Farnsworth Chronicles, 17

The death toll from the horrific crash on Highway 63 was announced yesterday afternoon.  Six people were confirmed dead after a pick-up truck with three people attempted to pass on a double solid line going up a hill slamming into an oncoming truck with six people.  The ensuing blaze, shared on Twitter and beyond, captured the desperation of the situation - fire extinguishers lay scattered about as passersby tried to douse the flames.

This is what was on my mind as I headed to the theatre for the opening night performance of The Farnsworth Invention.  Based on the overwhelming response to this tragedy, I suspect that a lot of people were trying to wrap their brains around what had just happened and why.  Some were heading home from work; many were just starting their day and getting ready for the night shift.  Thousands took to social media to express their outrage, raw disgust and frustration.

Fellow blogger Theresa Wells wrote an open letter to Premier Redford (a blog post that has gone completely viral, inspiring almost 10,000 views and 100 comments at the time of the writing of this post).

I sat in my dressing room putting on my stage make-up, waiting for our call to go on deck and warm up.  I grabbed a pen and a scrap piece of paper.  The following words hit the page.

We can cry
We can rail

Scream for what might have been
Rage at what should have been

Lives are lost
The moment passed

Grieve grieve grieve
Feel for the fallen
And the lives left shaken

We can't go back
Make it all better

Do overs are figments
Of imagination, stuff of dreams

Each moment matters
Care for each and every one

Norm Sutton, a neighbor and friend, playing a multitude of roles in The Farnsworth Invention, is also a former emergency responder.  News of the incredible loss of life had hit him hard earlier in the day -horrific memories rushing back.

I thought of Norm. I thought of the friends and families of the fallen.  I thought of the fragility of human life as I recited this series of words and ideas in the comforting crucible of Keyano Theatre, warming up my voice for the performance ahead.

Despite the tragedy, and the ensuing news that a teenager who had been pulled from the burning wreck had subsequently died, the show had to go on.

In my heart, I silently pledged that this performance would be for those who had died, and for their families and friends burdened with unparalleled grief and loss.

We launched into the show, enjoying a warm and energizing opening night audience.  They laughed in all the right places and helped fuel a run of the show that was among our best.

I knew something had happened half way through the first act, as all the traffic patterns had changed backstage during the wedding proposal.  Michael Beamish, in the lead role of Philo Farnsworth, had collapsed in the middle of his scene - his injured knee giving out.  He kept going with his lines, picked himself up, and hobbled into his next position.  Just a few minutes later, when I was back in my spot on downstage left, his limp was barely perceptible.  The crisis had passed.

They wrapped up his knee during the intermission, his dressing room running over with concerned cast and crew members.

"Give the guy some room to breathe," implored the stage manager as she zoomed by giving us our 15 minute call.

While Mike picked himself up and got into position for the start of act two, I went out into the hall, though the lobby and into place for my entrance from the audience during the stock market scene.

"Go ahead, re-live the damn thing," Sarnoff says, as Farnsworth recounts that terrible day when the New York Stock Exchange devolved into chaos - October 29, 1929.

The pulse and intensity continued to build, eventually breaking as Farnsworth and I were left alone to close out the show with a scene that is as much about coming to terms with what had happened in the race to invent television as it is about the choices that were made along the way.

"We were meant to be explorers," said Sarnoff.

"Explorers...builders......and protectors."

It's that word 'protectors' that just kills me.  Did Sarnoff do enough, within his power to protect those who needed protecting: Farnsworth, his son Kenny who died of strep throat, and countless others? No.  And coming to terms with that truth is wrapped in the caves and crevices of that one cathartic word, as I stand in the light, exposed, vulnerable, pierced with emotion bubbling up from the story....and from life, and death.

The answer to the question of whether or not we've done enough to protect the 7 souls who died yesterday is pretty clear to the thousands who are rising up in anger, frustration, and desperation.  Absolutely not.  There needs to be a philosophical imperative embraced by this new government in Alberta to complete the twinning of this vilified piece of road that connects Fort McMurray to the rest of the province.  The time for using the mating habits of caribou, and myriad other barriers as excuses is over.


  1. Russell,
    I was thinking about you and the others in The Farnsworth Invention last night as I responded to the horrific news about the 7 killed on the highway. I have had many moments at Keyano Theatre where I needed to absorb real life into the reality of onstage performance - thank you for capturing your very honest emotions. You (and the rest of the cast and crew) gave McMurrayites a place last night to come together - to connect and remember the humanity of us all.
    Anne Marie Szucs

  2. Last night there were almost a somberness among everyone at the show. The show itself was entertaining, busy and very informative; yet it still didn't distract many of us from the reality of the tragic deaths on Hwy 63. I do want to say kudos to you, Claude, and the rest of cast and crew for putting your heart and souls out there on the stage. This show allowed me to travel to these past times that have now shaped our present and future. I'm still processing the show in my mind as I write this. It's one that keeps you thinking well after it's over, that's how I know it's a hidden gem.


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