Exploring 'Death of a Salesman'

Posted by Julia Leef

The unique production "An Exploration of Death of a Salesman" ran from Oct. 21 until Oct. 31 in the Skidmore College Blackbox Theater.

Rather than simply revive the play, guest director Phil Soltanoff had the student actors precisely mime and lip sync the movements and lines of the original actors from the 1966 Lee J. Cobb TV production of the show.

According to the director's notes in the playbill, Soltanoff was fascinated by the video because "this recording represents something very rare — a glimpse at the original stage cast performing the play ‘live.' It allows us to witness actors from a golden age of American acting doing their thing in precise detail."

Soltanoff aimed to help student actors find a connection with their characters through imitation, while learning how famous actors like Lee J. Cobb went about their art. "Perhaps imitation, much like using baroque instruments to perform J.S. Bach, can put us in touch with some sort of original ‘sound' of the piece. And maybe the student actors can learn something about The Method through a video apprenticeship with the masters," Soltanoff said.

During the performance, television screens showed the original "Death of a Salesman" from 1966 while the actors mimicked the movements, emotions and even facial expressions. The actors' lip synching was nearly perfect. Watching them and their television counterparts, one could only wonder at the long rehearsal hours it must have taken to perfect this challenging task of imitation.

The set underwent constant changes throughout the course of the performance. However, it was not simply a matter of changing the setting to adjust to a new scene. Each shift in direction, each rotation of the set, which consisted of a rectangular platform, was deliberately made to mirror the movements of the camera on the televisions.

Eventually, the actors had a chance to let their own voices be heard. In the final scene the televisions were put away and the audience heard the students' voices for the first time, witnessing their own personal touches on the characters.

Colleen Hughes '11, the assistant director for "An Exploration of Death of a Salesman," said that she enjoyed working with Stoltanoff, learning from him about the importance of details and how to use the space provided on stage. "Nothing on stage is insignificant. For instance, a simple plank of wood can be just as important as the actors' gestures," Hughes said.

Hughes plans to use the experience she has gained through this performance in her future endeavors with theater. "I think that I will take forward with me Phil's attention to detail, his vision of sculpting space rather than just staging a play and the possibility of merging different media and art forms," Hughes said.

The student actors spoke highly of their experience in this play. For some, like Varak Boronian '14, "An Exploration of ‘Death of a Salesman'" was their debut at Skidmore. Boronian spoke about how the cast came together and worked hard to make the show a reality. He also described the knowledge he gained by working with the original video.

"We all got the chance to study these experienced master actors and the choices they made for these characters. As a young actor, this is especially rewarding because it gave me a chance to compare what Gene Wilder, who played my character, Bernard, in the video, chose to do and what I would have done instinctually," Boronian said. He said he looks forward to his future theater experiences.

"Death of a Salesman" has lived on through its many revivals by dedicated actors and actresses. The Skidmore take on this show creates a mixture of the old and the new on stage for the entertainment of the audience. Viewers can commend the connections made between the students and the masters, and admire the performance for its unique approach to acting.

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