2014 Best Leading Actor in a Play Nominee: Ken Baltin as Willy Loman in The Lyric Stage Company of Boston's "Death of a Salesman"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Ken Baltin tackled one of the most iconic roles in American theatre with empathy, reserve, and heart. His Willy Loman in The Lyric Stage Company of Boston's Death of a Salesman was the glue that held this well-crafted production together. His intelligence in approaching a role is matched only by his unwavering commitment to the play's emotions. In his Interview, Ken discusses his work preparing to play Willy Loman, his bucket list of roles, and even the strangest thing that happened to him onstage (and he lived to tell about it!). 

Photo by Kippy Goldfarb

Photo by Kippy Goldfarb

Ken, can you introduce yourself to our readers?  Who are you?  What brought you to Boston?  What brought you to the stage?

What brought me to the stage?  Probably a need to tell the truth, to confess combined with an innate talent for acting, and a hidden need for recognition.  I was  a journalism major at Rutgers, but during my junior year I had a lead role in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.  The play required the “characters” to bare their souls.  I so much identified with their need to complete themselves, and the pangs of the attempt to do so was something that made me feel very alive and substantial.  I knew then that acting was what I wanted to do.

After spending about 6 years in New York City training and pursuing a career in the theatre, I came to Boston 1975 to study in the Brandeis MFA theatre program with a concentration in directing.  I’d been in NYC studying with Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof for a few years, working when I got roles, but mostly being told by casting directors and agents that I wouldn’t work regularly until I was older.  So going to grad school and teaching for a few years made sense at the time.  It was a great decision.  I’ve spent my life (since I was 30) combining acting with teaching and directing--a great combination.

Willy Loman is one of the quintessential male roles for the American stage.  Were you daunted to play such a role?  Did you have any preconceived notions about who he was and his story?  What did you learn through playing him?

Of course I was daunted by the role, but actually asked Spiro to give me a chance.  We’d done Glengarry Glen Ross by Mamet back in 2002, and he’d said maybe we’d do “that other salesman play” some day. So I reminded him about two years before we actually staged it.  I’ve had the role in my sights since I was in my 20’s—the journey of that character was absolutely compelling to me.  Whenever I’d seen productions of it I cried through them.  Maybe some of that is because of having witnessed my father’s struggles for so many years (many men have a similar reaction to this play), and had to adjust to his moods and frustrations. 

Other than that, if I had any preconceived notions about Willy, I made every attempt to drop them when I began working on the script about six months before rehearsals began.  My study of the play and research, including reading Arthur Miller’s autobiography and his intentions in writing Salesman (he referred to it as “the salesman play”) and some of the scholarship about the play, was very inspiring.  That in combination with my own powerful and personal response to the play provided a strong basis for interpretation.  What I learned would take many more pages, but keys to Willy are that he is really an orphan looking for recognition and love, but having no way to receive and hold on to the love he does get.  All his lies and delusions are predicated on a deep deep inferiority complex and lack of self worth.  His entire modus operandi is to achieve final victory through his sons, especially Biff.  The fictions he feeds them from birth, the demands he makes of them, his terribly mistaken perception of success and the American dream drives the whole family down a blind alley into ruin.  And yet it is all done for love.

Something else I learned about Willy that, I think, is a common misconception about how successful he had been as a salesman.  There is not one iota of evidence in the play that Willy was a successful salesman at any point in his life (other than perhaps one year just prior to the Great Depression, but even that you have to take with a grain of salt).  Of course if you listened to him talk, you’d think he was at the top of his profession.  But the play contradicts that self-perception at every juncture.  Willy really is and had always been a Biff describes him at the end of the play, just a hard working drummer who ends up in the ashcan of life.

What do you think made The Lyric production award-worthy?  Had you seen other productions of the play before?

The award-worthiness of the production is up to others.  I just know I did my best with the role and enjoyed every second of the experience from beginning to end, and enjoyed working with Spiro Veloudos and the stage relationships with the other actors.  I’d seen at least two other productions of the play, and a few films versions.  None of them, I don’t think, influenced my playing of Willy.  I hadn’t seen any of them for many years and certainly didn’t seek to see any of them to help me with the role.  That would have destroyed any ability to follow impulses or discover something new.

Talk to us about your relationship with Paula Plum’s Linda.  What about with your sons, Happy and Biff?  How did those affect your portrayal of Willy?

A strong influence on my performance of Willy was reading about the Miller’s model for Willy:  his uncle Manny Newman.  The description of Manny’s relationship to his wife and sons gave me an idea of Willy as, to a great extent, an overgrown child—the orphan, if you will, who doesn’t really emotionally mature much beyond about 4 years old.  Willy’s narcissism is really over the top, his need for tending by Linda, and his demands of his sons, are all incredibly draining on the family and everyone else who Willy comes in contact with.  I joked during rehearsals that you wouldn’t want to be a neighbor of Willy’s.  The house was just in too much turmoil—fully of boasting and full of animosity.  And I think Willy, who has absolutely no sense of self-irony, doesn’t see this.  As such he can be infantile with Linda, a bully to his neighbor Charlie, and terribly confusing to his sons, trying to be both their captain and their pal.

Do you have any other roles on your bucket list?  Any roles that you already crossed off your bucket list?  Any roles that you would like to play again?

Willy was at the top of my wish list.  Other roles/playwrights I’d like to do:

Ibsen in general and Solness from Master Builder in particular; Chekhov, in particular the role of Vanya; Odets, Strindberg, Paddy Chayefsky, Tennessee Williams, more Arthur Miller.  Estragon in Waiting For Godot, Lear or Gloucester from King Lear, Shylock.

Roles I’d do again: I’d like another shot at Shelley Levene, Donny from American Buffalo, Herb from I Ought To Be In Pictures by Neil Simon, Mort Golman from Permanent Whole Life by Zayd Dohrn (because it was such irreverent fun).

Also, I’ve neglected directing for acting throughout the last few decades, directing only two productions, both at The Boston Conservatory.  I still love doing it and would like to do a lot more of it in the coming years.

Why do you think Death of a Salesman still resonates with American audiences?  Is it your favorite Miller play, or do you prefer another?

As I mentioned above, it is about our fathers and grandfathers and the myths surrounding success in America.  It is about all the delusions and lies we harbor and want to believe despite the evidence that they are indeed lies.  Today we see such a prevalence of thought that we can create our own sense of the world, filter out what we don’t like or aren’t comfortable with, and somehow by committing to our illusions, we can make it work.  There are so many pitfalls in this kind of ideological projection on the world.   I think audiences of this play years ago were more open to Miller’s message.  Because of the blinders so many of us live with today, Miller’s message may be lost on a lot of us.  In other words, there may be many more Willy Lomans out there who walk around with so little a sense of self-irony.  As Puck says, “What fools these mortals be!”

What has been one of your biggest challenges on the stage?  In your life?

On stage is trusting all my impulses and leaping before looking.  In life, just liking myself enough to, well, trust my impulses and leap before looking.  There’s something to be said for playing it safe, but never on stage.  In life, we must explore the realm beyond our comfort zone in order to find out what we are made of, and what is really possible for us.

What is your favorite thing to do in Boston?

Eat raw clams, great lobster, act, go to museums, to good plays, teach my kids at The Boston Conservatory, hang out in interesting neighborhoods.

If you could meet anyone, alive or dead, famous or not, for a meal, who would you meet and where would you go?  What would you talk about?

My first acting teacher was Herbert Berghof, a wonderful actor and mentor.  He died about 20 years ago. I’d love to talk to him now that I’ve progressed as far as I have as an actor.  I’d love to talk about acting.  Also to Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov.  Abraham Lincoln for his depth of wisdom, courage.

What is the strangest thing that you have ever done onstage?

Years ago when I was in New York City, I had plenty of “strange” things happen:  an actress who felt I’d jilted her somehow tried injuring me during a performance; I was in a production of play in which 5 out of the 6 cast members were cannibalized before the final blackout; I was in a production of Hadrian the Seventh in which 4 different major accidents occurred in one performance.  I don’t know how anyone survived, actors or audience.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

At the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse this summer, a production of a new play by Arnie Reisman called Not Constantinople.  Hopefully in the fall, a production of Blood on the Snow by Patrick Gabridge at the Old State House.   That’s what’s known.  Who knows what else may be in the offing.  Hopefully, much.