The pandemic era collaboration between Pier One Theatre and KBBI Public Radio continues with its latest radio play, “The Fred Cook Interview,” which will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Friday on KBBI AM 890.
Written by author and playwright Nancy Lord, it’s the fourth radio play by a Homer writer, following “Knife Skills” by Lindsay Schneider, “Rising” by Brenda Dolma and “Shakespeare in Quarantine” by Jessica Golden.
Employing a bit of anachronistic fictional license, Lord’s play features a 21st century media star interviewing the notorious polar explorer, Frederick Cook, known for allegedly faking both the first trip to the North Pole and first ascent of Denali. Maura Jones plays the interviewer while Mike Tupper plays Cook. Pier One Executive Director Jennifer Norton directed the play and KBBI General Manager Josh Krohn did the sound editing.
The piece came about after Lord heard Golden’s radio play and approached Norton about maybe sharing her short play over the airwaves as well. Although primarily a nonfiction and fiction writer, Lord began writing plays about 2005 after she attended the Valdez Theatre Conference with a friend.
“I had such a great time I went home and promised myself I would write a play,” she said.
That play, “At Sea,” was performed at the conference in 2005 and later a Pier One production in 2012. “The Frederick Cook Interview” is her third play. Norton asked Jones and Tupper to do a reading of it with Lord.
“We all were there together and said, ‘Let’s work it up and record it,’” Norton said. “It’s a nice, easy flowing project.”
Lord said she got the idea for the play while at the Stiwdio Maelor writing residency in Corriss, Wales. In the cottage where she stayed, one night she pulled out a copy of Cook’s memoir about his Arctic adventures and read it that evening.
“I woke up in the middle of the night. I had this idea,” Lord said. “What if he (Cook) was being interviewed by Rachel Maddow? And went from there.”
Cook claimed he and several Inuit companions reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, one year before Robert Peary, famed Black explorer Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men, Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah, and Ooqueah, said they reached the North Pole on April 9, 1909. Earlier in 1906 Cook claimed to have climbed Denali, predating the 1913 ascent by Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens. Peary challenged both the North Pole and Denali conquests by Cook, stirring up a controversy that continues to this day.
Lord falls on the side of Peary and that Cook fabricated his achievements, particularly the Denali ascent.
“He was on the side of Ruth Glacier,” she said. “He was far from being at the top. He had to have known he couldn’t be there.”
That’s a side of Cook that Lord explores in her play. She compares him to former President Donald Trump, though she said she doesn’t try to overdo that comparison.
“The same kind of narcissistic liar, pathological liar,” Lord said. “He (Cook) couldn’t help building himself up. He used a lot of the same language in his book, how the press treated him badly. It was amazing to read him with that connection in mind.”
That’s a theme Norton said she liked in Lord’s play, “this question of truth and sort of the stories we build up around ourselves and then dismantle, and how the press or journalism can have a role in that.”
Lord said you could add “paranoid” to the list of Cook’s psychological issues.
“He really thought the people who were his critics and the press were out to get him,” she said. “They were so evil. It was all about them attacking him personally.”
Tupper said when he heard about Lord’s play about Cook, he thought it was Capt. James Cook, the 18th century Alaska explorer. That prompted him to do some research.
He said he got into the role of Cook “through Jennifer, Maura and I talking through some of the themes, the colonialism. … The themes of truth: How do we come to truth?” Tupper said. “Nancy explores that through someone who historically has been named as a liar.”
What’s interesting about Cook is that he believes his stories, Tupper said.
“It feels like Cook has convinced himself,” he said. “He made up the stories of his successes, and he believes his story, despite the evidence. More than he believes the thing, he lives the story of the thing, what he told himself.”
Tupper’s previous roles have been Pier One plays from the before times of live theater. He played Robert in “The Ideal Husband” and Einstein in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” For the role of Cook, Tupper said he had to get outside his own personality.
“I don’t necessarily align myself with the values Frederick Cook had,” Tupper said. ” … He’s so self assured — from how Nancy wrote him anyways. He’s so confident. It’s fun to play that person who’s so narcissistic and confident they can’t even question what they told themselves.”
Jones said she got into her role by watching a few Rachel Maddow interviews to give herself an idea of Lord’s inspiration for the character.
“That was a real jumping point,” she wrote in an email. “From there I just worked with the text.”
Like Lord, Tupper sees the connection between Cook and modern politics.
“It doesn’t matter how something seems true on the surface, it seems like we as a people care more about the speaker,” he said. “Do we believe in the authority of the speaker versus the veracity of the information?”
Jones wrote that it became interesting for her character to engage with the Cook character “and really feeling the frustration of talking to someone who will not change their story, even in the face of what might seem to be overwhelming evidence of ‘the truth.’”
She wrote that her character draws out parallels between Cook and modern politics.
“It also tackles the larger questions of truth and how in politics today we’re not arguing over policy or our analysis of a certain situation, because we can’t even agree on what happened, or who did it,” she wrote.
One thing Norton and Jones said they liked about working with Lord was how they could check in with the playwright about finer points in the play.
“That’s something that’s always drawn me to play writing, the idea of a collaborative art,” Lord said. “When you’re a writer, you’re all by yourself; it’s all yours. To actually work with other people and have artistic contributions to a final product and different and fun and more social — actually, more social even in this COVID year plus.”
Norton said as vaccination efforts increase and the danger of the pandemic lessens, Pier One may have live theater this summer — but not at the little red theater on the Homer Spit. There will be a play on the Pratt Museum trail for Mary Epperson Day in June. Pier One is looking at other outdoor venues where performers and the audience can be socially distant.
“Obviously, the landscape is changing daily, with both the vaccination and the (COVID-19) variants that are going around now,” Norton said. “It’s hard to know what things are going to look like in a couple of months.”