Moritz von Stuelpnagel may well have been preordained to direct Hand to God, the Tony-nominated play appearing on Broadway about a puppet that takes over the hand, and eventually the life, of a young man who is in a state of emotional turmoil. When he was a kid, von Stuelpnagel MGSA’14 staged puppet shows for anyone willing to sit through them. And the director has long considered Muppets creator Jim Henson one of his greatest influences.

“To create a fully immersive world that expressed a unique vision, and to craft characters who were in one way grotesque and in another totally evocative: it just really captured the idea that the world  can be viewed in so many different ways,” says von Stuelpnagel of Henson’s achievements. The description could apply  equally well to both Hand to God and von Stuelpnagel’s vision of what the theater should deliver.

He has a particular passion for plays, he says, “that shift you from comedy to poetry, jarringly quickly.” And it’s clear from the audience reaction to Hand to God—which can shift from uproarious laughter to gobsmacked silence in a  nanosecond—that Rob Askins’s darkly comedic play does just that. Von Stuelpnagel has a history of directing  multilayered, outside-the-box plays, like Verité, a comedy about the sinister side of memoir writing, and Trevor, a satire that skewers has-been actors, among them a murderous performing chimpanzee. When asked if he ever imagined he would one day direct a puppet sex scene (yes, Hand to God features one, and it’s especially well played), von Stuelpnagel answers in the affirmative. As the leader of the theater company Studio 42, whose mission is  to produce “unproducible” plays, he’s directed his share of bizarre vehicles, including My Base and Scurvy Heart, about lesbian pirates, and Spacebar, a coming-of-age story set in an intergalactic speakeasy. “So, yes,” he says, “puppet sex scenes seem totally within my wheelhouse.”

Which isn’t to say that directing puppets is easy, no matter what they’re doing onstage. And when you’re directing a puppet like Tyrone, who over the course of the play has to morph from a wry commentator on the human condition to a bullying villain, the challenges are even more daunting. Tyrone has three incarnations, says von Stuelpnagel, but each of those “has only one expression, and the rest of it is physicalized by the actor.” That Tyrone is convincing enough to draw gasps from the audience is a testament not just to the actor, Steven Boyer, whose hand he inhabits, but also to the director who helps Boyer bring him to life.

That group process is precisely what von Stuelpnagel loves about the theater, and in Hand to God he’s been able to perfect it, working with actors and a playwright who’ve collaborated with him often enough that “we didn’t have to worry about being polite, but could really support each other in everything we were trying to accomplish,” he says.

He learned the particular satisfactions of collaboration in high school, when he served as assistant director on several shows. He turned to directing “because I find acting to be an incredibly traumatic experience,” he says. “What I find really exciting is to watch my actors shine in front of people.” Nevertheless, in his first year as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, he studied graphic design until he realized it was far too lonely a profession for him and he transferred to Boston University to major in theater studies. Still, he draws on his  visual arts training as a director: “Instead of moving elements around in Photoshop,” he says, “I’m moving actors and scenery around.” 

By the time he got to the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, he was already an established director.  In fact, he’d been invited to the school to  guest-direct, but when David Esbjornson, chair of the theater department, found out that von Stuelpnagel had never gotten a master of fine arts, he invited him to pursue the degree at Mason Gross while also directing and teaching there. It was an invaluable experience.

“I had the opportunity to collaborate with the actors and entrust them with the creation of the projects in a way that went deeper than I’d been able to do,” he says. “Now I feel much more confident asking a room full of actors and designers to help me devise a production, and I don’t feel obliged to have all the answers.”

In the spring, von Stuelpnagel was nominated for a Tony Award for best direction of a play (Hand to God received five nominations, including one for best play and three for acting). Although he didn’t win, he says, yes, it is indeed an honor simply to be nominated. “I didn’t necessarily expect that I would ever receive a Tony nomination in my career, because I didn’t know that  I was doing the kind of  work that would be in the running,” he says. But Tony nomination or not, he wouldn’t want to be doing anything other than what he’s doing. “Right now,” he says, “I’m insanely happy in the theater.” •