The Farnsworth Invention to Shine Light on Little Known History in Play’s May 2 Premiere

Posted By: WebManager on Apr 29, 2015 in Blog

Final_FarnsworthLogo_FBGallery Players’ latest play takes big ideas and historical events – who invented television and how – and turns them into a very intimate look at two men and their race to make the impossible possible. From the mind of Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, The Farnsworth Invention is equal parts character study, history lesson, and moving drama. Premiering May 2 at 8 pm in the Roth/Resler Theater of the JCC, the play tells the story of the invention of television from the perspective of its inventor, Philo T. Farnsworth, and his rival, RCA president and early radio pioneer, David Sarnoff.

Director John Dranschak looks forward to taking Sorkin’s well-written play, with its sharp, witty dialogue that humanizes very technical subject matter, and bringing it to life for audiences this spring. “Sorkin’s greatest strength is the use of language and the way he writes smart characters talking about things that they’re experts on. That goes through all his work, from Sports Night to The Social Network,” Dranschak explained. Dranschak is eager to shed light on the little known story of Philo T. Farnsworth. The Executive Producer for Red Herring Productions has been directing since 2001 and returns to Gallery Players after last directing David Mamet’s November in 2012.

“A lot of people don’t know the story of Farnsworth or even think about who invented television. But when you think about it now, it’s a miraculously pervasive invention. Even if you take television itself out of it, he pretty much invents a screen. Now we have all of these screens in our lives, whether it’s your computer, your phone, your watch. We know so little about this increasingly pervasive tool in our lives. To tell audiences the story of where it all comes from and to do it in an entertaining way, it’s a great opportunity,” he said.

Stefan Langer, who plays the titular role of Philo T. Farnsworth, agreed, “It uncovers history that’s been taken for granted. After this show, people are going to look at their televisions with a lot more respect for the beginnings it had,” said Langer.
Fans of Sorkin, history, and great acting should order tickets to one of the seven performances of The Farnsworth Invention, running May 2-17, and also visit the JCC’s lobby where an exhibit showcasing the history of early television will be on display throughout the play’s run. Rena Vesler, member of the Gallery Players Committee and long-time contributor to the JCC’s resident theater company, explained, “We are excited to further tell the fascinating story of the invention of television with this exhibit. These inventors paved the way for the media bonanza we know today. The exhibit also gives us the opportunity to pay homage to Gallery’s guiding hand, Harold Eisenstein, with a nod to his pioneering career in the early days of television in New York, Chicago and Anaheim, California in the 1950s.”

Last seen playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Adrenaline Theatre Group, Langer is excited to make his debut on the Gallery Players’ Eisenstein Stage. “As an actor, I love finding a natural way to deliver a mouthful of dialogue. It’s a real treat to play off of Ian Short’s Sarnoff. We’re all having a lot of fun together. Everyone is completely committed to what they’re doing and these scenes are really coming to life now.”

For Short, a seasoned theater veteran and founding company member of Available Light Theatre, playing the role of Sarnoff is also thrilling. “It’s just a really fun, juicy role,” said Short, who most recently has worked in film, starring in The Echo Effect with Michael Jai White and Steve Austin. Right now, Short is enjoying taking on the tragic figure of Sarnoff, who, in the hands of Aaron Sorkin, is given many layers and shades of gray as Farnsworth’s adversary.

“I really don’t think he comes across as the bad guy…. This is a man who had a vision and really wanted the best for humanity… but he compromises his ideals in order to make that happen,” said Short. As with Farnsworth, whose invention is taken out of his hands completely, the tragedy for Sarnoff’s character lies not only in seeing television’s potential corrupted, but also in seeing his own ideals corrupted. “We see Sarnoff rise from humble beginnings, being forced out of his house by Cossacks in Russia, then coming to America and teaching himself English. He was fired from his first job for refusing to work on a Jewish holiday. He was proud of his Jewish heritage and never tried to hide it. And in the play, he has an issue with and animosity towards someone he feels is anti-Semitic,” Short explained.

For Jewish audiences, the play is intriguing for both its overt look at anti-Semitism in the early twentieth century through the character of Sarnoff and for its tacit exploration of ethics and morality. Jordan Berman, who is a member of the ensemble and plays as many as six characters throughout the play, enjoys these intricate themes. “I think there is a lot that can be resonant particularly with Jewish audiences. It touches on some Jewish themes, but these are also universal themes in terms of the moral obligations one has. There’s broader content in terms of what responsibility do we have… to be using where we are as a force for good? That’s a very Jewish concept which goes to the heart of everything we do,” Berman pointed out.

As a human rights lawyer who was last seen in Gallery Players’ Bad Jews, Berman finds the parallels between the two adversaries interesting, too. “Both of them have very lofty ideals and theoretically want to use television as a force for good. But I don’t think they go about it the same way and I don’t think either could have predicted that 100 years later people would still be having this debate about whether it’s the downfall of civilization. It is a tremendously powerful tool, just like the Internet… it all boils down to how one interacts with it.”

As for what Farnsworth would think of how his invention turned out, Langer noted, “I think this idea that eventually the world could be shared, especially important moments, like the walk on the moon, was exactly what Philo had in mind for his invention. We’ve taken it to a crazy degree where it’s just information all the time. But ultimately, I think this is what he wanted, people from one end of the world to see and share important moments in history with people on the other end of the world.”

For Sarnoff, perhaps his view of where television landed would be more bittersweet, Short pointed out. “The thing about Sarnoff is that he’s never satisfied where he is; he’s always looking for the next horizon. There’s a very telling line at the end, where I say, ‘We were meant to be explorers.’ And so it’s always about moving to the next thing. Very much like in real life,” said Short.

Fans of Sorkin, history, and great acting should order tickets to one of the seven performances of The Farnsworth Invention, running May 2-17, and also visit the JCC’s lobby where an exhibit showcasing the history of early television will be on display throughout the play’s run. Rena Vesler, member of the Gallery Players Committee and long-time contributor to the JCC’s resident theater company, explained, “We are excited to further tell the fascinating story of the invention of television with this exhibit. These inventors paved the way for the media bonanza we know today. The exhibit also gives us the opportunity to pay homage to Gallery’s guiding hand, Harold Eisenstein, with a nod to his pioneering career in the early days of television in New York, Chicago and Anaheim, California in the 1950s.”

In addition, the community is invited to join Steve McVoy, founder of The Early Television Foundation in Hilliard, as he leads a free talkback discussion with the cast and director John Dranschak following the final 2:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, May 17. The Q&A session will focus on the history of television and the contributions of Farnsworth. For more information, visit www.jccgalleryplayers.org or call 614-231-2731.

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