Behind the 'Curve'
Mike Farrell brings the story of climate change to life in ‘Dr. Keeling’s Curve’
By Carl Kozlowski 04/16/2014
Mike Farrell became one of America’s most beloved television actors of the 1970s in the iconic role of Army Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on “M*A*S*H.” That series added dramatic depth to the traditionally shallow sitcom form, blending heartbreaking storylines with the shenanigans of US military doctors stationed on the frontlines in the Korean War.
Just as “M*A*S*H” frequently focused on sociopolitical issues, as did “Providence,” another hit show Farrell starred in for five years, the actor-writer-director-producer has spent the past four decades combining his thriving acting career with social activism for causes he believes in. Along with serving as co-chair emeritus of Human Rights Watch in Southern California, Farrell is also president of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus. He is also spokesperson for Concern America and co-founder of Artists United to Win Without War.
Farrell will again be weaving together his actor and activist sides Tuesday (Earth Day), when he stars in the one-man show “Dr. Keeling’s Curve” at Caltech. The play, written by George Shea, portrays 1950s-era Caltech climatologist David Keeling, who became the first scientist to successfully measure carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and initiated the modern study of climate change.
“I’ve been involved in a number of issues, and certainly any sentient being is aware that there are strange things happening in the global climate,” says Farrell. “Ninety-seven percent of scientists believe it and call it climate change. I’ve been interested in it, but without a sense of history and what the impact is. One day I met George Shea, whose wife was working in a local community effort on climate change, and [he] asked if I would be interested in doing a one-man play about Keeling.”
Farrell accepted the challenge, and even helped Shea on rewriting “Curve” so that it mixed in enough entertainment in order to not feel like a lecture. The resulting play has been performed at USC as well as theaters in Hollywood and Venice before its appearance at Caltech. Farrell is now optimistic enough to believe the play can eventually find a long-term base in Los Angeles or even tour.
“We decided to tell Keeling’s story because it offers a way to simply and entertainingly explain global warming to a general audience,” says Farrell. “I didn’t want the play to sound like a lecture. It’s too important. We wanted a piece of real theater, something with real human interest and entertainment value that also addresses the climate crisis we face, and I think we’ve pulled it off.”
The play is just one part of an evening of informative fun. At 6:30 p.m., a team of scientists from Caltech and JPL will be using iPads and interactive apps developed at Caltech to engage audience members and others with intriguing aspects of climate change through interactive visuals and simulations. The play begins at 8 p.m., with audience members invited to stay for a post-show discussion when a panel of Caltech and JPL climate change experts join Farrell and Shea onstage.
“I’m a lay person like everybody else. I’m an actor, not a scientist,” says Farrell. “After the last three performances we’ve had experts in the field and we can’t help but learn a lot by being around that. It’s a great discoveries situation, so having Caltech scientists willing to give their time to help the audience understand is a tremendous asset.”
“Dr. Keeling’s Curve” will be performed at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Ramo Auditorium at Caltech, 322 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Pre-show events start outside the auditorium at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 for the general public, $20 for seniors, teachers and Caltech staff and faculty, and $5 for students. Call (626) 395-4652 or visit Caltech.edu.