Finding Willy Loman

WSRep Ensemble member Frank Gaughan talks about approaching the role of a lifetime.

FINDING WILLY LOMAN

Frank Gaughan as Willy Loman.

A few years ago, Williams Street Rep’s Artistic Director, Richard Kuranda, approached me about my interest in doing Death of a Salesman. Here is a brief script on that meeting:

 

RICHARD

I have a project in mind I’d like for you to be a part of “Death of a Salesman”.

 

FRANK

(aside)  “Death of a Salesman”? I love Arthur Miller. But I’m too old to play Biff anymore. (to Richard)  Are you asking me to direct it?

 

RICHARD

What?!?!   NO!!   I’m directing. I want you to play Willy Loman.

 

FRANK

(aside)   Huh??   Willy Loman?? I’m not old enough to play Willy Loman…. wait a minute… (ponders for an interminable amount of time – perhaps .04 seconds)

Yeah. Sure!!

Shannon Mayhall as Linda and Frank Gaughan as Willy Loman.

Fortunately, Goodman Theatre released their hold on the play and Richard swooped in to put it on the schedule for a spring performance in 2016. I re-read the script looking for insights into the character and the play at large. I forgot just how beautiful and complex the opus was. Arthur Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for “Salesman”, and many call it the finest example of 20th-century drama, or the American King Lear.

As I delved further into the work, doubt crept in. How the hell was I going to recreate Willy Loman? So many fine actors had already performed the role admirably. Lee J. Cobb, Fredrick March, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and, most recently, Philip Seymour Hoffman. What could I bring to the table? Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe I should back out.

Again I looked to the script, and I came to the last kitchen scene where Biff asks or accuses Willy, “You don’t want them calling you yellow, do you?”  Well, that did it. I’d find this damn character.

I had studied many different acting styles and methods such as Boleslavsky, Stanislavsky, technical, method and classical. They all had grounded theories that I boiled down to a couple of easy to remember objectives I use for every role:

 

  1. How does the character talk?
  2. How does the character walk?

 

The Talk:

It’s important to know the character’s voice. Is it fast, slow, accented, crisp, etc? For Willy I felt his voice would have a Brooklyn accent with a touch of New England sneaking in since this was his sales territory. Willy appeared in the past as well as the present so I had to make the voice different for each portion of his life. His present voice would be older, tired, and gruff, while his younger would be a little quicker, a little higher and less tired. Willy yells in various scenes, but it is not the volume but the vocal intensity that is necessary to evoke an emotional response in the cast and audience.

 

The Walk:

left to right: James Knight, Chris Davis, Frank Gaughan, Sean Quinn, & Shannon Mayhall.

Willie spent much time on his feet and used arch supports as an older man. So I gave him a limp that is more noticeable as he ages, tires and gets beaten down. As a salesman, he is always “on stage” in front of the buyers. Therefore, he would use dramatic gestures or mannerisms. When he is excited, angry or demanding attention Willie loudly slaps his hand down on a table. Several times he throws out his arms like a victor while imagining his great success.

Armed with these traits, memorization was the next hurdle. THAT was a BIG step. At times, I felt Willy never shut up. I didn’t think I would ever be able to memorize such an immense amount of dialogue. But Richard kept encouraging, assuring me that the lines would come. Although I doubted him at the time, he was right.  

There is a great joy in working with other cast members, and this cast was tremendous. As the other actors more fully developed their roles, I found that playing opposite them helped me to have a deeper understanding of my character. As we played off each other in this way, our character interpretations became more profound and nuanced.

Frank Gaughan as Willy and James Knight as Biff.

I interacted on a more intense level with Shannon Mayhall (Linda) and James Knight (Biff) because there was so much naked emotion in our complicated relationships. But this was truly an ensemble effort, in which every role, large or small, was critical to the success of the show. We formed a very tight, creative and supportive team. We worked for the good of the play, not our egos. And we had a lot of fun doing it.
“Death of a Salesman” opened April 22, 2015 at Raue Center For The Arts as a part of WSRep’s 2015-2016 Season.

 

 

Cast:
Frank Gaughan⁺…….Willy Loman
Shannon Mayhall…….Linda Loman
James Knight*⁺………………..Biff Loman
Sean Quinn………….Happy Loman
Ryan J. Duncan……………..Bernard
Sarah Weinstein⁺…………….the Woman
Mark R. Mahallak*⁺…………..Charley
Chris Davis⁺………………………..Uncle Ben
Joel Bennett…………………….Howard Wagner
Ivan Ewert………………………Stanley
Kate Wilford⁺………………………Jenny/Letta
Amanda Flahive⁺…………………………Miss Forsythe
Voice Over Talent:
Howard’s Son & Daughter: Sophia Tallulah Kuranda
Switch Board Operator:  Dawn Gerth
Howard’s Wife: Caitlin I. Quinn

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

Production & Design:

Founding Artistic Director: Richard Kuranda⁺

Director of Production: Mike Vandercook⁺

Asst. Director: Pat Henderson

Production Stage Manager: Caitlin I. Quinn⁺

Technical Director: Adam Liston

Company Manager: Kate Wilford⁺

Scenic Designer: William Schmiel

Costume Designer: Brenda Winstead

Lighting Designer: Maya Michele Fein

Sound Designer: Megan B. Henninger

Scenic Artist: Nick Rastenis

Props Master/Production Asst.: Matt Fraser

Props Master/Production Asst.: Victoria Ross

Lighting Supervisor: Carolyn Voss

Sound Supervisor: Lindsay Wolf

⁺WSRep Ensemble Member

 

 

 

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