It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Whole Lotta Farnsworths Goin’ On

Dave Sikula, knee deep in Farnsworth. 

In our last chapter, I was dealing with the controversy raised by my recent production of Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention in Palo Alto, and the larger issues it raised about the responsibilities of directors and how faithful they should be to the texts they’re working on.

Last winter and spring, the Palo Alto Museum of American Heritage had an exhibit on the history of television that was completely coincidental to our production. We approached them about cross-promoting each other’s events, and, through them, we learned that Philo’s nephew, Steve Player, lived in Palo Alto, just a couple of blocks from the theatre. We approached him and he agreed to not only share his memories (and some invaluable clippings and books) with the cast, but to also do a couple of audience talkbacks.

Steve talking about Phil at some other event.

Steve talking about Phil at some other event.

Well, this act was seen as an apparent betrayal by another branch of the Farnsworth family to no end, and, so bothered, they denounced Steve as a publicity hound (in spite of the fact that we had approached him, not vice versa). The branch of the family we heard from – which is to say, some of Philo’s direct descendents – has no use for the play at all, so my guess is that any member of the family who chooses to associate himself with it – no matter the context (in this case, to help debunk it) – is just asking for trouble. Personally, I was delighted to have him on board, and would have welcomed the participation of the others, even if they seemed to have no interest in helping us spread their own message.

What ultimately happened at our talkbacks, though, was most unexpected.

At the first one – following the first Thursday performance – we had, as expected, Steve. This in itself was a point of contention. Steve was – and is – a great guy, with personal and family information that couldn’t be gotten anywhere else. Even though Philo died when he was relatively young – and Steve didn’t have a lot of interaction with him about television, he gave us an invaluable sense of how much we were dealing with a story about a real person, not just some metaphorical “character” created to make a point about capitalism and creativity. That he was working with us at all made that other faction of the Farnsworth family, well, “pissed” is probably the best word.

The Thursday talkback.

The Thursday talkback.

What we didn’t know until just after that Thursday performance that Steve had brought Philo’s grandson,Philo Krishna Farnsworth, an act which probably put Krishna at odds with some of his siblings and cousins. As a part of a “truth squad” dedicated to spreading the truth about his grandfather’s inventions, he was, if not happy to help us, at the very least, charming and informative. (And let me hasten to add, he didn’t seem in the least like he didn’t want to be there. He told us how much he liked the show and what we had done.)

Krishna Farnsworth; a heckuva nice guy.

Krishna Farnsworth; a heckuva nice guy.

Now, the thing that I’ve experienced about talkbacks is that very few people stay, and those who do aren’t always really engaged, preferring to let the people on stage talk amongst themselves, and being content to ask the stereotypical “I thought you were all terrific, but how did you learn all those lines?” type questions. Not our patrons, though. A large percentage of them not only stayed, but were active questioners and participants – even the usher who wanted to assure us – in loud and no uncertain terms – that he’d been an engineer and that he knew for a fact that no one person invented television. We also had people who had been investors in the Farnsworth Television Company, and those who had known of Farnsworth and his work in real time, or similar inventors (we are doing the show in Silicon Valley, after all …). All in all, it was a great experience, and went well over a half-hour, far longer than the 20 minutes I thought we might be able to stretch it out to. That said, it was nothing like what we had after the Sunday performance.

A Farnsworth television set.

A Farnsworth television set.

While Krishna wasn’t able to return, we had one of Steve’s cousins, who is the daughter of one of the characters in the play, and a group of Farnsworths who knew they were somehow related to Phil and Steve, but who wanted to talk to the latter after the talkback to determine the exact relationship.

One of the questions – it was actually more of a comment – that came up in the callback struck a lot of buttons with me, though. The audience member wanted to know if it would have been possible to add a prologue or an epilogue to the show saying, in so many words, “none of this is true.”

And that sparks a piece that will take more words than today’s post can bear.

To be continued … yet again …

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