Coming up this weekend, LAMB Arts Regional Theatre presents “Death of a Salesman,” a 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Arthur Miller. In this drama, Willy Loman has spent his life following the American way, but somehow the riches and respect he covets have eluded him. He lives in a fragile world of excuses and daydreams. He desperately attempts to make sense of himself and of the world around him that once promised so much.
Siouxland Public Media’s Ally Karsyn talked with the lead of the show, who was, in fact, a salesman himself.
WOOLEY: Am I a success? Why am I here? What is my self-worth? If I wasn’t here, would anybody notice? You don’t necessarily have to pick up those two sample cases and trudge down the road like Willy used to do, but you get up in the morning and get in your car and go to your computer screen – is what I am doing worthwhile?
KARSYN: That’s Russel Wooley, the managing artistic director of LAMB Arts Regional Theatre and Siouxland Public Media’s Artist of the Month. He is playing Arthur Miller’s modern tragic hero Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” opening this Friday with a Projects of Hope night in which ticket sales will benefit the Siouxland Mental Health Center.
WOOLEY: This has been on my list for quite a few years. Willy struggles with finding purpose. Willy struggles with being a success and knowing inside that he isn’t, not only with his marriage but with his salesmanship, with being a good father to his boys. And those are themes that I dare say lots of people are going to see – oh, my goodness. And so it is how he deals with it, how it affects everybody around him, which makes for a good story.
KARSYN: Putting yourself out there all the time, again and again, making an emotional appeal that all but cries, “Pick me! Pick me!” – doing that is rife with rejection. Wait, are we talking about sales or theatre?
WOOLEY: I was a salesman. I mean a good and true salesman for many years – almost 20 years at the Sioux City Journal and before that in insurance. I got out of school and with my training as an actor, I found it a really good fit because I can think on my feet. That was pretty logical. Selling is an incredibly emotional job. There would be days when I was selling insurance and I’d go out and make $1,000-$1,200 in a day. Then there would be three days in a row where you sold nothing.
You’re up. You’re down. One of the things that you have to do is you have to pound it into your head that they’re not saying no to you. They are saying no to your product. Or they’re saying no at this moment. So it is a very emotional game, and to count yourself as a real successful salesman, you have to be in it for the long run, and you have to make those decisions and tell yourself those things.
Now, in theatre again, I’m still a salesman. We sell the theatre. We literally sell tickets. We sell our classes. A sage long time ago told me, “Nothing moves unless it’s sold.” And I dare say that’s a very true statement.
KARSYN: I don’t know that I’ve ever asked you what was your first exposure to theatre? What got you into it?
WOOLEY: When I was in high school, I was a jock. Football. Basketball. I was terrible in track. But I was also in all the speech stuff – debate, speech, extemporaneous speech and then the plays. We had Mrs. Vera Fast, a wonderful, wonderful lady that directed the plays. She was an English teacher. But we really didn’t do anything substantial. I remember a couple of the titles. We did a little comedy called, “Man Overboard,” and another was called, “Love is Too Much Trouble.” We didn’t do good shows. But I did all of those, and I was on stage.
I went to the University of South Dakota. I was going to be a coach because I love sports. I was going to be a coach and teach biology. That’s what I was going to do. I got there, and I’m taking all those classes, and I saw a sign: auditions in the theatre department. Well, that’s something that I did too. So I went over and auditioned, and I was cast as Sancho in a children’s production of the story of Don Quixote. That was it. Changed my major. I’m going to be a theatre major! I’m going to be a theatre major!
My parents said, “What?!” And I just said, “This is what I have to do.”
KARSYN: What was it about it that changed your mind?
WOOLEY: For those of us who have the passion to tell the stories, we have to tell the stories.
KARSYN: Much like his careening career path, early on, Wooley never intended to put down roots in Sioux City but did so nonetheless.
WOOLEY: You know when you’re a young guy, you graduate from high school and you never think you’re going to stay where you grew up. Oh, my gosh! That would be just the most terrible thing that ever happened to you.
KARSYN: What changed, or what changed your mind?
WOOLEY: Well, when Diana and I got to together 38 years ago, we have this very young idea of let’s start our own theatre company. After 37 years, it’s still here. It’s been fun, exhilarating, frustrating, hard as hell. But we’ve built an organization that provides a lot of tremendous entertainment, tremendous education for students. It’s a really vibrant, creative place to be, and you just have to thank our audience members for coming because that’s the reason we’re here.
KARSYN: What has changed since you started? Have audience attendance habits shifted or changed?
WOOLEY: Oh, very, very much. We have seen a steady decline in audience attendance, numbers. Very, very steady. Not just Lamb Theatre. That is seen all over the country. Lots of things going on. Young people aren’t in the habit of going to the theatre. I teach as an adjunct both at Morningside College and Western Iowa Tech. Introduction to Theatre and Acting, and in my intro class, one of my first questions is – how many of you go to the theatre on a regular basis, meaning once or twice a season? And I am lucky if I get one or two hands up. Our struggle is getting young people to come. That’s why the school is important for us. That’s why, for “Death of a Salesman,” we have 120-130 AP English classes from the high schools coming in for a special daytime performance. We’ve got to acquaint them.
When I teach my classes, I pick a show that we are producing on our stage, I give them tickets to it. They will read the show. They will come and see the show, and then a lot of discussion and then they hand in a paper. Again, it’s terrific. I have people coming – they’ve never been to live theatre before. They come and they say, “Oh, well, that was really good.” Yes, it is. It’s very (good). It’s really something to see. They were right up there doing that stuff. How did you do all that? I mean, once we get them in, it is such a wonderful experience so different than movies, video games and all the rest of that. It’s tough to get them in. There’s so much competition with TV and this and that and everything else that’s going on. But that’s one of the things that has changed. Technology’s change tremendously too.
KARSYN: Technology has brought entertainment into our hands, essentially.
WOOLEY: You can watch a movie on your phone.
KARSYN: Just getting people to leave their homes when these on-demand entertainment options are available to them whenever they want. It’s on-demand.
WOOLEY: Yeah, 24/7.
KARSYN: Wooley isn’t worried about the death of the theatre. He remains hopeful that the staying power of storytelling will sustain the performing arts for many years to come.
“Death of a Salesman” is showing at Lamb Arts Regional Theatre March 10 through 26. For more information, visit lambtheatre.com.
The music you’ve heard throughout this interview was composed by Diana Wooley for the production of “Death of a Salesman.”