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The Farnsworth Invention

November 3 - 20, 2011

WRITTEN BY Aaron Sorkin

DIRECTED BY Jen Uphoff Gray

“With The Farnsworth Invention Forward once again demonstrates an aptitude for selecting smart, engaging scripts and assembling the talent to deliver a theatrical experience to match. It’s a production that’s informative, entertaining, and fascinating.”
— Christian Neuhaus, Dane101

In collaboration with the UW Madison Department of Theatre and Drama/University Theatre

Philo T. Farnsworth is a visionary. A farm boy from Idaho, he can look at the lines of a plowed field and imagine a device that can transmit pictures through the air. David Sarnoff is also a visionary. A Russian immigrant who rose from a telegraph operator to the head of RCA, Sarnoff can see the future of information and entertainment. These two men are at the center of a fascinating struggle over one of the greatest inventions of all time: the television.

Enjoy an electrifying evening from Aaron Sorkin, the Emmy and Academy Award-winning creator of The Social Network, The American President, A Few Good Men, and The West Wing. With 16 actors playing more than 70 roles, this epic story will forever change the way you look at media and the quest for “what’s next.”

The cast features American Players Theatre actor Michael Huftile as Sarnoff, Nicholas Harazin as Philo and members of the UW Madison MFA acting class.

Overture Center for the Arts

201 State St,
Madison, WI 53703

Sponsored By: 

MGE Foundation
Foley & Lardner LLP
CUNA Mutual Group
Custer Financial Services
Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission

About the show


Performance Dates:
November 3 – 20, 2011

Age Recommendations:


We strive to make our performances available to the entire community. This guiding principle captures the theater we aim to be.

We’re proud to be a resident company at Overture Center, which provides practical accessibility for a variety of needs.

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The Playwright

Aaron Sorkin and His Thoughts on Writing The Farnsworth Invention

From TimeLine Theatre Company’s The Farnsworth Invention Study Guide
Aaron Sorkin discussing The Farnsworth Invention


Aaron Sorkin was born June 9, 1961, in Scarsdale, New York. He graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater from Syracuse University. His plays include: Removing All Doubt, Hidden in this Picture, and A Few Good Men, for which he received the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Playwright and later a Golden Globe nomination for his screenplay of the same title. Other screenplays include The American President, Malice, Enemy of the State, Excess Baggage, The Rock, and Charlie Wilson’s War. He is perhaps best known for his Emmy-award winning television series The West Wing. Other critically acclaimed television series include Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. He recently won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film, The Social Network.


The Play

The History: Sorkin’s Artistic License

It raises a question and it also raises a problem, which is that, as I said, my first, if not only, obligation is to entertain. A news organization has a much different responsibility. I might not be telling you the whole story. I might not be telling you a story in a manner that is properly sophisticated. I would hate for anyone to limit the scope of their education on a subject to me. And, frankly, every teacher I’ve ever had in my life would agree with what I’ve just said.
— Aaron Sorkin, in an interview with Terrence Smith, Newshour, PBS, Sept. 27, 2000

It is the prerogative of the playwright to adjust circumstances of history to make a good play that can be performed in a couple hours. In The Farnsworth Invention, there are numerous places where the story differs from the facts. Sarnoff and his family were not run out of their home by Cossacks, but Sarnoff did see Cossacks beating people in a crowd before he left the country. Various characters have been condensed or assigned different roles than they actually played. And the timeline is often compressed. Farnsworth’s light problem is exaggerated. Farnsworth’s alcohol consumption only became problematic later in his life. Pem was not a smoker. There are many details that Sorkin has altered for the purposes of the play. The most significant change, for which Sorkin has been criticized, is changing the outcome of the patent trial.

Historically, Farnsworth was awarded priority of invention on his television system patent and RCA paid royalties to Farnsworth. However, the lawsuit took up precious years of the time on his patent, and because his factory converted to making equipment for the government during World War II, Farnsworth had limited time to see the benefit of his patents before their 17-year term ran out.

In spite of these vital differences from the actual history, RCA and Sarnoff did try to prevent Farnsworth from working with competitors, and Zworykin did visit Farnsworth’s lab under false pretenses. Farnsworth was spent by the effort of creating the television, the legal battles, and the death of his son, and he suffered a nervous breakdown. Sarnoff did have a “get around Farnsworth team” and he engaged in battles with Armstrong not only over A.M. and F.M. radio, but also over color television. The struggle for television was certainly still one of an inventor with a small team against a corporation, and that struggle is captured by the play.


Behind the Scenes

Click this link to hear WPR’s “University of the Air” episode on “The Farnsworth Invention!” Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Frank Honts, Nicholas Harazin and Liz Cassarino talk about the show and read a few scenes.

Click here to read about actor Nicholas Harazin who plays Philo T. Farnsworth.

Nick Harazin
Philo Farnsworth
Michael Huftile
David Sarnoff
Michael Herold
Richard Ganoung
Karen Moeller
Bill Bolz
Joe Lullo
Trevon Jackson
Annelise Dickenson
Santiago Sosa
Whitney Derendinger
Liz Cassarino
Paul Kennedy
Jake Penner
Kristin Hammargren
Alistair Sewell
Creative Team
Jen Trieloff
Set and Props Designer
Jono de Leon
Lighting Designer
Joe Cerqua
Sound Designer
Scott Rott
Costume Designer
Kristi Ross-Clausen
Stage Manager
Kim Patch
Ric Lantz
Technical Director
In a performance titled, "An Evening of Invention and Imagination," at the recent Wisconsin Science Festival, Forward Theater Company's Jennifer Uphoff Gray gave a lecture on the intersection of science and art which included selected scenes from The Farnsworth Invention and several other science-based plays, including Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.

” Farnsworth is an indisputable success, a clear statement from Madison’s growing professional company that Forward is ready to take some risks — and do some inventing — of its own.” Click here for full review.
~ Lindsay Christians, 77 Square

“The Farnsworth Invention is a play compelling at many levels, and Forward’s production indicates that the company and its director have reached new and impressive stride.” Click here for full review.
~ Mike and Jean Muckian, Brava’s Culturosity

“Three years before winning an Oscar for “The Social Network,” Aaron Sorkin gave us “The Farnsworth Invention,” a theatrical variation on the same theme. Focused on the beginning of television rather than the rise of Facebook, it’s currently on stage courtesy of Madison’s Forward Theater Company, in a bracing, must-see production that deserves an award of its own.” Click here for full review.
~ Mike Fischer, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

More from this season

A Thousand Words
January 19 - February 5, 2012
Love Stories
April 12 - 29, 2012
New Play Development Series
March 9 -10, 2012 and May 19, 2012