Playwright Rinne Groff takes on TV.
The history of technology can sometimes look less like a coolly intellectual process of incremental discovery than an endless succession of gladiatorial contests: Elisha Gray versus Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla, Bill Gates versus pretty much everyone. Add in the 20th century’s most potent communications device, and the dramatic possibilities seem almost irresistible. For playwright Rinne Groff, author of The Ruby Sunrise, based loosely on the story of television pioneer Philo Farnsworth, it was an image that captured her imagination.
“Somebody told me the story of Philo T. Farnsworth on his mower, going back and forth, line by line across the rows, and suddenly realizing that was how television could work: that you wouldn’t create the picture all at once,” Groff recalls. “I loved that image, the way it combined the urban and the rural, science and everyday life.” In Groff’s hands, Farnsworth, the Utah-bred prodigy who struggled for decades to establish his priority against the claims of David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America, became the Indiana farm girl Ruby, the kind of girl “who might make a radio from some wire and a piece of coal.” Sunrise, which premiered in 2004 at Louisville’s Humana Festival, hits Chicago next week in a production by the Gift Theatre.
Groff, 39, embodies some of her character’s plucky ingenuity. Raised in Florida and trained at Yale and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (where she now teaches), she began her theatrical career as a founding member of Elevator Repair Service, the cerebrally playful avant-garde ensemble. While creating and performing pieces such as Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad and Total Fictional Lie, she was laying the foundations for her own work as a writer, observing “the process of figuring out how things get put together to make a piece of theater,” she says.
Over the last decade, she’s demonstrated she can assemble theater out of widely disparate materials. Groff has explored the ramifications of 1981’s air-traffic controllers’ strike (Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat), a woman who sleeps to repair environmental damage (What Then) and the misadventures of a magician’s assistant (Orange Lemon Egg Canary). For all the range of its subject matter, her work returns persistently to a few central themes: the depersonalizing systems of modernity, the complex relations of audiences to media and, above all, the fascination of storytelling itself.
“I’ve always been interested in the ways that stories get handed down,” Groff explains. She sees narrative as both a fundamental human need—one whose centrality became even more apparent to her as her daughter, now seven, began telling and repeating her own stories—and a field in which power relations play out.
Groff likewise continues to explore new aesthetic realms. She enjoyed a successful 2007 residency at Northwestern’s American Musical Theatre Project, where Off-Loop hero Stuart Oken commissioned her, along with composers Michael Friedman and Joe Popp and director Michael Greif, to develop In the Bubble, a musical inspired by the John Travolta vehicle The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Groff reunited with Friedman for the musical Saved!, based on the Mandy Moore film, which premiered last year at Playwrights Horizons.
She’s currently putting the finishing touches on her new play, Compulsion; set to premiere next February at Yale Rep, it’s a fictionalized version of Chicago author Meyer Levin’s obsessive battle with Otto Frank and Lillian Hellman, among others, over the stage rights to Anne Frank’s diary. A writer driven, in Groff’s words, “to get a girl’s story told in a different medium,” quixotically struggling to create new kinds of narrative, seems a protagonist ready-made for her.
The Ruby Sunrise flickers to life July 9 at the Gift Theatre.