BWW Blog: DEATH OF A SALESMAN - Beginnings

BWW Blog: DEATH OF A SALESMAN - Beginnings

When I was approached about directing Death of a Salesman for Theatre Memphis, I hesitated for a moment. Several questions crossed my mind. Did I have any fresh insights to bring to the show? After all, it is one of the most produced scripts of the American canon. In fact, there had been an acclaimed production of the show in Memphis in the not too distant past. Was it too soon to do another version? The show was scheduled to open in late January, 2014, which meant rehearsing during the holidays. Would enough people turn out to audition knowing the time commitment? And would the right people audition, people who could play the demanding roles of Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy? Not to mention the supporting roles that may appear for only one or two scenes but are absolutely vital to the story?

Still, after that moment's hesitation, my answer was a resounding "Yes!". How could I turn it down? How often does one get the opportunity to direct what is universally acknowledged to be a classic of the American stage? Death of a Salesman is one of those plays that many, if not most, people have at least some knowledge of. It is often read and analyzed in high schools and colleges and is frequently revived in theatres across the world. This might well be my only chance to work on the show. I had to take it!

Having made my decision, the first order of business was to have auditions. Would I have enough people, and the right people, to cast the play? Over the two days of initial readings, I was relieved--and very happy--to see that I had a large turn out. It was a mixture of actors I knew and in some cases had worked with several times, and other faces that were new to me. Not only did I have enough "right" people, I had that problem that every director both wants and dreads: I had to make choices between two or more equally qualified actors. It became a matter, as it so often does, of trying to figure out the best balance for the ensemble. Biting the bullet, I made my choices and I couldn't be happier with the cast I have. They're hard working, dedicated and extremely talented.

Once the show was cast, it was time to figure out a rehearsal schedule. I typically like to rehearse about six weeks. I find this is just about the perfect length of time to get a show on its feet. The issue with Death of a Salesman was that it opened three weeks into January. Obviously, I couldn't rehearse for six straight weeks because that would encompass Christmas and New Year's. The cast would want time to be with their families and friends, to travel if necessary, and to enjoy the holidays. And I wanted to accommodate them.

My solution was to have a ten week rehearsal period, but with breaks built in. We actually had our first rehearsals the week before Thanksgiving. We then had almost a week off and returned the first week in December. We were able to get in three straight weeks of rehearsal, developing a strong foundation and a solid sense of what the play was going to be like.

At that point, we broke for nearly two weeks for Christmas and New Year's. I was a little concerned about how so much time off would affect the cast. Would they lose some of what we had worked so hard on? It was a needless worry. Rather than having lost anything, they actually came back with new insights and fresh nuances. It was a joy to watch the first rehearsal and see the progress they had made.

Now we have three weeks left to explore the finer details, add in the technical elements, get everything performance ready and get this production to opening night!

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Guest Blogger: Tony Isbell Tony Isbell is a long time actor and director in the Memphis area. His work has appeared in almost every venue in and around the city. Most recently, he portrayed the artist Mark Rothko in Circuit Playhouse’s production of Red. He has a long history with Circuit Playhouse. His very first appearance on a Memphis stage was the role of Bobby in American Buffalo at the old Circuit Playhouse on Poplar Avenue, many years ago. His most recent roles at Circuit, and two of his all time favorites, include Mr.Lockhart in the Seafarer and Laurence Olivier in Orson’s Shadow.

Other recent performances include Greg in Sylvia; Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off; Salieri in Amadeus; Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure and Dan in Buffalo Gal, all at Theatre Memphis.

As a director, some of Tony’s past productions include Boston Marriage, Fuddy Meers and Raised in Captivity, all at Theatre Memphis, as well as Prelude to a Kiss and The Birthday Party at Circuit Playhouse and Waiting for Godot at TheatreWorks. His two most recent directorial efforts were Glengarry Glen Ross and Six Degrees of Separation, both at Theatre Memphis. He is currently in the midst of rehearsing Death of a Salesman which opens at Theatre Memphis on January 24, 2014.

In film and television, Tony has had roles in the films The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue as well as a starring role in the cult classic I Was a Zombie for the FBI. On television he played a vicious killer in an episode of America’s Most Wanted set in Memphis. Most recently on TV, he has played the recurring role of Dale, the Zombie Hunter on Professor Ghoul’s Horror School on Memphis PBS station WKNO.

Tony’s work has received multiple nominations and wins in the annual Ostrander Theatre Awards in the categories of Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Ensemble, Best Director and Best Dramatic Production.

He received his theatre training from William Snyder at the University of Tennessee Martin. He and his wife Marie have been married for 36 years and are the proud parents of three adult children: Jessie, Katie and Michael.


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