Friday, May 1, 2015

Backstage with Death of a Salesman

Mount Vernon & Coralville - Dreamwell is taking a show on the road this weekend. For the second time, they'll take a show to Mount Vernon and perform in the First Street Community Center. Last year Dreamwell brought The Whipping Man to that venue. "We didn't have a huge turnout for Whipping Man, but we feel the audience is there," said Matt Falduto, Dreamwell Theatre board president. "We just have to do a better job of getting the word out." They'll have another chance this evening as the final production of the 2014-15 season, Death of a Salesman, opens tonight for just two performances before moving to the Coralville Children's Museum for a traditional run of four performances. It stars Rip Russell as Willy Loman. We had the chance to talk to director David Pierce and two of the actors, Krista Neumann, who plays Willy's wife, Linda, and Matt Falduto, who plays their son, Biff.

What made you initially interested in directing Death of a Salesman?

David: I had decided to start becoming more involved again in the Iowa City theatre scene. I haven’t exercised my directing muscles in a long time, and when I saw that Dreamwell was looking for a director for the show, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I was familiar with the show, of course, but didn't begin to fall in love with it until I started preparing for the director interview. As a result, I left the interview really wanting a chance to direct this play. I've been living with this play for over a year now, and in that time I've grown very close to the script and the characters.

What has been the most challenging part of directing this play?

David: One of the most interesting aspects of the play is how it uses Willy’s imagination to move around in time. This presents a major challenge. How do you make sure the audience knows when what they’re watching is really happening and when is it something Willy is conjuring up? The traditional way is to dress the cast up in much younger clothes, but I didn’t want to go that route. Instead, we’re making the transitions to the memory zone with lighting and music.

Another challenge comes from the multi-layered nature of the play. There isn’t just one theme in play here. There’s multiple themes, and multiple sub-themes, and you need talented actors to draw those forth for the audience.

Has anything surprised you during the rehearsal process?

David: You don’t realize the intricacies of a script until you start spending hours upon hours working that script. Death of a Salesman is noted for the way it moves around in the past and the present, in the mind of Willy Loman and reality. But another thing really special about this play is the extent to which scenes, actions, even single lines of dialogue in Act I are mirrored (or sometimes reverse-imaged) in Act II. It’s a play that rewards audiences that pay close attention to the dialogue.

What is the number one reason audiences should come to see this production?

David: This show has an All-Star cast of local acting talent. Our Loman family is made up of Rip Russell, Krista Neumann, Matt Falduto, and Brad Quinn. It’s electrifying when they’re onstage together, and it’s not just those four. We’ve got strong performers up and down the cast.

Krista and Matt, why did you decide to audition for Death of a Salesman?

Krista: Arthur Miller. He is a great playwright. I directed A View From The Bridge about 5 years ago at Dreamwell and I felt it was time for another dive into his poetic world.

Matt: For me, the funny thing is I wasn't planning on auditioning. I thought I was too old for Biff and too young for Willy. But David encouraged me, and I am so appreciative of that. I mean, it's Arthur Miller! It's Biff Loman, one of the iconic roles of the American theatre. I've felt very humbled playing this character.

Krista, what is your favorite part about playing Linda Loman?

Krista: I guess trying to find Linda Loman inside me. So many women have played this part, it's an iconic character, the long suffering wife, but my favorite part is exploring her inner self and trying to find her complexities.

What has been the most challenging part of the rehearsal process for you?

Krista: Rehearsing in a room with a pole in the middle of it. Ha ha. Rip just said last night we have to stop cracking up now. A weird thing happens when you are doing a tragedy like this. The actors tend to laugh at inappropriate times just to release the emotional tension. Luckily there are some comedic moments in the play so that the audience can release their tension, but I'm not in any of them.

Matt: I feel so lucky to be working with such incredible actors. Working with Rip and Krista and Brad, in particular, is fantastic. They are so committed and work so hard, it raises my game, you know? The most challenging part, I guess, is keeping up with them.

What is Linda's role in the Loman family?

Krista: Enabler. Caretaker. Cheerleader. Survivor.

If you could choose three words to describe Linda Loman, what would they be?

Krista: Patient. Stay-the-course. Lioness.

How would you describe Biff's role the Loman family?

Matt: Oh, Biff is the golden boy. He's the one Willy has poured all of his hopes and dreams into. Unfortunately, Willy also didn't really prepare him for the real world, and can't see that what Biff loves most in the world is completely different from what Willy cares about.

Matt, what is your favorite part about playing your character?

Matt: Biff is torn between what he thinks he's supposed to want out of life and want really makes him happy. He's also the one character who has a very clear journey of growth. The man he is at the end of the play is very different from the one we meet in the first scene. Playing the journey, finding the highs and lows and the moments when he starts to realize who he is, those are my favorite moments.

Arthur Miller has written several well-known plays, is there something that makes Death of a Salesman unique in comparison to his other works?

Krista: I think there is a consensus that it is his best play. Miller writes so well about families. Their dysfunction and love and vulnerabilities. In his writing he gives the actor so much. In the theatre there is a saying, "just say the words and don't bump into the furniture". That is certainly true with this play. All you need is there in the text.

Matt, have you acted in an Arthur Miller play before? What similarities and differences have you seen between the shows?

Matt: I have never been in an Arthur Miller play before. But it's an honor to be saying these words - it's such an incredible play and so universal. I mean, it is set in late 40s, but the story is completely relevant to today. So many of us have had fathers who want us to be something we cannot be. So many of us have been let down by the dream we thought we were supposed to want.

Why should audiences come to see this production?

Krista: It is so well constructed and the characters so sympathetic. Whether we know it or not we have all have bought into the American Dream just like Willy Loman. We have all suffered disappointments just like Willy Loman. We may or may not deal with them better than Willy, but regardless the play holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly.

Matt: It's a powerfully moving story. And Rip! And Krista! You know, people are often focused on exercising their bodies and their minds, but sometimes we forget that our emotions need exercise too. That's what I think the best theatre does - exercises the audience's emotions. This show will certainly be an emotional roller coaster for the audience.

Death of a Salesman runs May 1 and 2 at 7:30 pm at the First Street Community Center in Mount Vernon. Then it runs May 8, 9, 15, 16 at 8 pm at the Coralville Children's Museum. Tickets are available online here.

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