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Zachary Fernebok will tell you unequivocally that fantasy is his genre of choice. Drawing inspiration as much from cult-classic video games like the Monkey Island series as dramatists like George F. Walker, Fernebok has penned two new plays that will be performed in the next two weeks. The playwright-in-residence for American Ensemble Theater’s third season, Fernebok offers Navigating Turbulence, a one-act to that the troupe will perform with David Mamet‘s Bobby Gould In Hell. Fernebok’s full- length The Pirate Laureate of Port Town gets a staged reading in D.C. on June 6 followed by a a two- week run with the L.A.-based Mutineer Theatre Company.
Fernebok first met AET’s artistsic director, Martin Blank, a few years back as a student at The Writer’s Center. He continued to impress Blank as the script-writer for American Voices, a project staged at The National Portrait Gallery, in which noteworthy Americans, Charles Lindbergh among them, grappled with their deaths. Navigating Turbulence is a spin- off of that project. When Blank commissioned Fernebok to write a curtain-raiser for the 75-minute Bobby Gould In Hell, stipulating only that the setting remain the same, Fernebok returned to Lindbergh’s story. Fernebok says he is equally fascinated by Lindberg “having to be a national hero” and the “psychological ramifications for him after the kidnapping of his child.” The kidnapping, Fernebok imagines, “sent him down a really twisted path that he couldn’t ever really navigate.”
“For a short play I’ve actually done quite a few drafts,” says Fernebok. “It’s been very difficult to write. I never wrote a one-man show before. At times it felt limiting, at times it felt like I could…do anything. One actor is a very valuable and scary tool at the same time.”
With The Pirate Laureate of Port Town, a kidnapping breeds comedy. In the play, “piracy is conducted through poetry,” Fernebok says, and the “best wordsmith” on a given ship is the Pirate Laureate. On the Chartreuse, that’s a pirate named Finn, who’s in a classic pickle. The crew wants to attack Port Town. But Port Town is the village from which Finn was abducted as a boy, so he must choose whether to side with “his pirate family” and “this girl he has a crush on that he left way back when.”
Fernebok has been to Port Town’s world before. From the beginning of his career, Fernebok has taken a gamer’s approach to playwriting, he says, by creating a fully realized world in which multiple, self-referencing, narratives can be set. “There are little hints to characters in other plays, in all my plays. I sort of built this world and built the rules of the world, which I really think roots the play, even though a director or somebody else reading the play may not know my other plays…They can treat [this world] with the same honestly that they would any other.”
Fantasy or not, any set of fictional characters and circumstances needs honing. Fernebok met frequently with Navigating Turbulence director Krista Cowan and Blank for notes and feedback. Blank’s method of play development involved in-house readings when necessary and a long process of asking open-ended questions. It’s an approach, says Fernebok, that’s “not prescriptive at all. He wouldn’t tell me what to do…He asks all the questions that I don’t ask myself or I forget to ask myself. Or I know the answer but maybe it’s not clear to the audience.” To hear Fernebok tell it, storytelling itself is a large part of Blank’s mentoring style, as well. “He’s got a million stories. And he’s always got one that totally fits with whatever we’re talking about. So he’s able to relate what I’m going through with other people. It makes me feel comfortable that I’m not the first person to have these problems.”
Bobby Gould in Hell and Navigating Turbulence runs May 24 to June 9 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. The staged reading of The Pirate Laureate of Port Town, takes place June 6 at the same venue. Tickets and information here.