Fringeworthy

Planet Earth is Blue, and There May Be Nothing Richard Fiske Can’t Do

FLYBOY's Richard Fiske. This 1981 photo shows him in his Mark V Navy diving dress — a "hard hat rig" that for decades was the primary manned dive system used for aircraft and ship salvage operations such as the Pearl Harbor clearance effort.

When I arrived at the (air-conditioned!) basement of the Universalist National Memorial Church to see Evan Crump’s new one-giant-leap-for-mankind drama FLYBOY, I spotted a trim, sharp-featured man in a Navy uniform milling around. That guy looks like Kyle MacLachlan’s dad, I thought. Or maybe like Kyle MacLachlan. How old would he be now?

Anyway, I took him for an audience member, perhaps one attending because of a professional interest in spaceflight.

I was wrong. He was in the show.

At FLYBOY’s first performance, Richard Fiske displayed some of the flaws typical of greenish stage actors: He sometimes spoke so quietly I couldn’t hear him, and he couldn’t disguise the handful of lines he flubbed. Neither shortcoming distracted me, because he had a gravitas that made his role in the play — that of a senior military officer overseeing the selection of an astronaut for a mission that will entail living for decades in total isolation — fit him like a spacesuit. (Okay, the innermost layer of a space suit.)

There’s a reason the 64-year-old Fiske was so convincing: He served in the United States Navy for 28 years, about ten times as long as he’s been an actor. Prior to his retirement from military service in 1997, Fiske was a diver and engineering officer whose missions included ship repair and deep-ocean search and recovery. His various details included a 1981-4 stint in Naples, Italy as the salvage officer for the Navy’s Sixth Fleet. From 1986 through 1990, he was deputy commander of the Naval ship repair facility at Yokosuka, Japan. He did a little amateur theater in on-base productions during that detail, appearing as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial and as the creature in Frankenstein.

After a few years working for a private marine operations and support company, he enrolled in the George Mason University School of Law in 2002 and passed the bar in 2005. He has a co-author credit — his second — on a just-published book, Defending Against Piracy: The International Law of Armed Guards, Pirates, and Privateers. (It’s not about file-sharing.)

In 2007, he read a Washington Post story about Gale Nemec’s one-day background acting class for film and televsion. After a few “small parts in small movies,” the Manassass-based theater company Upstart Crow cast him as Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night last year.

“I found it was an adrenaline rush,” Fiske says. “I’m too old to do physical stuff any more, but this is the next best thing.”

He sought out the opportunity to audition for Unstrung Harpist, the company that produced FLYBOY, after he heard about their play Genesis (also by Crump) being voted Best Drama at last year’s Capital Fringe Festival. He praises his castmates warmly, especially Jonathan Colby, who plays an astronaut under his command.

“He has the patience of Job,” Fiske says. “He worked with me on eye contact and building stakes and making it matter.”

Fiske plans to keep acting. There’re always roles out there for a man of a certain age. “It’s much easier to be an old guy than to be a 20-year-old girl,” Fiske says. “You see the same faces showing up” at auditions. And it feeds Fiske's appetite for new challenges.

“I went to law school when I was 56,” he says. “I was older than the dean. I had professors who were younger than my kids. It was wonderfully liberating: I didn’t have a stake in how well I did. I was just there to learn.”

Did his younger classmates benefit from his cool military demeanor when they felt stressed out?

“I would tell them, ‘You’re warm, you’re dry, you’re not getting shot at. What’s the problem?’”

FLYBOYis at the Spooky Universe — Universalist National Memorial Church. Its final performance of the festival is tonight at 6:30 p.m. In a remarkable occurrence of serendipity, the play opened at the Fringe the day the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off on its, and the shuttle program's, final mission, and is closing on the day Atlantis came home.

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