The Farnsworth Invention
With Lynnette Victoria
This is the fourth in a series of posts by blogger Lynnette Victoria about the making of TPNC’s production of The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin.
In this re-telling of the invention of television, we get caught up in the competition, the underhanded methods, and the power struggles that propel this male-driven cast of characters. Luckily though, we also get a glimpse into the lives of the women of this story and what it might have been like to be the confidants, cheerleaders, and truth-seekers in this moment in time. Each woman challenges our protagonists in a different way, staying true to the vision and asking all the hard questions. One might say (I might say) that the only person to truly challenge David Sarnoff in his methods is his wife, Lizette, played powerfully by Erica Evelti. Still, Sarnoff’s humanity and behind-the-scenes vulnerability is uncovered only with Betty Jordan, his right-hand-woman played effectively by April Lichtman. Lichtman has the unique opportunity of also portraying a Farnsworth – his sister, Agnes – and rises to the challenge of making that brother/sister relationship genuine and sweet. Last, but certainly not least, is Pem Farnsworth, played by Kristin Gagliardi with equal parts sass and compassion. It’s been a pleasure hearing the audience react to Kristin and Regan’s sweet portrayal of these real-life pioneers because as you’ll see, there simply is no television without Pem Farnsworth.
In a frenzy of costume changes and fast-paced scenes, each actress has been able to find her footing and breathe life into these influential women. In a candid conversation, Erica revealed to me the personal fulfillment she’s achieved from taking on the challenges of this show. For instance, she’s learned to enter a scene “like a shot-gun” to fully realize her intention from the second she enters as if she were already mid-way through the scene. Because, in this play, a scene can pass in the blink of an eye and every second is focused and full. It has to be that way or the dialogue can get weighed down by what JBP refers to as ‘too much air.’ Erica believes this performance has made her a better actress. That’s what we want as actors, I think. To grow and to evolve with every performance as artists and as people.
I asked the leading ladies about their best moments during this process and was also curious to hear which character they related to most (a question directed to Erica & April, both of whom play multiple parts). I also took the opportunity to dig a little deeper into Kristin’s connection to Pem. In their answers, it’s obvious that they have already grown so much.
What was the most rewarding/challenging part of this process for you?
Erica: The most rewarding aspect of this experience was an unexpected and fantastic compliment which I received from Lizette Sarnoff’s real-life family, in that my portrayal was reminiscent of the real person, in both style and demeanor. I did my research, working closely with our costumer for style, but the demeanor was based on my research of her. The biggest challenge was getting into “Sorkin Shape,” with a French accent!
(Sorkin Shape refers to the pace/flow of the dialogue and scene changes, including the famous “walk-and-talk.” The cast has been training for Sorkin Shape since day 1, and they’ve achieved it!)
April: I think that the most rewarding part has been playing multiple characters. I take a little bit of each character with me as I continue on through life. Betty has taught me how to look at life with a “glass half full” lens and to help others when they need it. Agnes has taught how to be confident in myself and where I come from. By playing Betty and Agnes, I am able to take into account two very different points of view on this historical event.
I have never been in a Sorkin piece before and it is challenging to keep up with the pace. I think that this piece is so much like a documentary in the way that it has to keep going. I try to always be conscious of my mistakes. I don’t want for a moment to go on for too long. I hope that this experience has helped me improve as an actor!
Kristin: There have been so many rewarding aspects for me. First was working with this cast. I didn’t know everyone in this cast before we started rehearsals, and now we all have formed such strong friendships. Working with Julie again has been wonderful. She is such a brilliant director. I can’t imagine directing such a large cast, especially in an Aaron Sorkin play! Julie always has a vision from the very beginning and to see it unfold over the last few months has been so fun and interesting to watch. This is my second show here at the Powerhouse Theatre and I am so happy to be back; it’s a place I look forward to coming to every day.
The challenge was the extremely fast-paced dialogue. It was an adjustment for me because the pace of this show is not something that I am used to, but it was so much fun to go through this process. We got in “Sorkin Shape” over the last few months for sure.
What about these characters inspires you?
Erica: Each of the characters I have the privilege to portray – Lizette Sarnoff (French Opera Singer), Mary Pickford (Founder of United Artists Film Co.) and Mina Edison (wife of T. Edison) – are noted throughout history as being super-intelligent and savvy women, each in their own right.
April: These women add something that the men cannot add. They provide insight. The women are able to see this experience differently than the men because they don’t have to see the competitive aspect. The women can see the reality and the steps to ensure a positive future.
Kristin: Pem is inspiring in so many ways. For example, her unwavering support of Philo when others didn’t believe in him or the work he was doing. She is a very strong woman who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Pem’s love for her family, her optimism, her sense of humor and strength inspired me for sure.
How have you made each character distinct for yourself? Who do you relate to most?
Erica: I work to achieve and execute the Director’s vision. I do my best to distinguish and personify the different characters – as Julie has requested. Having different accents, demeanor, tones, and of course, different wigs, is helpful to that end.
I most relate to Lizette Sarnoff because I appreciate her ultimate no-nonsense sensibility.
April: I give each character a change in voice and posture. I think that the change in costume definitely helps too. As time goes on, each vocal choice has become more and more specific. For example, Betty Jordan has a “sunshiny” voice – a little bit higher than my natural register. Agnes Farnsworth has more of a sarcastic tone and therefore uses her lower register.
I relate the most to Betty Jordan because she really wants to please her boss. She has a deep connection with David Sarnoff and I can relate to having a great connection with an acting teacher or director. I can also relate to her need to please people. She is a joy to play!
How do you relate to Pem?
Kristin: I absolutely love this character. Pem encourages Philo even though at times she doesn’t understand half of the things that come out of his mouth. She is sarcastic and witty, but supportive. Pem is also a very strong woman and stands her ground. I feel like I was able to relate to Pem because she is a down-to-earth person who loves her family more than anything.
What would you do in Pem’s situation? Would you marry the boy with those crazy big dreams, unsure of the road ahead?
If I met and fell in love with a boy who had huge dreams, I would support him every step of the way, even if I didn’t know if the dream would ever become reality. I read that Philo had called Pem his “incurable optimist.” You love who you love, and even if she thought he was a bit crazy at times, there was no doubt she was going to be there which is something I absolutely love about Pem.
If you could ask Pem Farnsworth a question about her life, what would it be?
I would ask Pem what it was like to witness her husband invent something that changed the entire world in such an enormous way. It must have been extraordinary to be there from the very beginning and see what her husband was able to accomplish. I would love to sit across from her and hear what that journey must have been like from her point of view. I’m also curious about how people treated them in the years after the television was invented and what their life was really like.
These ladies infuse this production with heart and power and light. I hope you’ll join us to see them work their magic. The Farnsworth Invention concludes this weekend Thursday-Saturday, 8pm at the Powerhouse.
This entire cast is a joy to watch and you won’t soon forget the experience. Thank you for tuning in to these blog posts as well. It’s been my pleasure.
Until next time….