Richardson — Jack Fry is still a kid. That makes him a great teacher. “I’ve never really grown up,” said Fry in a phone interview this week, “so I relate really well to kids. I’ve been working with kids since I was 10 years old, making them laugh at birthday parties doing magic and ventriloquism.”
Fry utilizes balloon animals, funny voices, fantasy characters and more in his one-person show They Call Me Mister Fry, running through Sunday at the Eisemann Center. Better known as Jack Freiberger during his five years in Dallas, he was a regular at the Comedy Corner in the late ‘80s and integrates stand-up comedy, particularly audience interactions, into the show, creating some of its liveliest parts. The plot pivots, in fact, on the verboten use of a balloon sword in the classroom.
A Southern Methodist University graduate, Fry moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actor. He filled the time between acting gigs with waiting tables, tending bar and performing at children’s birthday parties. He even served as Jason Bateman’s double for three movies. “I walked into a theater class that Jason Bateman’s dad was running,” said Fry, “and he goes ‘At first I thought you were my son.’ Next thing you know, I hear from Bateman’s agent.” Not quite the break he’d hoped for.
Encouraged by his upwardly bound New Age girlfriend, Fry shifted to substitute teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “I loved teaching so much that I applied for full teacher’s certification,” he said. “My mom and dad are teachers, it seemed natural.” That’s when the real adventure began. Instead of serene Carpenter Ave. Elementary where he’d been substituting, Fry was assigned to Public Academy, located in South Los Angeles—a rough region of low-income Hispanic and African-American families. The area boasted some impressive talent—Charles Mingus, Ice Cube and Florence Griffith-Joyner among them—but also some of the worst gangs in the country. Tough crowd, even for a trained stand-up.
They Call Me Mister Fry follows his rollercoaster first year as a full-time fifth grade teacher. Unlike the usual onscreen teacher-as-hero, said Fry, “he’s not the perfect teacher. He has his flaws, warts and character faults. But he evolves.” Also different from stock “teacher theater” is that the story focuses as much on two struggling students: the needy, neglected African-American Jazmine and the swaggering Anthony, a Latino who fancies himself to be a hip-hop thug. The Public Academy principal—described in the play as “muscles in a giant suit”—also makes appearances, mostly to keep Fry from bolting. Fry also portrays a character called King Arthur, an alter ego who pep-talks him at crucial times, but also gets him into trouble. South L.A. is far from Camelot.
Chuckle-inducing quips are plentiful amid the non-stop clever writing, delivered with Fry’s stand-up sense of timing. It makes the large doses of sentimentality go down easy, though the sentiment is not contrived: real life can just be that emotional when humans rise to their higher selves. Themes and situations are woven tightly into a smooth narrative flow. The show eases swiftly into Anthony’s tragic story, bringing attendees to the edge of their seats in rapt silence.
Watching the Thursday night performance, it was evident why They Call Me Mister Fry is a rave on the alt-theater circuit, nabbing “Best of the Fest” at the 2010 Hollywood Fringe and the 2013 Calgary Fringe, to cite a few awards. Fry shifts instantly into each of the characters with distinct body language, facial expressions and speaking styles. With a spin on his heels, or the opening of a stage door, he’s in another scene. The use of music and sound effects is graceful, and the video projections are actually integral to the plot; too many one-person plays toss them in just to claim the multimedia moniker.
Fry gives plenty of credit to his collaborators. “Mark Travis, famed for his solo theater workshops, laid the groundwork and the structure of it. Tom Blomquist, Santa Monica College professor, was the glue who helped pull it all together. And Jeff Michalski, of The Second City, really helped me with the comedy and blocking. They all are very good at what they do with very specific talents. Joel Zwick has come on board, too. He directed My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” All in all, said Fry, “The one-man show has evolved a lot since Spalding Grey sitting behind the desk and telling a lot of narrative.”
Ultimately what makes They Call Me Mister Fry work is Fry’s sincere love for his school kids, and his passion for teaching. “Every student comes into the classroom with a story,” said Fry. “You don’t know what their back story is, but they bring it all into the classroom.” In addition to the play’s entertainment value, said Fry, “I hope it reminds the veteran teachers why they got into teaching in the first place. For beginner teachers, it shows that someone understands what they’re going through and it will get better.” Fry, who is still employed at Public Academy, celebrates his 10th anniversary as a teacher this fall.
Yet one of the most impassioned sections in the play is a lengthy rave on “what they don’t teach you in teacher school,” with Fry listing the rough, disillusioning lessons learned on the job in his first year. At a pivotal moment, he exclaims: “Why didn’t someone tell me that children love to learn; they just hate to be taught!” Even so, his hardest challenges came not from the students, but from the inflexible, regimented “storm trooper overlords” who rate teacher performance and punish creativity and deviation from lesson plans. The teachers in Thursday’s audience nodded intently during these bureaucracy-battling sections.
But don’t think this play is just for teachers. “It's about the struggle to find where we belong on this planet,” said Fry, “and that’s something we all must learn.”
» Here’s a video trailer for Mr. Fry from an Atlanta run in 2012: