It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Art May Not Be a Democracy – But It’s Not a Dictatorship, Either

Dave Sikula waves the flag of theater revolution.

As I’ve mentioned, one of my favorite pastimes is watching old movies and TV shows. In my case, “old” means shows of the 1950s and ‘60s. (As I write this, I’m watching episodes of What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret.)

"Do you deal in a service or a product?"

“Do you deal in a service or a product?”

With old television in mind, I had another one of those coincidences today that makes writing these posts so interesting.

The first part of it was an episode of Naked City, which was an early cop show. Based on the movie of the same name, one of the things the show (like the movie) was notable for was being shot on location in New York. In fact, the narration of the film (and the first season of the show) mentioned how all the locations were real and that there were no sets. (As the show went on, this “rule” was broken regularly, and obvious sets were used. In fact, there’s one set of a duplex apartment that gets used so much in the second season to represent different locations, that they must have thought the audience had the attention span of a gnat.)

"Look out! He's got an axe!"

“Look out! He’s got an axe!”

The main reason I watch the show, now, though, is that it features early appearances by “New York” actors who have gone on to greater things. (Nowadays, of course, the only way to see New York actors is to see Equity shows in the Bay Area … ) It’s interesting (for me, anyway) to see Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, Maureen Stapleton, Sandy Dennis, Christopher Walken, and (my favorite so far) William Shatner as a Burmese sailor with a German accent. This week’s episode featured George C. Scott as a sculptor who had been commissioned to create a statue of a revolutionary leader. In an obvious analogy to Fidel Castro, the revolutionary became a dictator, and Scott’s character came under incredible pressure to stop sculpting and destroy the statue. Despite a cash offer of $20,000, pickets at his apartment house, and even a sniper killing his pregnant wife, Scott refuses to give up on the project because Art is more important than anything else …

Or something.

Now, I’ve long advocated for art that gets people agitated and causes controversy, but this was taking it too far for even me – especially when the sniper shot the statue itself. (Spoiler: Scott keeps sculpting it, plugging the bullet holes with clay.)

(By the way, after searching for images from Naked City, I just want to warn you: don’t do Google Images searches for “Naked City.” Just sayin’.)

The second part of the coincidence actually came earlier in the day when I read this story. In Manchester, England, there’s an artist named Douglas Gordon. He’s won the Turner Prize, but his work seems to consist of adapting and mashing the work of other, better artists and taking credit for the results. (See also “Lichtenstein, Roy”) As far as I can tell, Mr. Douglas has neither a theatrical background nor training, but was nonetheless engaged to direct a show in a relatively new $40 million theatre. (I’ll pause here while my brother and sister artists wonder A) why and how Manchester spent $40 million on a theatre building while our own governmental agencies provide next-to-no support for theatre companies, and B) how and why an artist was hired to direct a play when so many qualified directors can’t get work. Must be an English thing … )

The answer to the latter question may be found on the theatre’s website: Manchester International Festival “ has invited Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait) and celebrated pianist Hélène Grimaud to create Neck of the Woods, a portrait of the wolf brought to life in a startling collision of visual art, music and theatre.” I guess because they don’t have enough wolf theatre in northern England. (Who does, really?)

Despite the presence of actress Charlotte Rampling, the BBC reported the general media reaction:

The Daily Telegraph said Neck of the Woods had “the unmistakable whiff of a vanity project,” with a script that “simply isn’t very good,” while “Rampling looks terribly uncomfortable most of the time.”

The Guardian, meanwhile, described it as a “humorless and sedate Red Riding Hood retelling” that “takes itself very seriously” and is “so old-fashioned you wonder if Gordon has any familiarity at all with contemporary theatre.”

Well, Mr. Gordon took exception to the notices and decided to take matters into his own hands – literally. The BBC notes that “the show begins with the sound of an axe, and the stage has a number of axes screwed to it.” Mr. Gordon took one of those axes and tried to chop a hole in the theatre’s concrete walls. After knocking out a few chunks, he drew a demonic hand around the holes, then signed and dated the resulting “artwork.”

This guy...

This guy…


...did this.

…did this.

As might be expected, the facility’s management didn’t take kindly to the act and will be allowing Mr. Turner to pay for repairing the damage. (Apparently, management doesn’t feel the benefits of having this uncommissioned sculpture outweigh the chance to get rid of it.)

If you haven’t guessed by now what these two have in common, it’s not that sculptors are stubborn boobs; it’s that there are times you really need to let go and not take your work so goddamn seriously. I’ve never quit a show (I may have once, but I’m not 100% sure), but if someone offered me the equivalent of $150,000 to stop working on one, I admit I’d to consider it. And in the second case, who the hell takes reviews that seriously? Well, Mr. Gordon does, but what anger management issues does a guy have that he reads his reviews, gets mad, tries to figure out what to do, makes up his mind, puts on his shoes, gets a jacket, finds his keys, gets in his car, drives to the theatre, goes in, says hello to the staff and crew, heads into the house, finds a way to remove one of the axes he’s attached to the stage, then attacks the concrete wall of a new theatre because some reviewer thought you were humorless – which is something you’ve just, ironically, proven.

We’ve all gotten bad reviews (and if you say you haven’t, you’re a liar – or an amnesiac), but we’ve all laughed them off or called the reviewer “an asshole who just didn’t get it” and moved on. But this guy? I don’t want to see anything by this guy.

There was actually a third story I also heard about this week, but it’s one that will go unmentioned because there are things I just can’t – or shouldn’t – talk about. Suffice it to say that, when I saw a quote on Facebook (and I hate quotes on Facebook) that said something to the effect of “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right,” I took it to heart – and that comes from an opinionated hothead.

To bring my headline into this, no, Art isn’t a democracy. If you solicit opinion before making a movie or pander in an attempt to make everything appeal to the lowest common denominator, you’re just going to end up with a bunch of bland crap. (Although I have to admit this formula has been working for Disney for decades.) You’ve got to be bold and individual, even at the risk of offending people. I know I’ve seen a lot of stuff I didn’t like, but (in most cases) it was because I didn’t agree with the choices the director made. I’d rather watch an evening of bold, stupid choices than a bunch of stupid non-choices. At least the first one makes me think of how I’d do things differently.

On the other hand, if you’re so bloody-minded and determined to make art that, if you’re criticized or corrected, your only recourse is to hit a building with an axe or let your wife get shot, well, that’s another stupid choice.

Advertisements

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Hashtag Goodbye Dave

No, Dave Sikula is not leaving, but he’s a little torn up about another Dave who is.

One thing about writing these blog posts is the regular schedule. I know that, no matter what else I do, every two weeks, I’ll be turning out an article bloviating about something or other.

But even as I write this, I know that, when my next deadline rolls around in a fortnight, I’ll be as depressed as I’ve been in a long time.

“Why?,” you may ask. “Because,” I would answer, “I’ll be writing in the absence of David Letterman.” Dave and I have a long history together. It’s not like I’ve ever met the man, though I have seen his show live (I think) seven times, but he’s been a big part of my life for, damn, nearly 40 years.

david-letterman-retirement

I’ve long admitted I didn’t like his standup when he was beginning. There was something about it – and him – that I found kinda smarmy, so it took me a while to watch his morning show that aired in 1980. But once I discovered that show, I became a fan for life, and I realized the other day that his humor and comedy have been major influences on me for more than half of my life, and certainly almost all of my adult life. (And when you consider that I’ve missed only a handful of David Letterman Shows, Late Shows with David Letterman, and no Late Nights with David Letterman, it’s in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours – nearly eight solid months – I’ve spent watching the guy.)

I’m not alone in this, well, obsession. Since 1993, I’ve been part of an online group that tracks, discusses, and dissects the show – and Dave – and those people have become some of my dearest friends, even if I’ve actually met most of them only a few times.

(You’ll have to excuse me. Tina Fey just stripped down to her underwear on Dave’s show.)

Where was I?

Ah, yes; the AFLers. Back in the early days of the Internet, there was a thing called Usenet, which allowed people with similar interests to gather and post about them. (Usenet still exists in a vastly altered form. Most of the content was overwhelmed by spammers and trolls, and the remainder was more or less absorbed by Google.) Most of these groups had names that were prefaced with the prefix “alt” or “rec,” and alt.fan.letterman was one of those many thousands of groups. The people of AFL are some of the finest I know, and knowledgeable about many, many things outside of late night talk shows. We have doctors, educators, editors, musicians – including a musicologist who’s become the unofficial official archivist of the show. (Seriously, his New York apartment is apparently filled to capacity with VHS tapes of virtually every broadcast Dave has ever done.) Not to mention, we even have current and past writers for the show as members. (The Usenet group has long since migrated to Facebook.)

The AFLers; I'd rather be with them than with the finest people. You can just see my head peeping up there in the middle.

The AFLers; I’d rather be with them than with the finest people. You can just see my head peeping up there in the middle.

Every year, the AFLers gather in New York for “Davecon” to see the show live and in person, have dinner, crack wise, and (for the newbies) get a tour of the Ed Sullivan Theatre – yes, I’ve stood on the spot where the Beatles performed and sat behind Dave’s desk – and just gather. Over the years, we’ve come to know staffers, writers, and producers from the show – even the security guy. (And Rupert Jee, who owns the Hello Deli next door to Dave’s theatre? Nicest and most modest guy in the world.) This year will (obviously) be the last assemblage (and I have to miss it, dammit; it’s during our preview week for Grey Gardens – which you should see, since it’s going to be a remarkable show, even with me. But I know where my heart will be Monday the 18 th at 3:30 pm PT), but the memories of Davecons past will linger.

What was really happening behind that desk.

What was really happening behind that desk.

Now, in spite of all of that, I was sure that, given how, in recent years, the show isn’t what it once was (Dave’s lost a lot of interest in doing the show, it feels like), that when it was over, I’d be sad, but not too much so, But now that the number of remaining shows is in the single digits, I’m starting to feel the loss already, and know I’m going to be a mess when Paul Shaffer and the band hit that final final note to end the show.
The thing that got me thinking about all of this tonight was that, as we were leaving rehearsal tonight, I mentioned that I had no idea what I was going to write about this week (is it that obvious?), and one of my fellow cast members, who is determined to turn my name into a hashtag, said I should write about that. I begged off, thinking it as uninteresting as I am, the idea of becoming any kind of a meme is even moreso. But it did remind me of how, not only are the AFLers responsible for a couple of my favorite nicknames, but turned me into an acronym that also doubles as a hashtag I’m happy to use. (Seriously; it’s in the Urban Dictionary on the prestigious Internet.)

At this point in an article, I usually try to bring a couple of seemingly unrelated points together in an effort to make a larger point, but I have to admit I got nothin’ in that regard this time. Being in rehearsal, I haven’t had time to see anything to comment on, really. (Other than Stupid Fucking Bird at SF Playhouse, which is a really interesting production and has been sticking in my head, not for the least reason that it’s making me rethink my approach to translating Chekhov; that and Sister Play at the Magic, which was really good and criminally underlooked.) What’s been at the forefront of my mind in terms of “entertainment” and art has been Dave Letterman.

So, while this hasn’t been the most incisive, analytical, or insightful of articles, it is the smallest of explanations for why I’m both so thankful for a man who’s played a major part in shaping American comedy for the last 40 years and a warning that in two weeks, I won’t be in much of a mood to write.

Cowan Palace: The Golden Girls Take Over San Francisco And Other Chats With Matthew Martin

On this day before Thanksgiving, Ashley thanks you for being a friend while chatting about the Golden Girls with Matthew Martin.

The Holidays are really here! And nothing says seasonal spirit like gorgeous San Francisco drag queens getting all dressed up as the legendary Golden Girls, am I right?

Yes, it’s true. For the past nine years, it’s become a local, celebrated way to enjoy the Christmas festivities. The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes are back and they’re more fabulous than ever.

get-attachment.aspx

Need to see more? Understandable. You can take a sneak peek thanks to YouTube! Still not enough? Lucky for you, I had the chance to interview Matthew Martin who has been with the production since 2007. Matthew is not only the director of the show but is also starring as everyone’s favorite Southern belle, Blanche Devereaux!

get-attachment-2.aspx

AC: Tell us about how you first got involved with this unique project. How has it developed over the years?

MM: We first did this production in 2007 at a friend’s Victorian here in San Francisco. It was a group of performer friends doing something fun together: 2 episodes verbatim with an intermission. I don’t’ think any of us foresaw the enormous popularity that would ensue. The audiences and shows grew and grew and GREW, going from various small venues to the grand old Victoria Theatre in 2011.

AC: What makes this year’s show different than past productions?

MM: This year’s show is different in that we’ve gone musical! Dorothy and Blanche are vying for attention at the Rusty Anchor, the local piano bar and break into song! We also have new sets. Of course, every year’s show is different, but the audiences are the same faithful crowds that have been growing with every season.

AC: What was the biggest challenge in rehearsing the show and getting it ready for opening night?

MM: Getting there, as with any show! There are always many variables and personalities involved with any theatrical production. Besides actors rehearsing, there are the departments of publicity, technical aspects, lights, sound, costuming, ticket sales. The costumes alone are a show within themselves! It’s a 1980s fashion show and another popular aspect of the production. Love the audience’s “what were they thinking?!” reaction to 1980s fashion sense!

AC: What was the biggest surprise you found when translating a script meant for TV to the stage?

MM: How rabid the fans are quoting chapter and verse of the original scripts and how well the comedy stands up 30 years later. Good writing remains good writing, always. A delightful surprise is the demographic appeal of the Golden Girls. EVERYONE loves them! Old, young, gay, straight, male, female. Love seeing the cross-section of people in every audience. That is the San Francisco I know and love and grew up with here.

get-attachment-3.aspx

AC: I love the idea of bringing in celebrity guests! How have those personalities helped to influence the show?

MM: It’s always fun to have some local celebrities make a cameo appearances with the Golden Girls, but the audiences are coming to see the Fabulous Foursome!

AC: Why do you think this production does so well in San Francisco? Do you think it would have the same impact in other cities?

MM: The power of syndication makes it very appealing to everyone, here in San Francisco, and around the world, literally! It is “Very San Francisco” for sure, having 4 guys in drag playing these iconic roles, and our audiences can’t wait to come. It’s an annual pilgrimage, a true holiday tradition for many people here.

AC: Have you always been a Golden Girls fan? If so, who was your favorite character?

MM: Who doesn’t like the Golden Girls?! They are ALL my favorite, for different reasons, and it’s the interplay between the decidedly different four of them that makes it so funny and relatable! Like family members! Every Girl gets a rousing round of applause just by walking on the stage. It’s the audience’s way of saying hello and we love each and every one of you!

AC: Bang, Kill, Marry, Share A Cocktail: Sophia, Rose, Blanche, Dorothy

MM: Oh Lord. It had to…..I’d bang Blanche (myself! Haha!), I’d kill Sophia (out of seniority! She’s had a good long life), marry Dorothy (a woman with sense and experience) and share a cocktail with Rose (or 3 and get her bombed!).

AC: What kind of research goes into directing this show and did it vary from the type of research that went into getting into character?

MM: The research is in the years of watching them on television! The Golden Girls are very familiar friends, that’s part of their enduring appeal. It’s very nostalgic and like a comfort food for our audiences. People have a true attachment to the series, so we, the performers, know them as well as the audience. After playing these parts for so many years now, the actors get into their respective characters very easily now.

AC: What do you think it is about the show that still resonates the most with modern audiences?

MM: The truth of the comedy resonates with everyone! Modern audiences relate to the comedy and drama, as times change, but people don’t! The issues that they would explore on the series are the same as today. Love, friendship, old age, health, mothers/daughters, divorce, ex-husbands, companionship, annoying roommates, and people just having to live together to learn from and tolerate one another. The writers didn’t shy away from serious subject matter either. Some of the episodes were groundbreaking for their time in addressing such social issues as abortion and drug addiction.

AC: What’s the one Golden Girlsfashion statement you hope makes a comeback in 2015?

MM: God, not sure anyone wants ANY of those fashion statements to make a comeback, or maybe in the Smithsonian, behind glass! I do love the flash and dash of some of the getups, and Blanche gets to wear some hilarious outfits, but again most of the wardrobe is in the category of “What were they thinking?!” in the 1980s.

AC: Where can we catch your next show? Any big plans for the new year?

MM: We just finished filming Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte which should be released next year. We are doing another run of D’Arcy Drollinger’s hit show “Shit and Champagne” at The Oasis, the new club D’Arcy and Heklina are opening South of Market! I will also be doing a version of my solo show All Singing, All Dancing, All Dead at the new club later in January.

AC: What’s your favorite part of the holiday season?

MM: Being together with family and friends and reminded that the holiday season is a state of mind, not just a few weeks for love and laughter on the calendar. The holidays are a very tough time of year for many people, so performing in a show making people laugh and smile is a beautiful gift to give and receive!

AC: What food are you looking forward to indulging in this Thanksgiving?

MM: All of it! Of course my brother-in-law’s fabulous barbequed turkey, some sweet potato pie, and all the sides! Pecan pie, pumpkin pie…then I won’t eat for a week so I can fit into my costumes for opening night, December 4th!

AC: In ten words or less, why should we come see Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes?

MM: You will be HAPPY that you came to the show!

So with that my Theater Pub pals, I leave you with this: Thank you for being a friend.Travel down the road and back again. Your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidant.

Be sure to check out what’s sure to be a fun and festive way to enjoy the holidays with The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes 2014 and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

get-attachment-1.aspx

Come see Matthew and The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes 2014, Dec. 4 – 21, 2014 – Thurs. Fri. & Sat. – 8:00 pm / Sun. – 7:00 pm at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco! Tickets are $25 and are available at http://goldengirlssf.eventbrite.com/

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: 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.

Theatre Around The Bay: Our Story Was Epic

Our guest blogger series continues with a piece by Sunil Patel, a Bay Area writer and actor, who recounts a recent night of inspiration.

Veronica Mars changed my life. I don’t mean that as hyperbole: I can trace my recent commitment to becoming a published writer to Veronica Mars. While that decision was directly inspired by attending the World Science Fiction Convention, I only became aware of that convention because of a friend I met through Veronica Mars fandom. Everything awesome that has ever happened to me at Comic-Con can also be attributed to Veronica Mars, including the opportunity to tell Joss Whedon that Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life—which was partly because it was a precursor to Veronica Mars.

I love the show. I have written thousands of words about why I love the show. It’s a fantastic neo-noir teen drama with a compelling protagonist and supporting characters, a strong father-daughter relationship, and, yes, a smoldering romance. I love the story, but it wasn’t the story alone that changed my life. It was the community that formed around that story.

Television fandom is a curious but beautiful thing: thousands of people absorbed in a story, collectively experiencing joy and heartbreak from week to week. And this story leads them to generate their own stories, claiming characters and imagining new narratives for them. I helped orchestrate HelpMeVeronica.com, a mini-ARG, which taught me a lot about storytelling and managing audience expectations. As a writer, I had to balance what I wanted to create with what our audience needed. A subcommunity had formed around our story-within-a-story. But the larger community plays a role in the metanarrative of the show.

The tale of Veronica Mars is this: on May 22, 2007, the story ended. The community, however, remained. And on March 13, 2013, by the power of Kickstarter, that community enabled the creation of more story. We hungered for more, and we made it happen. Stories matter because they connect people and through the power of fictional narrative influence the real-world narrative. Stories have power, and we bestow it upon them.

At a recent Borderlands event, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson said that writing the book was only 80% of the job of creating the story. The reader supplied the final 20% by imagining it in their heads. He used this analogy as a way to distinguish books from television and movies, which show you the images and sounds, but the concept extends to all forms of storytelling. The audience is an essential part of the story, and 20% of the experience is how they respond to it. A hundred people can see a production of play and come away with a hundred different interpretations, a hundred different emotional responses. The story fractures into a hundred versions of itself and finds new life in the lives it touches. The audience carries their own personal version of it with them always.

Stories have always needed an audience to come alive, but now an audience’s need for stories matters a significant amount. We live in a world where a passionate audience can show their appreciation for the types of stories they want to see by willing them into existence. San Francisco Theater Pub’s The Odes of March ended with “Ode to the Audience,” acknowledging their importance, but I see untapped potential.

Everything I’ve described above regarding the passion for stories and sense of community that I experienced in television fandom applies to my experience in theater as well, but as a creator. The Bay Area theater community is incredibly supportive of new work, and many times I have seen people put up a play on sheer pluck and gumption alone. Several times, I’ve seen them turn to crowdfunding as well. Maybe it’s because I mainly associate with people in theater, but I have not personally encountered theater fandom to the same degree. Theater is as collaborative a medium as television or film, and I think it has the ability to foster a similar, vibrant community centered on stories. The audience is physically present, already together, when they see a play. The San Francisco Olympians Festival does a wonderful job bridging the gap between creators and audience members, encouraging the intermingling of the two and discussion of the works. Talking about stories is an essential part of the storytelling process. It’s that 20% that truly cements their place in the collective consciousness.

I look at the success of the Veronica Mars movie and realize that a story is far more than what’s contained within it. It’s a message, a force of nature, a reality-warping behemoth of narrative power. As a writer, you cannot forget that. You must understand that it’s bigger than you.

Because you never know when what you write will change someone’s life.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.