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A Few Words With Soon-To-Be-King Will Lyman

Will Lyman, who will star as King Lear in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production, accepting the Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence in 2013. (Paul Lyden)
Will Lyman, who will star as King Lear in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production, accepting the Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence in 2013. (Paul Lyden)
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Unless you’re fond of scrutinizing the latter parts of movie and television credits, Will Lyman’s name may not mean anything to you. Nor will his headshot, with all its clean-cut, leading-man handsomeness. Instead, it will be hearing his voice that triggers the sense of recognition. Lyman, 67, is a voice-over artist, and a prolific one at that. Since 1984 he has been the narrator of "Frontline" on PBS, and the voice of innumerable TV and radio ads.

Lyman, who is based in Boston, is also an actor of both stage and screen. Starting next week, you will be able to see and hear him as King Lear in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production, opening July 22. Taking on a role so entrenched in theatrical history and lore has its challenges, according to Lyman.

“For me, the challenge has been taking this character out of iconography and into a more real place,” he said. “We have to remember he [King Lear] is only human. So I’m constantly asking myself questions. ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘What am I trying to say?’”

Leading man Will Lyman as King Lear (Courtesy)
Leading man Will Lyman as King Lear (Courtesy)

But this is not the first time Lyman has had to take on roles with built-in expectations. Here in Boston, Lyman commands a presence on the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company stage. The “leading man” epithet is no exaggeration given the roles he’s taken for CSC over the years: Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” Prospero in “The Tempest” and Claudius in “Hamlet.” Beyond CSC, Lyman has acted for New Repertory Theatre, Boston Playwrights' Theatre and the Huntington. His work has earned him multiple Elliot Norton and Independent Reviewers of New England awards.

Referring to the audience preconceptions that come with such coveted roles, Lyman said, “There’s only pressure if I think of it. And, really, I’m not interested in forging any comparisons to actors of the past.”

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This is not to say Lyman is interested in radicalizing the part of Lear in any way.

“I’m not setting out to reinvent the wheel, or, God forbid, ‘put my stamp’ on the role,” he said. “The idea is not to do something nobody has ever done before. I’ve found that the more you follow the [Shakespeare's] words, the more work is done for you.”

Certainly for an actor like Lyman, whose voice could lend the phonebook gravitas, relying on the text seems like a strong bet. After a few moments speaking with him, it becomes abundantly clear why Howard Rosenberg, the longtime television critic for the L.A. Times, wrote this in 2001:
“...no one quite ranks with Lyman as a narrator. As an authoritative off-camera voice, the man's a rocket, an audio auteur. ... He and his tubes are that good, his sense of pitch and instinct for the moment flawless.”
Lyman, who is originally from Vermont, landed in Boston to study acting at Boston University. This was at the time when the city was a national epicenter of radio and TV production. He says he "plotted" to one day become a leading narrator, taking on small radio bits here and there. Then, in 1980, after leaving the city for an acting gig in Colorado, he returned to Boston with job offers pouring in.

“It was like a switch going off,” Lyman recalled. “All of a sudden, my voice was wanted.”

Lyman has since narrated television documentaries for NOVA, National Geographic and the History Channel, as well as movie trailers and ad campaigns. (Including the much-beloved Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" ads.)

In 1984 he joined the second season of "Frontine" and in 2006 became their exclusive narrator. All the while, Lyman has starred in more than 100 off-Broadway shows and assumed roles large and small for TV and movies.

I wondered if compared with traditional acting, voice-over work ever felt limiting, creatively speaking.

“Never. It’s all about telling stories — even if it’s advertising work,” Lyman said. “It’s about creating a little snippet of a moment, and making little moments that tell you something meaningful.”

He elaborated: “Sometimes, working with 'Frontline,' it can get a little depressing, talking about all the atrocities happening around the world. But, at the end of the day, it's just a reminder of how fortunate I am to be living the life that I lead.”

“King Lear” opens on the Boston Common July 22, and will run until Aug. 9.

Matt Mullen studies at Emerson College and is an editorial assistant at Ploughshares, the literary journal. 

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