Father, Daughter, Plays -- Part One: Will Lyman

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 25, 2017

Longtime Boston actor Will Lyman has graced area stages of decades, as well as lending his talents to the small and large screens, sometimes in the capacity of voice actor (PBS' "Frontline" on television; "Iron Man" (2008) and "Little Children" (2006) in film) as well as visible performances (the TV drama "Brotherhood," the 2008 South Boston-set drama "What Doesn't Kill You").

Lyman's presence on the Boston theater scene has long, deep roots, and has garnered appreciation from audiences and critics alike. Lyman has won numerous IRNE, Elliot Norton, and Best of Boston Awards, and was recently nominated for the upcoming Elliot Norton Awards for Outstanding Actor for his work in Israeli Stage's production of "Oh God," a two-hander in which he starred with Maureen Keiller. Lyman's work has also been recognized by the New England Theater Conference and the Screen Actor's Guild. In 2013, he received the Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence, and also won the Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actor for his work on "Operation Epsilon" and "Long Day's Journey into Night" -- the same year his daughter, Georgia Lyman, won for Outstanding Solo Performance for her one-woman show "Chesapeake."

Lyman is about to star in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's omnibus production of three short Samuel Beckett plays. One of them, "Rough for Radio II," is actually a (somewhat bawdy) radio play that Beckett originally wrote in French before undertaking his own translation; another, "The Old Tune," is a translation and adaptation of a French play by Robert Pinget; the third, and possibly most famous, is the one-man play "Krapp's Last Tape," which Beckett wrote for "The Prisoner" star Patrick McGee. Lyman appears in all three, with Ken Balton and Ashley Risteen co-starring.

EDGE recently had a change to catch up with Will Lyman and hear more about the upcoming production.

EDGE: Congratulations to yourself and also to your daughter Georgia for your Elliot Norton Award nominations. I recall that you both were nominated a couple of years ago, and you both won!

Will Lyman: We both won in in 2013, I think... I'm pretty sure.

EDGE: I'm fascinated to see what she's doing at Stoneham, with the play "Gabriel."

Will Lyman: Yes, I'm anxious to see that one myself. She said last night - she was so tired; she said, "I didn't realize when I took this what a big role it was!" She thought it was a smaller role, but no: "This is gonna be a lot of work!"


EDGE: It seems there is some renewed (or ongoing) interest in Beckett in recent seasons - there have been a couple of productions of "Waiting for Godot," including the 2013 ArtsEmerson "World on Stage" presentation of the Gare St Lazare Ireland production, and earlier this season Gare St Lazare Ireland paid us another Beckett-related visit with "Here All Night." Is Beckett speaking to our Zeitgeist?

Will Lyman: Well, I think that he's one of those writers that certainly works for so many different times and places in our lives and in our experience that I think he tends to pop up quite a lot. I don't know if it's more now that we've been used to - I don't know about that, but he speaks very universally, so I'm not surprised to see him around.

EDGE: "Beckett in Brief" comprises three short plays. Is there some sort of narrative connective tissue between all three?

Will Lyman: There is no additional narrative tissue, if that's what you mean. There are no interstitials. We had talked about maybe changing scripts slightly in order to foster that kind of through-line, but then we said, "No, let's just trust the scripts as they are and trust our choice of scripts."

I think it will become clear that even though these are very different plays, and the characters' names are different, they are elements of the same life - elements of the same quest, We're hoping that the audience is able to string together the narrative that we're suggesting by putting these things together.

EDGE: Judging from the titles, there is an auditory commonality to these short plays. You get the feeling that there's going to be a focus on the spoken word.

Will Lyman: Very much so. Beckett does focus very strongly on the spoken word. Most of the time, as you work on it, you really have to find what's behind the spoken word. Sometimes it's a greater task than with other playwrights. His tends to be hidden sometimes, particularly with "Rough for Radio" which is, of course, a radio play, and as one might expect with Beckett working in a medium - kind of a one-sense medium - there is so much that is suggested by the words. It's a challenge for us to take what is suggested without actually acting it out or portraying it live in front of you, which takes the magic away from the suggestiveness of the words. The illusion is so much a part of this radio play that we hope we've solved that problem -- it remains to be seen whether we've succeeded or failed. That was very much on our minds, not to fill in too much of what the audience's imagination should fill in on their own.

EDGE: Is your participation in this production an outgrowth of work you've done with CSC before?

Will Lyman: Actually, it came about because the director, Jim Seymour, and I actually did a production of "Krapp's Last Tape" forty-some-odd years ago. We were both in our mid-twenties, and [had been performing] at the museum school at the Museum of Fine Arts. He had really wanted to revisit this now that we're at a more age-appropriate time in our lives. So we started talking about it and in order to make it a presentable evening at the theater we needed to have some other material to go with it. He, principally, started looking around and scouring the works [of Beckett] and found these other two pieces, "Rough for Radio" and "The Old Tune." We thought the three made a triad.

I said, "Let me take it to my old friend Steve Maler at CSC," because Steve and I had been talking about doing a winter season at our new facility at Babson. We had done a couple of shows out here -- this is the second one we've produced at Babson that wasn't imported. It fit into the season. We've just finished up "Our American Hamlet," which is a brand new play by Jake Broder. That was our season opener.

So Steve liked the idea. He loves Beckett; he loves "Krapp's Last Tape," so this'll be terrific. In addition, he's been looking for some directors to bring in and get acquainted with, so this was a chance to do both of those things. But it started with Jim and me just talking about doing some Beckett together.

EDGE: What a fascinating story! I see that in addition to yourself, Ken Baltin and Ashley Risteen are "featured" in this triad of short plays. Does that mean it's just the three of you, or does it mean you three are foremost in a cast of dozens?

Will Lyman: No, it's just the three of us. There are two two-handers, and then then "Krapp's Last Tape" is, of course a one-hander.

EDGE: We were just talking about the magic and illusion of an auditory-based production, and I couldn't help thinking how perfect that is for you, the narrator for "Frontline." That must be such a fascinating undertaking, almost theatrical in terms of the subject matter Frontline tends to cover and yet it's serious journalism. How do you approach that task of narrating those stories?

Will Lyman: It's not really necessary for me to being drama to the Frontlines. Most of the stories are pretty rich in human drama themselves. I just try to stay out of its way and pass on the information that's necessary and make it sound like a human being instead of a reader, you know, let the work do its thing. The whole of what we do as actors - we joke about it, but it's true - we're plagiarists. We take words off the printed page and pretend they're our own. The better we are at that, the more we can make you believe that those are our words, coming from us, the better actor we are. That's what we do.

EDGE: Of these three Beckett selections, do you find any of them especially resonate for you? Or maybe they all do?

Will Lyman: They all do, in different ways, It's one of the reasons we picked them, because they have eloquent things to say about who we are as human beings, our life span and the way we go about trying to find out what it is that's important in our lives. How do we get at creativity, and how does memory serves us, and what do we have to do in order to preserve what we know, or what we think we know at the time? How does what we know at the time morph and change as we get older? They're all great questions, and that's what we're talking about in these three shows.

EDGE: What have you got coming up after "Beckett in Brief?"

Will Lyman: I have the summer lined up, and I'm really excited about that because I don't work in the summertimes. They're too precious! I don't have anything lined up after May 8. It's great. I'm really looking forward to it.

"Beckett in Brief" runs April 27 - May 7 at Sorenson Center for the Arts at Babson College. For tickets and more information, please go to http://commshakes.org/performances/performance/172

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.