Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams. Eugene O’Neill. David Mamet. Edward Albee. Giants of the modern stage. You had better pull on your grown-up bloomers if you’re going to mount any of these icons’ plays, right? Pretty intimidating. Only for “real” pros, surely not for youth actors. Consider Miller’s Death of A Salesman, for instance. In its Broadway debut, in 1949, it won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and the NYC Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, in addition to many other major awards. In 1999 and again in 2012, it won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play. Its cast lists swell with the unquestioned Olympians of every stage generation since the late 1940’s. So what exactly is opening on November 13 at Jeff Swearingen’s FunHouse Theatre and Film? A youth version? Another fabulous, funny parody, like this summer’s A School Bus Named Desire? Nope. It’s the full play, all two and a half hours of it, plus intermission. When regional top director Susan Sargeant sent Swearingen and Founding Partner Bren Rapp her resume to apply to direct a show for FunHouse, they seized upon the opportunity to mount a monumental classic, produced as an age-blind show. Death of A Salesman it is. Jeff Swearingen will play Willy. 15-year-old Kennedy Waterman, currently on stage in Uptown Players’ Harbor, will play his wife Linda. The balance of the cast ranges in age between 14 and 18. This is for real.
FunHouse Theatre Producing Partner Bren Rapp talks about the risk and challenge of mounting an age-blind production at this level: “This is one of the biggest risks we have taken to date and also a very public test of our program. Here is what gets said and written about our youth actors all the time – “As good as the pros”, “pros could learn from them”, “better than the pros”. So let’s test it. Having an audience accept, get over and ultimately forget the age differences of the actors on stage (not to mention the difference in years of stage experience) will be a true test of what we teach.”
To helm this unusual challenge, FunHouse Theatre brought in one of the region’s top professional directors, Susan Sargeant. Criticalrant’s Alexandra Bonifield interviewed Sargeant about the directing challenges presented.
How did you get drawn into this project? I sent my resume to them last year. I admired their productions and work ethic and wanted to get involved. We met early in 2015, to discuss the right major play for me to direct. When Death of A Salesman came up, I invited Jeff to play Willy, to add gravitas to the production. He lit up like a firecracker. Miller always had a smaller actor in mind to play Willy Loman, and I believe anyone who can do comedy as well as Jeff has the chops to do drama, too.
What is your personal history with Death of A Salesman? I have a long history with Arthur Miller. I played Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. In 2006 I played Linda Loman in Death of A Salesman for Classical Acting Company, directed by Rene Moreno. I know the play inside and out. The play’s original title was Inside His Head. Miller wrote it in college as a one-act, then returned to it later as a mature playwright, when he expanded it.
How do the youth actors, junior high into high school, relate to this show? When we sat down to the first table read, the kids just blazed through it. They are like open books, utterly fearless. The concept of the American Dream is at the core of the play. These young actors see it around them all the time in their daily lives and understand it. Yes, I have to do some translation of the era for them, like what simonizing is, which I would do with actors of almost any age. My young actors here just accept the information, internalize and run with it. They grasp myth and metaphor, thanks to the work they have done already with Jeff and Bren, in developing the parodies and playing Shakespeare. They are so supple and trust to take risks.
What is the FunHouse Theatre casting process? They cast internally, no open call. It all depends on who is available within the troupe and who fits particular roles, like a repertory company. I have an A-Team cast. They look at me, wide-eyed, prepared: “You’re the leader; we’re ready to go.”
Do you think actors really need “adult chops” to play this work well with full understanding? Life experience will limit some understanding, obviously, but will they grasp the play’s meaning to play it well? Absolutely. They resonate with the art, the structure, the arcs of the play, because it all feels recognizable in such a well-written piece, given their FunHouse experience. The play deals with illumination. It’s soul-baring. The youth actors go right down that path without hesitation. They are accustomed to playing a full mythic level of emotion, thanks to the Shakespeare works they have performed. They don’t need to be bogged down with a lot of intellectual information to take direction. “Breathe, get out of your heads and into your bodies.” They are instinctual, very focused, energized. Jeff has given them a viable arts work ethic, both nurturing and professional. He is setting them up for success in life, whatever their career and life paths may become.
Will Death of A Salesman play well for today’s audiences? It’s a timeless work, with its history and family issues playing in combination with its mythic parts. Miller’s unique “past and present” concept circulates simultaneously, informing the past and the present in the play, taking it into a universal realm. We’re mounting the full production. This isn’t a “youth” version. It will be a full two and half hour performance with intermission. Expect the full experience.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this production? I hope they to get to enjoy the full artistry and depth of this wonderful work of art and acquire a fuller appreciation of what youth actors can be capable of, beyond the traditional and expected. It’s a rare opportunity for the actors at Fun House Theatre and Film and a privilege for the audience to witness it.
Bren Rapp offers high praise for Director Susan Sargeant: “We like to work with what the industry calls actor’s directors. With Susan having taken a critically acclaimed turn as Linda Loman herself, and being so well versed in the canon of Modern American Classics, the amount of knowledge both from a performance aspect and from a scholastic angle was something Jeff and I felt the kids would benefit from tremendously. As well, we felt her vast experience directing and certainty/maturity in her process was absolutely crucial to the “age-blind” concept of this production. We could think of no one better for the job.”
Fun House Theatre and Film presents Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman November 13 through 21 at Plano Children’s Theatre, directed by Susan Sargeant.
This is for real.
Tickets and info: http://www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com
Photos by Chuck Marcelo