Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!

Thank-You-Someecard-2

Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.

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In For a Penny: You Can’t take it With You

Image via Universal Pictures

Image via Universal Pictures

“[I]t’s a form of alchemy, of magic. It’s very appealing. I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated because the very earliest people who made film were magicians.”
– Francis Ford Coppola, Academy of Achievement interview, 17 June 1994

When I think of Aaron Sorkin, I’m reminded of Christopher Buckley’s address to Yale’s 2009 graduating class. In a self-deprecating speech, the author and former George HW Bush speech-writer implores these supposedly-future-captains-of-industry to reject the very shameless materialism they’d supposedly been encouraged to embrace. “[Do] you really want to model your lives on characters in a Tom Wolfe novel?” he asks. “I always wanted to be Tom Wolfe, but I never wanted to be Sherman McCoy.” I’d rather be Aaron Sorkin than Will McAvoy, but that may have less to do with wanting to be a celebrated writer and more to with my wanting to date Kristin Chenoweth.

As regular readers of Theater Pub know, Sorkin is a polarizing figure, partly by design. His instantly recognizable prose adds an electric energy to his story and characters. Still, the subjects he covers are filtered through his own unapologetically myopic bias. He began as a playwright, but he’s become the polar opposite of the Coen Brothers’ eponymous Barton Fink: he’s somehow gotten the Hollywood machine to bend to his will, rather than the other way around. That’s why I found it fascinating when he first announced his screenplay for Steve Jobs would essentially be a three-act play on film.

I’m not here to review the film (which I saw back in October), but I will say that I can see why it’s been recently nominated for several awards. Having said that, I watched the film wondering if maybe Sorkin’s approach was, well, too successful? Is it possible for a film to somehow be “too theatrical”?

Allow me to explain: as I watched the film, I was fully focused by Sorkin’s story and characters, but I didn’t find the film to be inherently cinematic. I know director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler shot the three acts in three different formats (16mm celluloid, 35mm celluloid, and 24-frame digital, respectively), but there was still little about the film that made it, well, a film. With the exception of a few short flashback scenes, the staging and transitions – particularly those depicting the passing of years – were all the sort of thing one could see in a local black box production. Rather than thinking it was like a play, I asked myself why they didn’t just make it into a play.

I’m not saying that it needed wall-to-wall special F/X, blinding explosions, and seizure-inducing editing, but film is a visual medium first and foremost. Theatre is, on a rudimentary level, about standing in front of people and commanding their unwavering attention. Film is a technology that just happened to be eventually adopted by storytellers, most of whom came from theatre. As much as writers like to believe their words are sacrosanct, a screenwriter knows that his/her words should always be in service to the manipulated visuals rather than the visuals adhering to the words on the page.

Those horrible visuals.

Those migraine-inducing visuals.

Which isn’t to say the two things are mutually exclusive, just that you should know what works best for the medium you’ve chosen for your story. Nearly every actor who’s appeared in a Terrence Malick has described his scripts as the best they’ve ever read; those same actors lament how Malick himself will toss aside those scripts just to capture a shot of a butterfly landing on a flower. At least with the Qatsi films, you know they’re montages without anyone being mislead into thinking there’s a traditional narrative.

Similarly, I’m all for theatre productions incorporating various technologies, such as projectors. Yet there are some productions that rely so heavily on projection technology that you get the impression the creators are just frustrated film-makers pissed off that they had to “settle” for doing theatre instead of the format they wanted. (And the tiny violin orchestra begins.)

When all is said and done, I have an appreciation for playwright who made his voice so prominent in a production (and format) where said voice is a secondary concern, if at all. He made his words the central focus of a project that included award-winning visual stylists and recognizable extras. As I said, I’m not here to review the film – and I have plenty of positive and negative things to say in that regard – but it may be the best compliment I can give to say that I’d rather see this performed live than as a collection of flickering images.

But I say that as someone who, to put it one way, goes to a restaurant to enjoy the meal, not because the chef is a celebrity.

Charles Lewis III is currently compiling his list of the best films and plays he saw in 2015. He promises not to include the ones he was in.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: More Farnsworth. Now More Farnsworthy Than Ever!

Dave Sikula lingering in the kingdom of Aaron Sorkin. 

When we last met, I was in the middle of describing the whole “Farnsworth Fiasco” in Palo Alto

There were developments at the first Thursday performance, though, but not in a direction I ever would have expected – in two regards.

But I’ll get to them in due course.

So this group of protestors (with their own website: http://www.farnovision.com/. See what a great guy I am? To give them a free plug like that?) began a media-saturation campaign, writing letters to make sure the Bay Area’s various newspapers and television stations were aware of the miscarriage of justice that we were about to perpetrate. (Think I’m exaggerating? Look at the letter from Philo’s great-granddaughter on that site – and that’s mild compared to the version she sent the theatre.)

Philo's great-granddaughter Jessica Lauren Moulton; I'd imagine I'm not her favorite person.

Philo’s great-granddaughter Jessica Lauren Moulton; I’d imagine I’m not her favorite person.

As far as I can tell, all but one of those outlets ignored the letters. The San Jose Mercury-News decided to follow up, however, and not only gave us an online slide show, but also a front-page above-the-fold feature (and that’s the front front page, not the arts front page).

All this agita could have turned sour, but the PAP management took the initiative of approaching the protestors and addressing their concerns – even adding links and information about their cause and suggested reading to the theatre’s website. They still planned on protesting opening night, but were made aware that we were – and are – on their side. Even though we can’t change the text of the play, we’ve made sure that Philo gets his due credit throughout the evening.

Phil himself. I used this image twice in the show.

Phil himself. I used this image twice in the show.

Now, in spite of what could have turned out to be an ugly situation – our trying to shut down the protestors or ignoring them or mocking them – it all turned out to be a win-win. Not only did the group get its message out, but ticket sales soared. (Our houses for all twelve performances averaged about 300 each, very good for a straight drama in my experience, and above the company’s expectations for sales.)

All of this said, though, we had no idea of what to expect on opening night. We knew they had plans to assemble in the forecourt of the theatre, as is their right, to distribute literature and make sure the audience knew the facts (or, at least, the facts as they see them). We were told they had bought tickets, but had no idea if they planned on disrupting the show when the incorrect – or “ahistorical” might be a better term – verdict came down. We made plans on how to deal with any disruptions (basically, “freeze until it’s over; wait for the house staff to deal with it”) and got ready to open.

The forecourt of the Lucie Stern Theatre -- the scene of the non-crime.

The forecourt of the Lucie Stern Theatre — the scene of the non-crime.

Our Friday preview went quite well, thank you, but Saturday (being the actual opening) was the key day. We got word before the show that they were indeed out front, so I went out to see and meet them (along with members of the PAP staff). Much to my relief, the “protestors” couldn’t have been nicer. They were mainly older folks, but bright, friendly, and enthusiastic. Some had signs, but they all had handouts detailing their objections. I spoke to a couple, and they were just really nice people, not at all combative or obstinate – and, in fact, not all dedicated to “the cause.” (One man told us that he really didn’t know what all the fuss was about, and that he’d been asked by his next-door neighbor to come to the theatre and hold a sign.) In light of all of this, we don’t expect them to cause a ruckus when they do come to see the show – whenever that is. (At least one of them was at the second Thursday night show, and was just as nice after the show as they were Friday night. He was very complimentary, as well.)

Thanks to the front-page story, Sorkin himself finally responded to the situation. (The theatre had tried contacting him through his agents to ask about some things in the play itself. We got no response, but I guess the siren call of the media was too much to resist.) Short version: not only did he not know about either the production or the protests (both perfectly acceptable and believable), he didn’t understand all the fuss. He thought he had done all he could to paint Philo as television’s father and Sarnoff and NBC/RCA as outright villains trying to steal it. Watching the show that night with his words in my head, I could see how he was doing that, but in such a way as to allow for the other interpretation.

Aaron Sorkin: my new best friend.

Aaron Sorkin: my new best friend.

The story doesn’t end there, though. As I mentioned above, the Farnsworth family added its own two cents (as they’re entitled to do), but what isn’t mentioned is a family situation that we apparently provoked. But I’ll deal with that next time.

To be continued …

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Farnsworth “Controversy”

Dave Sikula, center of controversy.

Ever since I was a wee small child, I wanted to direct a controversial show.

I don’t mean just a show that some people might like and others would feel non-committal about. (“Yeah, it was okay, I guess …”)

I wanted fistfights. I wanted riots. I wanted a production that was interrupted by shouts and blood and police being called.

Now, I didn’t want extreme bloodshed or extended mayhem; I wanted something like the opening night of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” where the shouting of the two rival factions in the audience drowned out the orchestra, or the opening of Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” which caused actual riots and which was dismissed by the head of Sinn Féin – not exactly the most sensitive of groups — as “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” (And who wouldn’t want to seethat show?).

Booooooooo!

Booooooooo!

While I’d prefer not to go to the extent of the Astor Place riot of 1849 (where at least 25 people died because of groups arguing over which of two actors playing “Macbeth” was better), I’d still have settled for the nightly police raid that greeted Cal State Fullerton’s production of “The Beard” in the 70s (mentioned earlier on my own blog).

This was apparently supposed to make people not want to see it.

This was apparently supposed to make people not want to see it.

The problem is, given the nature of the plays I’ve directed at the companies I’ve worked for, that kind of reception is unlikely. Is anyone really going to get that upset over “Run for Your Wife” or “Copenhagen” or “Long Day’s Journey?” People may leave if the show isn’t to their tastes, but they rarely rise to the point of fisticuffs.

Okay, the wigs aren't that good, but we didn't use them in the show, and they're not worth rioting over.

Okay, the wigs aren’t that good, but we didn’t use them in the show, and they’re not worth rioting over.

I always thought it would be hopeless. Until last week.

It finally happened, and who knew it would be Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” of all shows?

 There are a lot of bad theatre publicity photos out there (see above). This isn't one of them.

There are a lot of bad theatre publicity photos out there (see above). This isn’t one of them.

When I was approached to do the show a year ago, I thought it might be problematic for artistic reasons. The script started life as a screenplay, and, as anyone who’s read my Facebook comments about “The Newsroom,” “The West Wing,” or – especially – “Sports Night” knows, I’m not Sorkin’s biggest fan. In fact, I downright loathe his television work. It’s been demonstrated how he repeats dialogue and phrases from show to show and how he has trouble writing for character; everyone on his shows sounds like everyone else. His biggest sin (in my opinion) is how he can’t end things; but lets them drag out long past the point at which they should have been resolved. Long-form is not his forte.

His stage- and screenplays are different animals, though; they’re much tighter and taut, and the character differentiation is clear. I think it’s, like the prospect of hanging, the prospect of knowing he needs to get an audience out in a couple of hours focuses his mind wonderfully.

The plot of “The Farnsworth Invention” deals with Philo T. Farnsworth, a farm kid from Utah and Idaho, who devised the first practical electronic television system. There had been previous successes with mechanical television – which involved a spinning disc that gave a blurry picture at best – but Philo’s system scanned an image electronically, a method that’s still used today, even with high-definition equipment. Philo’s arch-enemy (in the play and in life) was David Sarnoff, the head of both RCA and NBC, who had an obsession with controlling broadcast media, especially television. He wanted control over all the patents involved, and if he didn’t employ the scientists who invented the necessary equipment, he’d either buy out the original inventor, take that inventor to court and either break them financially or wait out the patent’s exclusivity period of 17 years, or just outright steal the invention.

Mechanical television. Yeah, it didn't work well.

Mechanical television. Yeah, it didn’t work well.

When Farnsworth wouldn’t sell his patents, Sarnoff flat out stole the technology. Philo took him to court, and was eventually declared the inventor of television. The problem with the play is that Sorkin has the judge in the case declare Philo the loser.

It took me forever to figure out why Sorkin did this. It’s a clear break from the historical record, and makes little sense in the overall context of the play. When I finally did understand his motivations, I got it, but still questioned his methods. Regardless, even if I were allowed to, I wouldn’t have changed the text. I’d have had to rewrite the last fifteen minutes, which would be illegal, impractical, and (frankly) inept. I can write, but not as well as Sorkin. We actually approached Sorkin and his representatives to try to get an explanation (not a correction, mind you; just his reasons) and were met with silence.

What we (meaning myself and Palo Alto Players, who are producing the play – at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto – tickets still available here …) didn’t realize until just before the play opened was that there’s a group that is dedicated not only to making sure that Philo Farnsworth has wider recognition as the inventor of television, but that theatres don’t do “The Farnsworth Invention” at all – or, at the very least, that they don’t do it without warning the audience as to its historical inaccuracies. (It may seem contradictory that they’d want to suppress the play, given that it gives so much credit to the unfortunately-mostly-unknown Farnsworth, but as near as I can tell, they find the whole thing too fatally flawed.)

I’ll continue this saga of suppression next time — when there’ll actually be new details.

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 farnovision.com, 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?