McAnuff touts script's workshop process

LA JOLLA, Calif. — The development of new plays in workshop has been a priority throughout Des McAnuff’s tenure as artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse — so much so that he chose a workshop as his swan song.

And not just any workshop. March 25 was the final performance — for the time being — of “The Farnsworth Invention,” the first stage work from Aaron Sorkin since “A Few Good Men,” which closed on Broadway in 1991. The new play follows the writer’s long excursion into film (“The American President”) and television (“The West Wing,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) and, given Sorkin’s profile, has unsurprisingly sparked instant talk of a Rialto transfer.

The occasion prompted McAnuff, prepping to leave La Jolla and take up a position as co-director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in his native Canada, to reflect on the workshop process.

“It’s been my experience that the road to productions that don’t work is paved with readings,” says the helmer. “You can imagine the perfect production; people have wonderful imaginations and can fill in what’s not there. But only once it’s a fully dimensional, flesh and blood piece of theater can you see if there are weaknesses or things needed.”

“If you sit and listen to a play, you can only learn so much,” he continues. “You have to get it up on its feet, and maybe even add some tech elements.” In other words, you must workshop.

Originally crafted by Sorkin as a screenplay, “Farnsworth” was offered to McAnuff to direct for a planned premiere at Dublin’s Abbey Theater. When a multimillion-pound grant from the Irish government mandated an Abbey tilt toward new Irish plays, McAnuff brought La Jolla and its Page-to-Stage New Play Development Program into the equation. Program offers a playwright “commissions, whole productions — whatever will shepherd the play along.”

One or more Page-to-Stage slots have graced every La Jolla season since 2001, starting with Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” which “came to us with no second act,” says McAnuff. “Now, you wouldn’t put a show into production, to be reviewed, without a second act.” But that’s just the kind of challenge to which workshops are perfectly suited.

La Jolla helped Wright find his second act, and three years later, he got a Pulitzer for his pains.

What Sorkin delivered was a sprawling work spanning the first half of the 20th century, described by McAnuff as “an ensemble piece, with a cast of 19, that focuses on two characters and tells their complete stories — exactly what you’d expect from Aaron Sorkin.”

The copiously researched antagonists are American small-town prodigy Philo T. Farnsworth, whose breakthroughs in electronic imaging made TV possible, and Russian-born David Sarnoff, the media mogul and founder of RCA and NBC.

As dramatized by Sorkin, at stake in their clash is not just the credit for and ownership of television, or the direction in which the medium would go, but the very foundation of American innovation itself. Farnsworth is portrayed as the last of the great individualist inventors in the Edison/Bell tradition and Sarnoff as the first great sponsor of today’s giant corporate research labs.

It’s heady, tricky stuff — something not to be thrust into full-blown production lightly.

“I felt the play was complex and ambitious enough that it warranted a safe haven, where Aaron could explore it,” explains McAnuff. “And he has taken full advantage of the process.”

McAnuff praises Sorkin’s “ability to create these ‘surgical strokes,’ changes that seem relatively minor but actually excavate a whole new through-line of images.” He mentions Sorkin’s heightening of second-act emotional moments by sharpening some first-act setups, and says, “Aaron handed me a set of act two changes after we ran act one for him. He was that far ahead of me.”

Rehearsals began in mid-January. “We worked very quickly and got it up on its feet right away,” McAnuff says. By the time sellout subscription audiences were admitted, “Farnsworth” boasted a full — if modest by La Jolla’s standards — complement of tech elements and an original score commissioned from Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party”). Another Page-to-Stage project might merit only lighting cues or a detailed costume plot. “It’s whatever serves the play,” he says.

The only element the program has consistently eschewed is critics. Reviews of Page-to-Stage are always embargoed.

No-reviews policy “allows something to remain a work-in-progress before it’s judged,” McAnuff says. Most mainstage shows are up and running after six weeks, “but this way, we get nine weeks or more. You’re not rushing to finish for an opening night. We can continue working on the process for weeks and weeks we normally wouldn’t get.”

Is “Farnsworth” now ready to be judged? Talk of a transfer has buzzed for months, especially since the recent rumor that Steven Spielberg was interested in co-producing a Broadway run. (Sources claim that in the event that plan comes together, he’d be an investor only.)

“I honestly don’t know,” McAnuff insists. “I believe we’re all enthusiastic about this play, and we intend to move forward. But I couldn’t begin to guess where or when.”

The continued existence of Page-to-Stage is a question-mark too, pending selection of a new La Jolla artistic director. But McAnuff is convinced thoughtful and deliberate play development is the only way to go.

“There’s nothing like having contemplative time,” he observes, “when you’re trying to be creative.”

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