Dan Sullivan's Travels
They've taken him from acting to directing, from West Coast to East, from Shakespeare to new plays—and now, at 66, to the top of his game
By Misha Berson
Some great modern directors place a unique stylistic stamp on their productions, an unmistakable signature.
Others, like Daniel Sullivan, leave the lightest of fingerprints. They are so adept at what they do, you might not even notice the mastery.
That's why it may take seeing a number of productions marshaled by this Tony-winner over a good swatch of time to get a sense of how good Sullivan really is. And if you are anywhere near New York, where the prolific 66-year-old director is at the top of the directorial A-list these days, it will not be too hard to find examples of his handiwork.
Like Fred Astaire, Sullivan can make something which has been carefully wrought, refined and polished appear nearly effortless. Recently he had that effect on the 2004 Off-Broadway debut of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, the episodic tale of a courageous, lonely black seamstress in Old New York. And he was nominated for a Tony for his lauded 2006 Broadway mounting of David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, which explores the rugged outcroppings of grief encountered by a couple mourning the death of a child.
Then there was Sullivan's superb staging, also last year, of Stuff Happens at the Public Theater. David Hare's documentary play about the lead-up to the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq contains a small mob of international characters, dozens of scenes and many locales (from 10 Downing Street to the White House).
On Sullivan's deft watch, Hare's you-are-there unreeling of real (and imagined) recent history was craftily placed on a landing-strip stage with audience spread along two opposite sides—banks of citizens monitoring one another's reactions to a complex, relentless march of events that progressed so smoothly it felt like a glide.
In Sullivan's best work, what occurs on stage is so naturally funny and/or organically tragic, it is as if invisible hands were guiding the characters to their destinations. Few modern directors have inspired as much trust and loyalty in so many leading playwrights—including Sullivan's frequent collaborators A.R. Gurney, the late Wendy Wasserstein, Donald Margulies and Jon Robin Baitz—and in so many top-notch actors.
That rapport and those directing/dramaturgy skills were not, needless to say, acquired overnight. In Sullivan's case, they are the result of a remarkable four-decade career rooted quietly but inextricably in the richest loam of the American regional theatre on the West Coast and in New York.
Sullivan's early work as an actor gave him a strong affinity for those he now directs. He was raised in Northern California and, after studying at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), he jumped into professional theatre in the 1960s as a performer with the San Francisco Actors Workshop. That brave regional company, led by Herbert Blau and the late Jules Irving, provided a rare U.S. gateway to the great 20th-century playwrights of the European avant-garde—Brecht, Beckett, Genet. In 1965, the workshop moved east to become the resident troupe at Lincoln Center. Sullivan came along, appearing in such Lincoln Center productions as The Playboy of the Western World and Merchant of Venice.
But while still in his twenties, Sullivan bounced from that heady aesthetic atmosphere into the environs of commercial Broadway. Actually, make that rear-guard, hippie-fied commercial Broadway: He served for a couple of years as stage manager of the musical Hair.
Eventually he lucked into his first directing job (on an early A.R. Gurney play at Lincoln Center, no less), and found other assignments in the burgeoning regional theatre of the 1970s. He became one of the first directors to straddle both theatrical realms—for-profit and nonprofit—with apparent ease.
One out-of-town assignment brought him to Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1977 to stage the George Kaufman and Edna Ferber comedy The Royal Family. The production was troubled, and he dropped out in frustration. But to his own surprise, he was soon wooed back to direct, was brought on as the Rep's resident director, and in 1981 took the helm of the company.
At the press conference announcing his ascension, Sullivan wielded the dry, black-Irish wit that he would display often during his fruitful tenure in Seattle. "Are you nervous about this?" he asked the assembled reporters. "I could be a complete wacko."
Taciturn and defensive at times, yes. Not the happiest camper about the schmooze-and-beg aspects of heading a big regional company? Sure. But wacko? Hardly. Unless you'd call it crazy to remold a company that had been largely devoted to the classics into a popular laboratory and showcase for modern American plays.
Perhaps there was some madness in that cause. In the years leading up to his retirement from the Rep in 1997, Sullivan took some lumps for turning away from provocative experimental work (after a Seattle Rep run of Martha Clarke's The Garden of Earthly Delights sent offended subscribers packing) and spending an increasing amount of his "artistic capital" on modern domestic dramas about brahmin New York neurotics.
But during his 16 years at the Rep, Sullivan was praised far more than criticized, and his list of accomplishments mounted. He smoothly moved the company into a spacious new home, the Bagley Wright Theatre, and worked tirelessly to create a second stage (the Leo K) on the premises. He brought in a large, relatively stable audience, and that success for Seattle's flagship company encouraged an increasingly eclectic local theatre scene in the larger community.
Moreover, his devotion to living American playwrights catapulted the company to national prominence—and a 1990 regional Tony Award.
Assisted by a succession of capable associate artistic directors (Robert Egan, Doug Hughes and finally David Saint), Sullivan and the Rep formed close ties with such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Richard Greenberg, Michael Weller, Joe Sutton, Tim Blake Nelson and performer-creator Bill Irwin.
Some of the plays he developed and staged in Seattle, he also ushered on to successful New York runs: Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig, Baitz's The Substance of Fire, Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport and Conversations with My Father, Charlayne Woodard's Pretty Fire and Neat.
One of the most quietly successful plays Sullivan hatched was his own Inspecting Carol, a clever comedy developed with Rep actors about a production of A Christmas Carol gone berserk during a visit from a National Endowment for the Arts site visitor. Sullivan's zany take on The Inspector General was later mounted at theatres nationwide.
Sullivan also pioneered the practice of (without fanfare) donating back to his home theatre some of the royalties he earned from works he developed in Seattle that later traveled to Broadway.
By the mid-'90s, however, Sullivan's bicoastal balancing act was tipping east, and the demands of running the Rep were wearing on him. In 1997 he exited the company with class, fêted and honored. And since his relocation to New York that year, Sullivan has proven F. Scott Fitzgerald thoroughly wrong by having a splendid second act.
The grace and maturity of Sullivan's recent directing, his keen eye for textual detail, his ability to draw the very best from some of our foremost actors—these qualities have been evident in a bevy of productions, both in modern classics (A Moon for the Misbegotten with Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones, and Morning's at Seven) and celebrated new works (the Pulitzer-winning Proof by David Auburn, which won the director his Tony, as well as Rabbit Hole and Stuff Happens).
This season, his schedule demonstrates that range. He has just staged the first major New York revival of Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas for Roundabout Theatre Company. He's supervising Hamlet starring Hamish Linklater at South Coast Repertory this spring, and in the fall directing a Broadway run of Pinter's The Homecoming with Ian McShane. He'll also fit in a two-month teaching stint at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is the Swanlund Professor of Theater.
If Sullivan's directing style can appear deceptively simple, so can his offstage persona. But don't let the brooding, craggy gaze, the biblical beard or the circumspect gruffness fool you. After the ice breaks (and that can take a while, too—like, years) Sullivan reveals the traits that endear him to friends and colleagues: his shoot-from-the-hip honesty; his take-no-prisoners wit; his unwaning theatrical passion; and (if you're really lucky) his generosity and warmth.
Sullivan's mantle is already crowded with prizes (that Tony, five additional Tony nominations, a Drama Desk trophy, and just this month, the prestigious Mr. Abbot Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation). But he gives off no sense of contentment, or of burnout. He takes a characteristically unromantic view of life in the theatre, but remains fiercely committed to it.
In a lengthy recent conversation, Sullivan spoke frankly and analytically about his directing philosophy, his working relationships with actors and playwrights and his surprising decision to sub for Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow during her upcoming sabbatical.
Moreover, Sullivan seems just as hungry for that next great script to come his way, or the opportunity to direct a certain Shakespeare text, as he was back in the 1970s when his meteoric directing career began.
MISHA BERSON: People have come to think of you as first and foremost a leading director of plays in a vein of modern, urban naturalism. Is that how you see yourself?
DANIEL SULLIVAN: I think directors get typed just like actors get typed. When I first started in the business, I was at the Actors Workshop in San Francisco, and we were doing Pinter, Beckett, Brecht, The Bald Soprano. We were very much involved with the European avant-garde at that time. That's sort of where I got my training, and I developed a love of literature through those plays. I also directed some of them later.
But more of the plays that you've chosen to stage in New York recently, and at Seattle Rep, are domestic in nature and about the internal dynamics of American families.
That's just something that attracts me. These are human connections that will be studied for eternity. From Sisters Rosensweig to Long Day's Journey, these plays look at the larger culture through the microcosm of the family.
How do you achieve that translucent quality in so many of your productions, which can look as if they had directed themselves?
It's probably due to the fact that I was an actor. My appreciation and love of the actor's art is the thing I try to protect. I always try to make the play belong to the actor. That's the goal, finally. The only way you have to get that is to push the actor forward, not yourself.
And what does it mean to "push the actor forward"?
It partly has to do with when that happens rather than how. What I'm basically doing is working with the actor's impulses. If the actor doesn't have any impulses, I don't have any. I look for actors whose impulses are true, and I follow that like a path. Then invention heaps on invention. I can shape the actors' work, but I can't create it.
Do you come into a rehearsal with a pretty clear map of your own, or do you invite a lot of suggestions from the actors and the designers?
Solicitation of ideas is a given. In the first week you do the work at the table and hope it's rich enough for the actors to know who they are in the play, and to find the clear connections between them. A very frustrating thing is that in the American theatre we often don't have time to get to a lot of stuff. You start with a shortcut, and very often you're at the first reading, then very quickly you're at tech. American directors just don't have an adequate rehearsal period.
You place a lot of emphasis on "table work," reading and discussing the script with the actors for as long as you can.
Getting a real sense of play and developing those character connections is just what it's about—the subtext, and getting to that the first week is essential. If I haven't gotten there, I'll stay at the table longer, because once we get up and start dealing with the pots and pans, it's harder to delve into that stuff.
Without the luxury of time, is it incumbent on you to jump in at some point and engineer a lot of things?
As a young director I probably succumbed to that more. But the older I get, the more I think that stuff will get done by itself. I'm less concerned when I work with designers I trust. I'll spend more time working on the life of the thing, and less time working on the technology.
I've seen you act occasionally at the Rep, and in rehearsals you're really animated, leaping in and showing what you mean by acting it out. There's obviously still an actor in there—so why be a director?
It was just more interesting. As an actor I always was a little bit watching everybody else. The larger context was always more interesting to me than this sort of blinkered life of the actor and the role. I was just too curious about the way the whole thing worked.
You've said you sort of stumbled into directing.
It's funny how it began. I was on salary at Lincoln Center, and Pete Gurney's play Scenes from American Life was in rehearsals and the director got fired. Jules Irving said to me, "You always think you know what you're doing, Sullivan! So why don't you direct it?"
Both at the Actors Studio and for your first half of your time at Seattle Rep, you were dealing with a cohesive company of actors. What was the value of that?
That we don't have many real acting companies anymore is a huge loss, for me, anyway. At the Rep I could never afford a company large enough, so we had a core company. The finances just never let it grow beyond 12 people, and that isn't enough. I also remember when we were doing a couple of plays in rep, actors came to me and said, "We don't like this! We're just getting into the roles in one show, and we have to do another one." The whole idea of doing rep is foreign to us in this country now. It's not how we work. We're so used to this faster rhythm, but that makes it hard to find the joy.
You're able to attract and work well with so many A-list theatre actors—Cherry Jones, Cynthia Nixon, John Lithgow, Mary-Louise Parker. What is your casting process?
It really is intuitive. I now am just completely guided by the plays I do, which come with their own set of rules. And I won't even consider an actor who doesn't have the chops, the experience, to do the role.
Let's talk about how you approached two of your finest recent New York shows, Stuff Happens and Intimate Apparel, as a director. They both were highly episodic, with many scenes, yet were so smoothly realized.
I was very careful to minutely choreograph both of those plays. And I tried to simplify the traffic patterns, so they could be extremely graceful. I really connected with Lynn's writing—it's wonderful and so plainly poetic. But it is a tough play to visually imagine, so I had to have a plan going in.
Was that true of Stuff Happens also? Your version was staged quite differently from the premieres in London and Los Angeles.
Putting it in a transverse staging so the audience would be both on sides, the idea was to isolate everything so the audience was as much a part of the show as the actors were. There couldn't be anything there but cHairs, and the play, and the actors. We had to just keep the text moving so that you got this feeling of an insane onrush of events, where events leading up to the Iraq War were being controlled and pushed along by this insane ideology. That seemed to be the most important thing. Just the rug in the middle of the space, with some cHairs on it. No lights.
You've pursued your love of Shakespeare since leaving the Rep, and in 2005 you directed a Julius Caesar on Broadway with Denzel Washington, using a setting that suggested war-torn Baghdad. It was a huge box-office hit, thanks to the star, but not a critical favorite.
It was a good project because we had this fantastic racial mix, in the cast and in the audience. But what's odd to me is that New Yorkers can be very conservative about Shakespeare. They don't like you to mess with it—they have a hard time when you do.
Before that, you staged a pair of O'Neill plays with well-known actors: A Moon for the Misbegotten and Ah, Wilderness! Do you feel any special affinity for O'Neill? Any bond there, as a fellow Irish American?
I have a kind of love/hate relationship with O'Neill. I love him, and at times I want to kill him. (Chuckles.) Sort of like with my dad. I'm not sure the Vivian Beaumont Theatre was the right place for those plays, which at heart are really intimate family dramas. I would love to do Long Day's Journey into Night sometime, but I don't know where or when—now that Bob Falls did it so successfully on Broadway. Long Day's Journey was the true story of the O'Neill family, and what the playwright wished was his life was in Ah, Wilderness!, a play he later sort of disowned. I simply wanted to explore that side of O'Neill, which I find beautiful and very touching.
When you came up as an actor, there was still a lot of emphasis on the so-called Method acting approach, but that's changed. Do you think it's a good change?
There has been within 20 to 30 years in the academy some real contempt for the Method, and for a psychological approach to acting. There's been more focus on circus skills than the actual business of how humans behave. The contempt comes out of a dismissal of realism, to begin with. The only playwrights who are considered important in most university literature departments now are Albee, Pinter and the American and European avant-garde, but there's very little interest in American writers from the last 20, 30 years.
Because of that [backlash], a large group of young actors have not gotten some of the basic vocabulary that goes back to Stanislavsky. So many schools want to choose another, newer, very specific acting. I keep hearing the word "tactics"—what's that about? The Tet Offensive or something?
So you haven't adopted that lingo, I take it?
I find the old terms just as applicable and just as important as they ever were. The question of intentions, subtext, actions, etc., are universal and eternal. And they'll never change. One of the things that happened in acting schools is the drive to create the whole person and their relationship to the world. But really, who gives a shit? Some of the best actors I know are some of the stupidest or most uninformed people I know! You don't have to be any particular kind of person to be a real actor. You just have to be a skillful observer of human nature.
Where did you learn about acting?
I learned more about acting, really, from the approaches I learned as a student at San Francisco State College. But it was really when I got to New York and I started to see Pacino, Hoffman, that I really got into it, and wondered, "How does this work?"
It was a good eight or nine years after I left school that I got how different these approaches are, but how there's no one method which will do it. You can be wooden and constricted with any approach!
Actually, you are best known for working very closely with writers, functioning in some ways as a dramaturg or editor while directing a new script.
Not to do that is ruinous. You always have to be able to sit down and say, "Here's what I think you need to accomplish, and if you don't feel the same way we shouldn't go forward." You don't want to blindside a writer halfway through—then they just feel lost and betrayed.
Have many playwrights ignored your advice, or resented it?
That's happened. One of the things I told David Hare—and [Public Theater artistic director] Oskar Eustis was very supportive about this—was that I really felt the character of Colin Powell had to emerge more in Stuff Happens. It had to be more his story, because that's the tragic story. Hare agreed, even though he kept saying, "You want to make it more American." It worked out well, but I wouldn't ever want to hit him with that observation halfway through the rehearsal period. It's not fair.
So do you suggest? Or go further and prod?
There have been many times when I've prodded a playwright to go where they don't want to go. It's quite similar to work with an actor—you think, I'll push in that direction. But if I realize the actor can't go in that direction, then it's time to say, "Let's find out where the actor or writer can go, that will make this work."
Which writers today do you keep wanting to work with, again and again?
There are a few. One is Donald Margulies. I did Dinner with Friends and Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy with him. I always feel connected to him, and I'm always anxious to see his next play. And there are writers I don't do very often at all, whose work I look at and give advice on, writers I like to read. I also talk to some writers who are going toward the movies, and encourage them to keep writing for the stage—like David Lindsay-Abaire.
So you're still scouting plays, I take it! What about classics that you haven't got to yet, but want to?
Other than O'Neill…I want to get through Shakespeare's canon. That's the main thing. I don't think American productions of Shakespeare get the respect they sometimes deserve. Shakespeare is alive here, but we tend to have an inferiority complex, think we're not doing it as well as the British do.
You were very open about the relief you felt leaving behind the responsibility of heading a nonprofit theatre and focusing mainly on directing. So why did you decide to cover for Lynne Meadow at Manhattan Theatre Club next season?
Lynne's a good friend, and we've been talking a lot about her sabbatical. So I thought, if it's just for a year, and I can work with her putting together the next two seasons, fine.
Will you be directing there?
I'm not planning that. I'm doing Hamlet and The Homecoming next fall. I'll be at the University of Illinois for a couple of months. And then I'll just be there at Manhattan Theatre Club, coming in regularly. I'll be taking over Lynn's office, putting my little tchotchkes around.
But why did you agree to do it? You certainly didn't need to do it as a career move!
(Laughs.) I think I sort of missed being blamed for everything. I just need a year of that guilt and shame.
Misha Berson is the theatre critic for the Seattle Times and a frequent contributor to this magazine.Back to Top