It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: You Can’t Buy Publicity Like This

Dave Sikula, back in the here and now. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in rehearsal for my production of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention” at Palo Alto Players. It seems like just days ago that I had my auditions, but here we are, finally on stage, with our opening next week. It’s been an interesting process (but aren’t they all?), mainly for two reasons.

The first is dealing with the usual mix-n-match collection of actor conflicts, up to and including losing one of my lead actors to something as trivial as an anniversary trip to Hawaii (how dare he have gotten married all those years ago!).

The second was the not-unusual differences between the rehearsal space and the actual theatre. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of working at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, let me describe it briefly. It was built in the 30s (as a WPA project, I believe), and – in spite of the desperate need (IMHO) for a renovation, it’s a lovely space to work in: good sightlines and acoustics (once you’re downstage of the proscenium, that is), pleasant and professional staff, reasonably comfortable accommodations for actors.

The problem is, the rehearsal room in the back is much smaller than the stage itself. In my previous productions there, there had been an extension that made that stage much closer to the actual one used in performance. That extension was taken away some time in the recent past, so that while there’s plenty of depth, there’s not quite as much as we’d actually be using – not to mention the issues of the various platforms and levels in the set design. “Don’t worry; it’s all going to change” became my mantra to the cast, who looked suspiciously at the close quarters and tightness of the blocking.

Not our show, but you get the idea.

Not our show, but you get the idea.

Sure enough, Wednesday night was got on stage, and all of their fears – well, most of them – were addressed. “Oh, now I get it!” was the response. We spent the evening restaging a good portion of the first act, and everything I had in my head, but wasn’t able to convey, became clear to all of us.

(In all honesty, I think it’s going to be a dynamite production – especially when we add the tech elements. They’re going to make for a long cue-to-cue and 10-out-of-12 day, but they should be more than worth it.)

Tangentially, I might mention that this production has become the center of a bit of controversy. The play’s plot deals with how electronic television was invented by Philo T. Farnsworth, and how the process of who would control TV was tied up for years by David Sarnoff, the head of both RCA and NBC.

Even though Philo won every legal battle over the patents, Sorkin has him lose and kind of brushes it off with a monologue by Sarnoff. I understand why he did it dramaturgically – it sets up the final scenes – but I have no idea why he felt so compelled to distort the truth that way. And neither does a fellow in Tennessee who runs a website called, which is rightly dedicated to making sure people are aware of what Farnsworth did.

Philo Farnsworth and his eponymous invention.

Philo Farnsworth and his eponymous invention.

Well, somehow this fellow found out we were doing the show (not that it’s a secret), and began a letter-writing campaign more or less demanding that we rewrite the play to give Philo the victory.

Now, let it be noted, I’m very much in the pro-Farnsworth camp. We even have his nephew coming to two talkbacks to give the audience the real scoop on what happened, and I’ve been in contact with other members of the family, soliciting their participation. But this guy in Tennessee keeps complaining – to the point where the Mercury News is doing a story on the controversy

I have no idea of what the outcome of this whole thing is going to be, but I look forward to its resolution.

Anyway, being so close to opening, I was put in mind of the beginning of the process, and came across a blog entry I’d written during auditions. It follows below, in edited form. It’s mainly some of my thoughts on the whole audition process.

I had my first round of auditions today, and was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Not that I wasn’t expecting good actors – I got them in spades, even the people I didn’t call back – but that I wasn’t expecting so many men or how, consequently, tough the casting choices are going to be.

What it didn't look like, but was the best image I could come up with.

What it didn’t look like, but was the best image I could come up with.

One of the things about “The Farnsworth Invention” is that it has, by my count, 93 speaking roles in 43 scenes, so – short of casting 93 actors – there’s going to be a lot of doubling, tripling, and quadrupling – or more. I’ve broken down the casting at least five times (my initial spreadsheet was nine pages; I’ve gotten it down to one or two, depending …), and while I think I’ve got the final version, it’s still subject to change dependent on what happens in rehearsal. (This also applies to blocking; I have a feeling that I may well stage a scene, look at it, and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s try it this way.” Fortunately, I’ve (finally!) got a long-enough rehearsal period that I have the luxury of being able to do that.)

Probably the right-size cast for "Farnsworth."

Probably the right-size cast for “Farnsworth.”

You never know what you’re going to get in an open audition. I’ve seen brilliant monologues and I’ve seen cringe-worthy stuff. My favorite example of the latter was in 1983. I was working the desk, checking people in for the Equity auditions for the Grove Shakespeare Festival. The festival itself was in Garden Grove – the heart of Orange County – but the auditions were at Santa Ana College. A fellow with a “European” accent – it wasn’t Spanish, French, German, Russian, or any identifiable-to-me dialect; it was “European” – came in asked where the bathroom was. It was a warm day and he’d driven down from Los Angeles, so I assumed he needed to either use the facilities or just “refresh” himself.

The Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove.

The Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove.

He’d been in the bathroom a few minutes, and I went in to either use the facilities myself or get him.

He was wearing a toga.

Not recommended audition wear.

Not recommended audition wear.

I mentally rolled my eyes and rushed into the theatre to warn the producer and the directors, “There’s a guy in a toga in the bathroom.” They visibly rolled their eyes, and I went out to usher this actor into the lion’s den. The producer said, “Ah, I see you’re doing something modern.”

The actor muttered some humorous reply, climbed the stairs to the stage, and launched into a very bad version of “Franz, romance, countrymans” (sounding, in memory. like a bad Schwarzenegger impression). He finished and the producer went up on stage, put a friendly arm around his shoulder, and explained to him why his choices may not have been the best.

This was also the series of auditions where, in the non-Equity call, a kid (just out of high school) did some Shakespearean scene that had elaborate blocking and miming of props and other characters. It was astounding in its awful meticulousness. When he finished (after what seemed like about an hour), he thanked us and left, and we all turned to one another and asked, “What the hell was that?” (The punchline here is that he came back the next year and did it again. I wasn’t present to see that one, though.)

Even Will was appalled.

Even Will was appalled.

After seeing those, I’ve learned to both expect anything at an audition and that I’ll never see anything that quit matches those heights.

Though a boy can dream, can’t he?