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 …

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: 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?).



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.