To prepare for the role, Harazin stared at the periodic table of elements.
There is a decidedly festive atmosphere at Forward Theater Company's newly acquired rehearsal space in downtown Madison. Cast, crew and a number of guests have gathered this October late afternoon for the first rehearsal of the first production of the new season. After all the reunion hugs, the swells of laughter and the friendly clamor for chairs, the room quiets. Anticipation is palpable as Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward's artistic director and director of this new play, rises to set the stage, so to speak, for the first read-through of Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention.
Set to open Nov. 3 in Overture Center's Playhouse, The Farnsworth Invention is an impressive challenge with which to open a new season. It tells the story of two primary players in the invention of television, visionary inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and the equally visionary David Sarnoff, head of RCA and eventually NBC. It might not sound like the stuff of great drama until you remember that this is a Sorkin play, and there will be language - fast, articulate speeches often delivered on the move. There will be quick changes and big ideas.
In fact, there are 16 actors playing some 80 roles. Farnsworth, the boy genius raised on an Idaho farm, is played by Nicholas Harazin, a Forward veteran who has spent the last two summers with American Players Theatre. Harazin prepared for the role by immersing himself in biographical research about Farnsworth and his times, and also by staring at the periodic table of elements.
"Especially the photoelectric elements," says Harazin. "Selenium, cesium. It helped me to surround myself with things Farnsworth would have had on his mind."
Like all the actors in the room this day, Harazin is excited to be working with Sorkin's words and the large ensemble cast. "Timing," he says, "takes on more significance."
Sarnoff, 15 years older than Farnsworth and infinitely more wise in the ways of the world, is played by APT company actor Michael Huftile, last seen as the duplicitous and easily led Sebastian in this summer's The Tempest.
The cast is filled out with three FTC advisory company members, three community members and, in collaboration with the UW drama department, eight third-year MFA acting students.
The read-through takes about two hours, with a break between acts for coffee and sandwiches. Even this first time through, the exhilarating rhythm of Sorkin's dialogue is evident, at least to those of us who've watched (and rewatched) every episode of West Wing, Sports Night and the one-season wonder - also a tribute, in its way, to the early days of television - Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Many of the actors appear to be working practically off-book. Huftile stands to read his part during the second act, as if Sarnoff's authority, the weight of what the executive must wade through and decide, has already infected his performance. He uses his flexible baritone to advantage, lowering the volume in those moments of strong feeling.
As one would expect, the dialogue is sharp and fast-paced, and there are plenty of laugh lines along the way. But after the last line is delivered, a few beats of emotional silence hang in the air before the guests begin slowly to clap. This is a play that people will to want to think and talk about after.
The buzz associated with an Aaron Sorkin play notwithstanding, Forward Theater Company has a lot to be psyched about right now. Last season, only its second since forming in 2009, was both a critical and financial success. Subscriptions have increased nearly 50% over last year's, a validation of Forward's mission to provide exceptional theater experiences for Madison audiences while giving an artistic home to local theater professionals.
Jennifer Uphoff Gray is confident that Madison audiences can handle the fast pace and complex staging of The Farnsworth Invention.
"This is a community that values theater," she says, and points out that the most challenging material Forward has staged to date - Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them (2009) and Sara Ruhl's In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (2010) - have been their hottest tickets.
As Forward's artistic director, Gray is pleased with the strong audience connection she experiences here. In New York, where she cut her directing teeth, the theater audience is huge and largely anonymous. She finds the chances to communicate with Madison audiences more satisfying and meaningful.
One way FTC enhances community participation is by offering a special preview performance for which $10 tickets are made available to high school and college students and educators. And prior to all of the Thursday and Sunday performances of Farnsworth, free pre-show talks will give the audience additional background on the author, the historical and scientific facts that form the basis of the story, and the production elements that bring life to the play. No tickets or reservations are required for the talks.
As the director, Gray appears undaunted by staging a play with 49 scenes in 31 locations, calling it "a big jigsaw puzzle." For this play, most of the staging needed to be completed ahead of the first rehearsal. Gray worked with veteran designer Charles J. Trieloff II, who has created a set based on the look and feel of industrial spaces of the early 20th century, and inspired partly by photos from Farnsworth's San Francisco laboratory. Something will always be happening in the background, even as the main action of the play takes place in the center or foreground.
"The production matters as much as the play," Gray asserts at the mention of lukewarm reviews that Farnsworth received for its Broadway opening in 2007, adding that when it opened at Chicago's Timeline Theater in 2010, the reviews were no less than glowing.
Aaron Sorkin has long explored stories of people whose vision changed the world as we know it. Much as in his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network, a fictionalized account of Mark Zuckerberg's development of Facebook, the story Sorkin tells in The Farnsworth Invention is less biography than a highly selective portrayal of visionaries. Each struggles to bring his ideas for television and its potential uses to life, grappling with its ownership and the consequences once that vision has made it into the greater world.
Philo Farnsworth at 14 already had the idea for a device that would transmit moving pictures. He went on to get funding for his own laboratory to develop the device, working with a ragtag crew that included his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law. Ultimately, though, the invention was, in Sorkin's telling, stolen by scientists working for Sarnoff, who foresaw the power and importance of television when everyone around him thought the invention would be little more than a novelty item for rich people.
There's just enough science to keep things real, but finally, this is a play about human beings. Sorkin is less concerned with historical accuracy (he changed or left out many actual facts while fabricating certain events for the purpose of his drama) than he is about how these two men navigate their worlds, express their thoughts, push toward their dreams and ambitions and analyze their doubts and disappointments. The most affecting scenes take place between each of these men and their wives, their families and supporters and, finally, each other.
Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff never met in real life. As inventions of Sorkin's imagination, however, their ultimate verbal confrontation is inevitable. In a 2007 interview, Sorkin described writing Farnsworth originally as a screenplay but realizing that in a play he would have the freedom to make the two characters interact. "So I came up with the notion of the unreliable narrator," he told NPR, "in this case two unreliable narrators, each narrating each other's story, accusing the other of lying, of getting things wrong...and kind of dueling it out through the end, while their stories were being played on stage."
In The Farnsworth Invention, Sorkin gives us glimpses into the lives of two very different visionaries, each able to see things that others around them could not. In doing so, almost without our knowing quite how, he also asks us to consider the consequences of those visions, now realized. What now do we think of how television came to be, of what happened to its inventors and what it has meant to the world since? These are questions Sorkin leaves us to consider, perhaps for some time after we've left the playhouse and gone home to turn on our sets.