When I called Jack Fry, he was picking the brain beneath the electric hair of Albert Einstein. It was the opening night of his one-man show Einstein! at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, and he was preparing to reveal a version of the icon that audiences probably aren’t expecting.
“It’s a pre-crazy hair Einstein. It’s not the old fuddy duddy, lovable uncle that everybody’s so familiar with,” Fry said.
Einstein! follows the legendary physicist between the ages of 35 and 42, amid the backdrop of World War I. But it’s not a typical slice of life in which viewers watch like flies on a wall in that era.
“This is Einstein talking to a 21st-century audience,” Fry said. “He’s coming back as a ghost, and he’s pissed because so many people don’t know about the importance of him now. He’s just an empty icon, a face on a t-shirt.”
Fry fleshes him out, exposing the raw humanity behind the history. Drawing upon Hebrew University’s 15,000 recently released documents about Einstein’s life and work, he shows several sides of the genius, especially during the development of his theory of relativity. Fry talked about this period in the present tense, as though the research brought Einstein back to life.
“He’s cornered on each side, professionally and personally,” Fry said. “He is up against the establishment, with people who don’t believe his theories or try to steal them from him. He has a super-messy divorce with his wife. He has a nine-year-old son he loves and adores; he’s trying not to let that relationship slip through his fingers. He’s got anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head against him. He has health problems that leave him debilitated. Meanwhile, he comes up with this theory that changes the way we look at life today. It ushered in the modern technological age.”
Like a spirited schoolteacher bouncing back and forth to a blackboard, Fry illustrates Einstein’s history in various colorful ways — from portraying different people in his life to projecting 3D images of his scientific equations.
Einstein! is Fry’s second piece of what he calls “edutainment.” “I've always come from the place that education should entertain and entertainment should educate,” Fry said.
His first dive into performance storytelling came as an act of catharsis amid teaching fifth grade in South Central Los Angeles.
“My first couple years there were really raw,” Fry said. “And I went, ‘There’s a story here that people have to know.’ A lot goes on behind the classroom door. I wanted to tell that story.”
After taking director Mark Travis’ Write Your Life workshop, Fry created the one-man show They Call Me Mister Fry about his teaching experiences. He performed it 300 times all over the world, including two command performances for the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
The show gave Fry the confidence to continue performing and artistically exploring the world of academia. “Without Mister Fry, there would be no Einstein!” he said.
Although it focuses on the world of students and teachers, the Department of Education released a statement saying that They Call Me Mister Fry “should be required for everyone.” Einstein! has the same universal appeal.
“Everybody who’s had struggles in their personal lives, who feels like nature and God is against them, can relate to this story,” Fry said. “It humanizes one of the most important intellectual figures in history.”