In 2010, Joe Forbrich was cast in the Vineyard Playhouse’s production of Fly. He had never been to Martha’s Vineyard before, but he had dreamed about living on the Island, acting by night and building boats by day. While the other members of the cast who did not live on the Vineyard arrived by plane or ferry, Mr. Forbrich decided to find his own way to travel the nearly 200 miles from Long Island to Martha’s Vineyard. He built a ship from scratch, using a tarp as a sail. Underneath the boat, just in case his craftmanship was subpar and he capsized along the way, he wrote SOS in big letters.
Mr. Forbrich expected the journey to take three days but because he had no real sailing experience, he left Long Island seven days before the start of rehearsals. That way, if anything went wrong, he would still have time to make it to the first Monday morning rehearsal.
Seven and a half days later, on Sunday night, the executive artistic director at the Vineyard Playhouse, MJ Munafo, received a panicked phone call from Mr. Forbrich. He had made it to the Vineyard, but a fierce storm had blown him off course and he had landed on a wealthy resident’s private beach. He had arrived on-Island in time for rehearsals but he needed a ride to the theatre.
“Sometimes you need to jump off the cliff and build the wings on your way down,” said Mr. Forbrich on Monday morning, more than four years after that life-threatening boat ride.
Sitting in the lobby of the newly renovated playhouse, Mr. Forbrich was once again arriving on the Island at the climax of a long journey. His playwriting debut, The Whaleship Essex, officially opens at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse on Saturday (with previews beginning last night), and will run through July 12. Coffee was in high demand as Mr. Forbrich discussed his play. With the opening night right around the corner, he had not had a moment to sleep in days and was understandably exhausted.
Despite the chaos of the final preparations for opening night, Mr. Forbrich was excited and thankful.
“[Through the writing process] I have had a lot of help from a lot of people. People kind of jumped on board and there haven’t really been any obstacles. The only obstacle was fear, this question of whether it will be good enough. Now it is good enough and I’m not afraid. There are no obstacles anymore,” he said.
Like Nathaniel Philbrick’s best selling book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Mr. Forbrich’s play tells the story of the Essex whaleship, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, leaving just eight survivors. Rather than adapting Mr. Philbrick’s book to the stage, Mr. Forbrich worked with first-hand accounts of crew members Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson to craft a unique telling of the horrifying events. These manuscripts informed the historical aspects of the adaptation, but still left room for Mr. Forbrich’s creative interpretations.
“I would say 95 per cent of the material in this play really happened. Everything that happens in the play is historical. The dialogue I made up. The personalities of the characters I made up. The names and what they did historically really happened.”
Throughout his writing process, Mr. Forbrich was guided by the vision of this play being performed on Martha’s Vineyard. His own experiences on the Island — building boats at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, nearly dying on his first journey years ago, acting at the playhouse — all helped lead him to this play.
“On some level I absolutely did have this Island and this theatre in mind [as I was writing],” said Mr. Forbrich. “When I first encountered it five years ago, something spoke to me about it. This play encompasses all of my interests into one thing: writing, building, theatre, the sea, community, telling a story, history, language and whaling.”
This production is a particularly exciting one for the playhouse because in addition to starting off the summer season, it will be the first show the venue has hosted since renovations began in 2011. While the renovations are substantial, the building has maintained its historic and intimate atmosphere. “This building has a really interesting and wonderful history,” said Ms. Munafo. “It’s just a great building and that’s why we decided we are going to stay right here, downtown in this historic building, even though for the same amount of money we could have had a much bigger building with a parking lot somewhere else on the Island. We love this location and this building.”
In addition to adding amenities such as insulation so that guests can stay warm in the winter, the renovations have unveiled some of the building’s original beauty. For example, the builders uncovered a cypress beam ceiling reminiscent of the bones of a ship, which until now had been hidden. Although much of the playhouse was gutted in order to make the theatre state of the art, it was rebuilt using mostly 18th century wood.
“Everything is beautiful,” said Ms. Munafo. “The detail is beautiful beyond anything I ever imagined. Now we have this wonderful building in downtown Vineyard Haven, even beyond its original glory.”
Although Mr. Forbrich hopes that the play will eventually be performed on Broadway, with the new renovations to the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, he cannot imagine a better place to unveil his creation.
“This theatre is the perfect place to do it in because it has the bones of the history of the Island and the whaling,” he said. “The theatre and the nautical world have a very common language, and we’re bringing that all together now. There are ropes and pulleys and boards and sheets and curtains and pig irons and decks in a theatre as well as in a ship. We are drawing the curtain back on that and reveling in that common language between these two worlds and putting it up in this old home, this place on an Island of whalers.”
And just like his original journey to the Vineyard, Mr. Forbrich will once again take a boat ride just before the play opens. But this time it will not be in a vessel of his own creation. Instead, he will be traveling from Newport, R.I., to the Vineyard as a passenger aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving whaleship from the 19th century, recently refurbished and sailing into these waters.
Early in the morning on the play’s opening day, the cast and crew will join Mr. Forbrich on the Morgan, where he will give a short speech. And just hours later the curtain will rise on one of the most horrifying whaling stories ever told.
The Whaleship Essex runs from June 19 through July 12. For tickets and information about the entire summer season at the Vineyard Playhouse, including outdoor performances at the Tashmoo Overlook, kids theatre on Saturday mornings, summer camp, art exhibits and Monday Night Specials visit vineyardplayhouse.org.