collar guy from Houston is engaged to be married to a woman from Dallas' affluent Highland Park. Right before the wedding, he is contacted by a man who says he's his brother and can he come to the wedding. His character's knee jerk reaction is no, but his new relative is determined and shows up anyway.
"The first version of this story had a very happy ending," Askins says, comparing it to the first blush of any relationship when everything is rosy. "But over time, the real effects of the different ways you've been raised exhibit themselves whether it's emotionally or in class or your ability to just talk to each other. And so the play has progressively gotten more nuanced over time as the difficulty of trying to fold someone into one's family became more apparent." The earlier reading he did at the Alley helped him find the eventual ending of the play, he says.
At the same time, Askins says, he deals in humor, not unrelieved solemnity. "I'd d rather we all laugh a little bit and have some sexy times and then burst into thunderous applause and go home."
Askins went to Baylor on scholarship where his Aunt Sally taught in the theater department. Despite the conservative nature of Baylor, the theater department was good training and he was given some very aggressive plays to work with. Still, he says, he was ill-prepared for the reality of New York City when he moved there. "I had some real old outdated, some sort of Moss and Hart ideas about what it meant to be a playwright in America.
"You show up and ain't no money," he says. "I showed up in 2005 and I had been making pretty good money in Waco as a bartender and I was like 'I'm going to make it in theater.' And then I did stuff like stage manage for $500 for six weeks work and took acting jobs and made no money and the hours were long and then wrote."
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That all changed with Hand to God. "It was particularly bizarre becasue we were doing that thing in a 99-seat theater in Hell's Kitchen," he says. He didn't have any money to go to Broadway shows and said he really didn't know what all was involved in getting something produced there. "Then we started having Broadway producers show up and that’s just weird. But then you learn."
His latest play should appeal to anyone who likes to laugh, Askins says. "It's set in Highland Park in modern day Texas. We have a whole bunch of jokes that are very Texas specific. One of the huge mistakes that theater makes is trying to be TV. This is a be-spoke art form for an audience. Not all audiences. We're doing this play in Houston, Texas in the year 2018. Comedy lives and dies in the details."
However, he says, "If you’re uncomfortable with salty language and sex you maybe shouldn't show up. If you don't acknowledge the fact that people have reproductive organs and sometimes say things Jesus doesn't like, you should stay home."
Performances are scheduled for January 18 through February 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$79.