BWW Interview: Kayla Asbell Talks DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Why It's Still Timely
A re-imagined production of the iconic Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman is coming to BAM July 14-23! Created by the company Theater Mitu, this production uses puppeteered objects to represent the lifelessness of the characters surrounding the central family in the play.
Held hostage by their past, a family grapples with failure, worth and a world closing in around them. In this hyper-theatrical production, human beings become objects, music carries the memory of days long gone, and a life is reduced to a mortgage. Theater Mitu's staging of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman explores a landscape of unrealized hopes and asks what happens when you are written out of the American Dream.
Kayla Asbell, who plays Linda in this production, recently chatted with BroadwayWorld about her experiences with the show and with Theater Mitu in general, and why she thinks this piece is still timely today. Check out the full interview below!
So let's talk about Death of a Salesman, how's that going?
So this particular show has had a sort of long trajectory. The first time that it was performed was 10 years ago, but this is my first time joining the ride for it. So basically before 10 years ago when it came up, our artistic director read it he had this idea that he didn't like Arthur Miller and a lot of people in the company didn't and they didn't want to do classical plays and then they read it and it just moved them so much and basically what happened was that the people who stuck out to him was the family and all the other characters seemed like these sort of lifeless parts of society that's trying to draw the family in and trying to disrupt what was happening and mold these characters into people that society wanted them to became and so the trajectory of the production is that those other characters became puppeteered objects became 1950s household objects. Basically you just see this family struggling against these societal pressures and these characters have their own objects as well and you see the capability and the possibility for them to descend into becoming these lifeless objects who fall into what's expected of them and what society pressures them to be. You see some of these characters wanting to be those people who are success in the eyes of society and who are success in the eyes of their peers and their family and then you see characters who are trying to break free and live life as individuals. So I think that for me this is a pretty raw production and it makes you question the relationships in your life. I know for me it forces me to look at the relationships I have with my parents and my peers and what I see as successful, what I consider where I am in my life and where I want to be, what I thought I would be. It sort of forces you to analyze what you think of this moment in time's American dream and how you fit into that and if it's something that you want or if it's even something that is achievable. It brings up a lot of big questions.
I saw a couple of photos of actors in morph suits acting objects and it was fascinating, I've never seen anything like that before.
I've never seen anything like it especially with such a classical momentous work. When I actually saw the show 10 years ago, I was just left speechless. It was the thing that made me fall in love with the company Theatre MITU and I was like "whatever they're doing, I have to be a part of that" because it was just, I already loved the play so much but it just spoke to me in such a visceral stunning way so I'm thrilled to be a part of it. But yeah the puppeteered objects makes you see this family in such a way that, I don't want to give away too much, but you see Willy, this character who's trying so hard to hold everything together interacting with these objects like his boss and the people he's supposed to be looking up to and trying to impress and you see these objects and its just heartbreaking to see someone be so desperately pleading with this inanimate object that's not giving him anything back and that's the way that we see the world of this play is basically this family coming up against this lifeless society that tells you everything you need to be and seeing them try to fit is just heartbreaking.
That's such an interesting way of looking at the world and people you interact with, it really puts it into perspective.
Yeah I mean we all have version of that, like we've all had that boss where you can be having this trauma in your life but business is business and they go about the company line and it's just a very cut and dry world and the idea of the American dream is so pivotal to this play and our production as well. You see this family that is just trapped and incapacitated by it because they've been striving for it for so long. They've been trapped by their past and held hostage by their hopes and dreams they had for the future and realizing that that future doesn't exist being debilitated by it and not knowing how to go forward and you see this family struggle for what it means to be a family unit and to try to be individual within this framework.
This version of this production is so unique, does it make it easier to step into this character and make it your own? Since Death of a Salesman is this huge, iconic work it's sometimes difficult to make these characters your own in something everyone already knows.
I think in this production also we have younger actors, there's the flashbacks in the play, and myself and the actor playing Willy are basically the age that they would be in the flashbacks and its been an experience for me of looking into the mirror and seeing the decisions you make in the moment in time you're at and having to age with them and put upon all of these hopes and dreams that we have now and sort of looking into the future and seeing what might become and what decisions you make now and how they might affect you in the future so I think a character like Linda is a complete dream role and its overwhelming and it might be terrifying. But I think this production, since it comes at it from such a different vein, you don't have to put all the weight of the history on a younger actor so they're looking forward and seeing how things can sort of degrade and fall apart. Its helped me access it in a totally different way that I think has made it, I wouldn't say easier, but it's definitely made it so I don't feel pressure to be like any of the Lindas I've seen before.
So you've been performing with this theatre company, Theatre MITU since 2013. What is it about this company that keeps bringing you back to them?
I think one of the things is that we're a permanent ensemble so we perform together, we create work together, we research together, we design, we make music, do all these things together. And we've created so many memories together and then stepping into a piece like this where you need to be a family and we already have all of our own history together. Also being able to take a piece like Arthur Miller and be able to take an experimental...like for example, we were touring with a piece called Juarez: A Documentary Mythology, and we've been touring it internationally for a couple of years actually. That was a piece that was devised purely on interest within the company and it was based on research trips and hours of interviews that the company did together based on a common interest. So after this research we create work together, and then being able to take that ensemble mentality and company mentality and tackle Arthur Miller with it brings so many challenges and so many interesting fresh things that for me, I wasn't able to find in other theatre settings. I had taken a little break from theatre and I was focusing on music because I wanted something that was more of an ensemble setting where we were making things together in the same moment and feeding off each other. For the first time in a long time within a theatre context I was able to find it with Theatre MITU because they're all so committed to experimenting with theatre as a form. So music plays a part in it, movement, technology, there's so many different aspects that you can explore and they're so not interested in making a definition of what theatre is and I just found that thrilling. Even in this Death of a Salesman, there's the puppeteered objects, there's music that takes us into these memories and dreamscapes. So I think it's really the willingness to experiment with theatre as a form that got me so hungry to work with them. It's been totally thrilling.
I feel free within the company to experiment as an artist and push boundaries and you can take a departure point as iconic as Shakespeare or Arthur Miller and really not feel limited by the history of those pieces like Hamlet or Death of a Salesman, and you can really delve into the heart of a piece. Having experienced Death of a Salesman before in different carnations, it's such a beautiful work but seeing it in this way, the aesthetic of it and the music and the puppeteered objects, and everything just took such a departure from everything I expected it to be. That departure let it get to the real heart of this family and what they're going through. It's always a timely piece but for sure I think at this point in time Death of a Salesman in general, looking at the state of the American family or the American dream, in this era, it goes without saying, but it's putting a lot of pressure of families to figure out what it is to be an American, what it is to be a patriot, a good husband, wife, father, mother, son. Those aspects are already there but we're in a very polarizing moment of how people define the American family.
You see in Death of a Salesman, you're in a very archetypal moment of either gender politics, like the way that Linda's American dream manifests is by giving up all of her desires and putting all of that hope and all of that love and hope for the future into her sons and her husband. We're in a very complicated moment at this point in American history and I'm curious to see how people talk about it in 50 years the way we talk about when Death of a Salesman was written, I guess more than 50 years. But I think it's a really pivotal moment to have these conversations.
You had mentioned music earlier, and I read online that you're in a band, do you want to talk a bit about that?
I'm in a band called The Othermen, and we actually played in the production of Hamlet/Ur Hamlet that Theatre MITU did in Abu Dhabi. I always was like two brains. I had my music family, I had my theatre family, and the two had never met before. It's been that way since I was a teenager so it was a mind-blowing experience. I was like "oh these can be in conversation with one another? I can make my art and have it not be like I'm having an affair on one with the other." We're based out of Brooklyn and we tour all over and we have some albums out, check them out!
Do you have a preference of music or theatre, or do you just do them both and they rarely intersect?
Now that the bridge has been gapped I feel very grateful to be a member of Theatre MITU, because it's a group of artists who all have their own interests and all have their own abilities. The amount of ridiculous skillsets that we have in the group that aren't theatre related is astounding and most of us in any other context would be told to leave that at home or not to bring that in the room. Whereas now when we create work together in the company, it's like bring all of that stuff into the room and we'll figure out how it's in conversation with one another and how it fits. It's really changed the way that I make art and I think that I'm able to make art because I did believe that my two passions did have to be totally separate up until that point.
Kayla Asbell is an actor, writer and musician. Kayla focuses primarily on creating and performing in new, original works, whether they be theatre, film or music ventures. She began performing with Theater MITU in 2013 on JUÁREZ: A Documentary Mythology at the NACL Theater in Highland Lake, NY and has since performed with the show in Abu Dhabi, at the Rattlestick Theater in NYC and at Z Space in San Francisco. She was also involved as an actor in the creation of Hamlet/ UR Hamlet and performed with her '60s garage-punk band, The Othermen, as part of the piece in Abu Dhabi. Kayla has been playing organ and singing back-up with The Othermen since 2012. They play extensively in New York and across the country and are in the process of writing their third record. Kayla has also been seen in productions such as The Lily's Revenge and Paris Syndrome (HERE Arts Center), All The Rats and Rags (Joe's Pub; 3-Legged-Dog Art & Technology Center) and Twelfth Night (Roundtable Ensemble). She has also been performing in short films and as a voiceover artist. She holds a BFA in Drama with a double major in journalism from NYU Tisch School of the Arts/ Playwrights Horizons Theater School.
For more information or to purchase tickets to Death of a Salesman, click here.