As I drove to South Coast Repertory Theatre to interview Daniel Sullivan, director of the new Donald Margulies play Dinner With Friends, flashes of memories from our college days at San Francisco State made me laugh out loud. I remembered a seemingly somber yet truly witty boy who danced his way through The Pajama Game. Now, as one of America's preeminent stage directors, he has an awe-inspiring resum which includes Broadway (I'm Not Rappaport, The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig, Conversations With My Father, Ah, Wilderness!), Off-Broadway (The Substance of Fire, London Suite, A Fair Country), and more than 50 plays at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where he spent the last 18 years as artistic director. During his tenure there, he led that theatre to the national prominence it now enjoys, largely though his nourishment of new American plays.
Before long I was sitting in SCR's conference room, talking about acting and theatre with Sullivan, whose charismatic presence has only grown over the years. He is a man whose very being exudes deep concern for "the work," and little tolerance for people who impede its creation. Actors and writers would be fortunate indeed to play with this extraordinary man of the theatre.
Back Stage West/Drama-Logue: I remember what a wonderful actor you were in college. Did you grow up wanting to be an actor?
Daniel Sullivan: I don't really know. I know that I wanted to be a dancer. I was put into dancing school when I was seven years old. My father somehow got it into his head that I should be in a Russian Ballet school, so they put me in one. I still, to this day, don't understand why or what it was about my nature that suggested that I needed that particular discipline, but I went. I was there until I was 15. Fifteen is a very hard age to be in ballet school because you have to explain the dance belt to your friends.
When I went to college, I needed something to do with my nights and a way to meet girls, so I tried out for musicals. That's when I really saw plays for the first time. I realized that the interest I had in the English department could live on the stage. It wasn't necessarily about dancing‹you could do other things on a stage. So I got involved in the drama department.
It was seeing plays at the Actors Workshop [Jules Irving and Herbert Blau's famous theatre in San Francisco] and being moved by classical plays that made me want to do theatre. Going from the chorus into roles with lines also made me want to act. I played one of the gangsters in Kiss Me Kate and that was the first time I spoke onstage. When I was doing The Pajama Game, I realized that theatre had to be my career. When the show was over after its two-weekend run, I remember being completely bereft. What was I going to do with my life? Pajama Game was over. It was such an empty, empty feeling. That was the point when I knew that I had to pursue it.
BSW/D-L: Do you miss acting?
Sullivan: It's interesting. For years, whenever I directed shows outside of Seattle, I was never around for an opening night. I would stay until the show was frozen but then, after I was no longer needed, I'd go home. It had nothing to do with nerves. There was a kind of sadness at the gulf between me and the performer. That performing thing that I still longed for and don't do any more‹that was up there and I wasn't involved. That's really what the sadness was about.
BSW/D-L: It wasn't fear of openings and critics?
Sullivan: No, it had nothing to do with being judged. I'm the kind of director who has very little sense of ownership. When a show goes up I don't think of it as mine, I think of it as a product of the collective imagination. I don't have a proprietary feel about it. I just think that there's nothing for me to do. What's left to do is the thing that I still love but I'm not doing that anymore.
BSW/D-L: So what made you switch from acting to directing?
Sullivan: It was really when I was in the company at Lincoln Center. I was an actor not doing that much. We were working on A.R. Gurney's Scenes From American Life, which was Gurney's first play. They fired the director and I happened to be around at the time, being paid on a weekly basis, but not acting in anything, so they asked me to direct. I just stepped in and did it. The fit was sort of immediately apparent.
BSW/D-L: Did you ever go back to acting?
Sullivan: I have, only occasionally, with the company I had in Seattle. It was always fun and I always loved it. There was a sense of "play time," but I never thought of it as my profession.
BSW/D-L: Were you ever in productions you directed?
Sullivan: Almost exclusively. No one else would cast me. It was great in some cases and in others, it was not. I played Vanya in a production of Uncle Vanya that I directed. I thought, somehow, that how I'd approach the role would be illustrative to the other actors and hopefully, through an organic process, we'd come up with a production. That was very na™ve. The kind of absorption that is necessary for an actor in that kind of work is so total that if, for a moment, other actors feel a judgmental quality coming from you, they shut down. At some point I had to say I can't direct, I have to be this character. The other actors have to know me only as the character and nobody else. By the time the thing opened, I really didn't know what it looked like.
But the director in me is more interested in what other people are doing on stage than I am in what I should be doing. Time to step away.
BSW/D-L: Is there a particular kind of play that you like to direct?
Sullivan: I am attracted to family drama, although certainly not exclusively. A lot of directors I know come from homes that are dysfunctional in some way. Because of that they need to organize behavior in a way that makes sense. Most directors I know are sort of chaotic in their own lives but rather exacting in their directing.
I don't know that I am attracted to any one kind of writer. I like plays where I can explore relationships. I am not interested in things that just suggest the visual. I do have a visual approach to things, but that's not a reason I would choose to do a project. I am, I guess, a realist or a naturalist. I love actors, so I look at a play like an actor. If I don't see the roles there, I'm less interested.
BSW/D-L: As a director, you're not known to be overly demonstrative or effusive. Wendy Wasserstein was quoted as saying, "Dan is not someone who says, "Darling, I love this; you're so talented.' But it got to a point [during The Heidi Chronicles] where I would turn to a friend and say, "Does he like this play? I can't tell.'"
Sullivan: [laughing] To some degree that does happen. That's a failing which I don't know quite what to do about. It's just who I am. It has its upside and downside. The upside is that an actor will usually hear from me exactly what I'm feeling. I don't give strokes and I don't say things because they're political. What you try to create at a rehearsal is an atmosphere of work. We're all here because we're good. That's a given and now we just work. I may have loosened up a little in that area.
The downside is that in the moments around the first performance, self-doubt is strongest for the actors and they need to hear good thoughts. I have been remiss in that area. It's very much about personality and upbringing. I don't want to hear myself lying and saying things that are not true, but at the same time, that reticence can keep me from saying things that are true. Although sometimes I feel that the actors should be able to do this without my telling them how good they are. I don't like to be put in the position of the person who is responsible for an actor's emotional welfare. I like self-sufficient people. One of the good things about working within a theatre company is that the actors get to know those things about you and get used to your style.
BSW/D-L: Other than being gifted, what kinds of actors do you like to work with?
Sullivan: Everything has to do with character. Certain kinds of actors are good for certain kinds of roles. I prefer working with actors who have a very strong center and are very hard to knock off of that center. There are actors who will take a note and go too far with it and you think, How can they go that far? That's either an attempt to please or it's going further than their own truth will permit in order to create an impression. It happens a lot. The actors that I like to work with have such a strong sense of self that they can't be knocked off balance.
So, during auditions, I will very often see something specific that is the reason the actor gets cast. It might even have had nothing to do with the audition. It might have been when they walked into the room. It might have been just a moment. But in that moment, I saw who I think this character is and I can tell the actor specifically what that is and to go for it. I also discuss the range of a character and say that if you're going to go outside of that range, you better have a damned good reason. Usually, within that, actors can start to have real impulses. It's getting that person comfortable with the understanding that their own impulses are the impulses of the character. They have to trust that. That's why they're there. That's their job. A lot of the time, people won't know why they're cast. They won't know why they're there and I've got to make that clear.
BSW/D-L: When you directed the film version of The Substance of Fire after having already done it onstage, what were the big differences you found in working in the different media?
Sullivan: One thing that I didn't understand beforehand was the spontaneity of film acting. There were actors who didn't like to rehearse, and I could see why when we'd start. The danger of the moment, the spontaneity of the moment, can get rehearsed out in film. Onstage you have to recapture that moment over and over and over again, so you have to solidify it in some way so that it can be repeated. In film, it's best not to. There are very few actors who can do take after take and get better. Usually, the first take is the most interesting. But technically, it wasn't until the third or fourth take that I had it all in place as a director. For the actors, the earlier ones were better and that just had to do with the freshness of response. That's the actor's ability to embrace the camera and forget that this thing is two feet from their faces. It's much harder, I think, to create that fourth wall on film than it is onstage. The camera is so intrusive.
BSW/D-L: How did you feel about the film?
Sullivan: I thought it was good. It would have been nice to have some money and not have to work on such a small budget. I liked the imagining of it and I liked the editing. I didn't particularly like the shooting. That was kind of boring and took too long. There was too much downtime. But what I like about doing this job to begin with is that I like actors and I like the family that you create during a rehearsal period. That's very hard to do in film. The family, during film, becomes the technical crew because it's all about that important instrument. The actors are off in their trailers, so the cast is a much more dispersed and non-cohesive unit. I felt a sense of displacement. That kind of collaboration wasn't what I was used to.
BSW/D-L: What sort of advice do you have for actors?
Sullivan: In the '80s, you started hearing students saying, "Only teach me what I need to know. I only want to learn what I have to." That has made for some relatively shallow lives and some shallow art. I get nervous when I see professional training programs teaching soap opera technique. They actually have soap opera scripts and they rehearse them. I suppose the idea is that this is what the students are going to find when they go out into the world and it's one of the ways they can make a living. It makes for a rather passionless, disconnected artist who is so focused on his or her own career that they are almost un-invested in the world.
If you were to ask them why they're doing what they are doing, they would say "because I love it" or "this is what I want to do," but there would be no model for what makes a good artistic life. They go to L.A. to get a series, etc., and that's understandable if you know what you're giving up in order to do that. But if you don't know, if you've never actually encountered the choice of choosing to be an artist, that's a sad thing. I think that there are plenty of actors who've actually never been struck by the changing, healing power of art. That's something quite opposite or different or irrelevant to what they're going for. The question is what makes you feel worthwhile. Being a worthwhile human being and this profession often don't have anything to do with one another, and they should.
BSW/D-L: Do you feel worthwhile?
Sullivan: I do when I'm doing something like this play. One of the reasons I left Seattle Rep last year after having been there for 18 years was that I felt that the job, the cyclical nature, budgetary problems, the board of directors, the constant reinventing of the wheel, the institutional flow, all became very rote for me. When I left, I thought I'd really like to just do plays and not have to constantly compromise, which is what the role of an artistic director really is. My life now isn't about balancing a season, it's about doing plays I connect to. When I'm working on a play and I feel like I'm learning something about myself on the way and it's possible that other people will come see this and learn from it, I do feel worthwhile. BSW/D-L