A Conversation with Daniel Sullivan
April 10, 2002
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the April 10, 2002 Platform with Daniel Sullivan:
THOMAS COTT: Good afternoon,
good evening... or should I say good "Morning"? [audience laughter] Iím Thomas
Cott from Lincoln Center Theater. Tonight is the first of two Platform events
weíre doing this month. Next week, we have the playwright Horton Foote, who will
be here to talk about his new play The Carpetbaggerís
Tonight, we are delighted to have with us Daniel Sullivan,
who as you probably know, is one of the most prolific and sought-after directors
working in the American theater today. I'm happy to say he has had a long
association with this building, going back to the first regime here, with the
Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center back in the 1960s, which Iím sure weíll talk
He was Artistic Director of the Seattle Repertory Company
for 16 years (from 1981 to 1997) where he directed more than 60 plays and
started their Playwrights Program. He has been a regular fixture in New York,
directing such plays as I'm Not Rappaportówhich is coming back soon to
New YorkóA Moon for the Misbegotten, and three recent Pulitzer Prize
winners: The Heidi Chronicles, Dinner With Friends and the
currently-running Proof. He has received many honors, including four Tony
Award nominations, and he won the Tony last year for Proof.
He has staged many plays here at LCT, starting with The
Substance of Fire in Ď92, followed by The Sisters Rosensweig, A Fair
Country, An American Daughter, Ah Wilderness!, Far East, Ancestral Voices,
Spinning Into Butter, Ten Unknowns, and now Morning's At Seven, which
is currently in previews at the Lyceum. Please welcome Dan Sullivan!
For those of you have not been to a Platform before, these
are very informal evenings. Iím going to begin with some questions of my own and
then open up the floor to questions from you. So be thinking about what you may
want to ask in a little bit. But, Dan, letís start off by talking about why you
wanted to do this play. Was there something about doing an older play now,
because youíve done a lot of new plays...?
DANIEL SULLIVAN: I donít think
it really had much to do with "why now?" It was just a play that I loved for a
long time, and I have to say that the reason that I loved the play is... I
didnít know it first as literature, I knew it first in the Broadway revival that
was done in 1981, which I thought was absolutely marvelous. I loved every minute
I was thinking about plays Iíd like to spend time with,
because thatís really how I enter into it. There are a lot of plays that I would
like to see, but not necessarily work on, but this was a play that I could spend
weeks withówith families, understanding the inner workings of
I also thought, itís 20 years later, and there must be four
wonderful actresses who have grown into these roles. We looked around to see who
was around and might be able to play them. We thought, "letís try this play
again." I think it is the kind of play you can do every twenty years. When you
look at American plays that were written in the 1930s, there are very few that
have the kind of lovely subtext that this play has. This was the time of Kaufman
and Hart, really, and large political plays. But there were very few plays that
are as deeply-felt as this play is, and as subtle, even though there is a sort
of period mechanics to the way the play is structured. It takes its time,
wonderfully, in a sort of Chekhovian way. You just simply donít see it in most
plays of the 1930s.
TC: The play was revived in
1981, as you mentioned, and that production transposed the setting to 1922.
Youíve restored it to what it was in the original script, setting in back in the
DS: I donít know why they made
that choice twenty years ago. It may have been that, at that time, they felt
there wasnít a sufficient remove from 1981, so they put it back to a more
innocent time to explain the moral dilemmas of the play. But it seemed
absolutely proper that itís 1935, 1937...
TC: You talked about the four
actresses who have grown into these parts. Letís talk about the casting process.
When youíre casting people who are supposed to be sisters, is it a special
challenge because they have to look like each other?
DS: To some degree. Very often
with the casting process, you usually get a commitment from one person, and that
person becomes the centerónot because they have to be the center, only that
whoever you choose next will have to seem like the sister of that person. Very
often, the sisterhood is really talent. [laughter] We didnít really try to find
people who look exactly like one another. We know about families that, very
often within families, there is little real visual similarity.
What was really at the center of our thinking about the
casting was to find people who were like-minded and understood the play, what
the play was doing, and could bring that kind of absolute simplicity to their
acting. These are very simple folks in this play, with very simple needs, and
their innocence is absolutely central to putting this play on. You can
complicate the play to the point where I think the play would sink, and I think
we were very careful about not doing that in the casting. Although the play is
comic in nature, these actresses are not comics.
TC: A couple of the actors in
this play have done it in other productions, and as you said, you saw the
revival in 1981. Does having some prior exposure to the play inform the way you
go about doing it now, or do you try to forget whatever you knew about it and
start from scratchóthat is, treat it like you were doing a new
DS: Luckily, Iím very forgetful
[laughter], so I canít even remember what my responses were. So itís all very
fresh to me. Very often, there will be people who have done a play before and
itís hard for them to turn their thinking around. Because they remember it
happened in a certain way and it becomes instinctive to them. So that can be
I think the most interesting problem that Iím experiencing
now, as I get older, is that I forget that the actors are getting older. For
instance, Franny Sternhagen and I were actually in this company [the now-defunct
Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center] together back in the Ď60s. Estelle Parsons
was in it, too. Very often, Iíll have to crank my head around to realize, "oh,
right, these people are actually getting older at the same time I am."
[laughter] When I think of casting older actors, I somehow think theyíre older
than I am, but theyíre not anymore! [laughter]
TC: Now, you may be getting
older, but you werenít around in the 1930s, so what kind of research did you do,
if any, and what did you learn that was surprising about that time
DS: Well, we all read this
wonderful, unpublished autobiography by Paul Osborn. He was working on it,
actually, when he died. He was blind then, and pretty much deaf at that point,
and he was speaking it into a tape recorder. It probably isnít great literature,
but itís a wonderful resource, because it is so simple and frank and pure.
We discovered that his mother had two sisters living in
Wisconsin who did live next to one another. This is the play of his which is
probably the most autobiographical. His father was terribly anti-social, he was
a travelling minister and he could not bear these two sisters. So Osborn began
to write about them and he said that, after about ten pages, he was having a
terrible time with them, that they were terribly contained and that "they
wouldnít speak any exposition!" [laughter] He couldnít get the characters to
talk about their lives, so he put the play aside for a while. I think he wrote
The Yearling or something in between, and he came back to it a year
So we looked at Wisconsin in the period. Most of us [working
on the play] came from fairly similar backgrounds, from small towns and sort of
understood that world. I didnít go to Wisconsin, to that small town. Actually,
at the time, I was researching it...I teach out at Urbana, in Illinois, and I
thought, "well maybe I should go to Wisconsin" and then I thought, "no, Iíll
just walk down the street, thatís all." [laughter]
TC: One small town is like
TC: Iím curious if you will talk
about your rehearsal process. Your process, to me, is quite distinctive. Unlike
a lot of other directors I know, you spend quite a lot of timeóespecially with a
new playówith the author and actors, sitting around a table, going through the
script. Did that also happen with this play?
DS: Yeah, we did. And I think
you have to, when youíre working on any play about family. You really have to
detail the given circumstances of the play. This doesnít mean that youíre
talking subtext to the actors at this point, but there are things you have to
agree on. In this case: What was Mom like? What was Dad like? When did you move
from the farm if you lived on a farm? When did Mom die? What was the early
relationship like? In a family, the subtext is really the perspective you have
on those facts and, as we all know, that perspective can change from child to
Very often, I donít get into that, because thatís the
private domain of the actor, but what he have to work out... and it can take
three days, it can take a week, depending on how complicated the material is.
Iíll sit down with the actors individually and talk about it, and then as a
group. In this case, we would simply enlarge the familyóstart individually, then
we worked with just the sisters, talking about trying to build a history, and
then add the rest of the members of the family until we finally had a community.
What I try to do is to bring as much life to the table as I possibly can, so by
the time you stand up and start to walk around, youíre in familiar territory.
And the actors have impulses now that they can actually act on. I donít
generally block a play, until I let people wander around for a while. The
stronger the actorsí impulses are, the faster I can work, basically. Thatís
going to change from actor to actor, but it allows the actor to "own" their own
performance, basically. And so thatís why I try to provide.
TC: I donít know how many of you
have actually seen the production yet, but the set for the play is quite
realistic. It depicts in great detail these two houses, the back yards of the
houses. Iím curious, when you were working with the designer John Lee Beatty on
this, how explicit were you about what you needed or were you just allowing him
to create an environment the actors could use as best they could?
DS: No, one has to be fairly
specific, because of the action of the play. John Lee is good with the ground
plan. He reads the play carefully, so that entrances and exits are where theyíre
supposed to be. I know he had a little panic towards the beginning of
rehearsals, when he thought he had the houses reversed. [laughter]
Actually, Osborn tells the story of seeing the play at the
Coconut Playhouse, I think in 1971, and he went to see it and became fairly
frightened about five minutes into it when he realized that theyíd gotten the
houses reversed. And he said, it wasnít because there was anything wrong with
the play, but because thatís not where his aunts lived! [laughter]
In the case of the work that John Lee did on it... itís
interesting, I work a lot with John Lee, so I sort of know his mindset and his
aesthetic. I will say to John Lee, "I want this completely plain. These people
are plain. So I want it plain, no decor, the lighting should be plain, the
costumes should be plain..." I keep using this language. [laughter]
And John Lee will nod, and I know I can push so far, but I
know that he wonít go there. But he will look for his version of "plain." What
he went to is [the artist] Grant Wood. And I think you can see that in the
design onstage. He has, in fact, provided the play with maybe a more romantic
take than I would want, or that would be in my head, but in fact it is also what
the play needs. Somehow, between the two of us, we were right.
TC: Because the playwright is no
longer with us, was there any temptation to reinvent the play, or do you have a
feeling that part of my job is to be as true to that original text as you can
be? I know some directors like to reinvent or revise...?
DS: Yeah, I wouldnít do that
here at all. Even when youíre tortured by a play, canít figure out what was
intended, Iíll keep following it until I find some way to understand it.
Usually, I eliminate as much of the stage directions as I can from a text when I
start to work on it, because you can never tell from the Samuel French edition
how much is the stage managerís insertion of "business" and how much was
So IĎll usually eliminate as much as I can of that, so that
the behavior that you see in the play is really the invention of the director
and the actors. The text itself, the language is certainly untouched. I guess I
get too deeply involved in the characters, in the subtext of the play to try to
make something else of it. I usually go in the opposite direction. I try to go
deeper into the play.
TC: I think some audience
members have been struck by the depth in this production. Some people, having
seen the last revival which was more on the comedic side, are struck by the new
balance of comedy and the darker aspects of the characters.
DS: As I say, my memory is
terrible, so I canít really compare the productions. I know I was terribly
struck by how unusually antic the play could be and at the same time, "true."
That there didnít seem to be a false move in the writing. Even though, as I say,
it was technically very much of its time... thatís all I remember. I remember
that I laughed, but I donít know if this production is all that different from
TC: I wonder also if, in the
context of September 11th, if we are viewing all kinds of plays about America
DS: It could be. I myself have
removed myself from it. I get so myopic about something like this, and try not
to respond to contemporary events in this way. Because I feel those things fade.
This play hasnít. One of the interesting things about the play is there is so
little real information about the history of these people, because itís so much
about the present crisis in the play. You have to bring a whole lot, as an actor
or director, of extra history to it yourself. But I think thatís one of the
reasons that the play is fairly timeless, because it stays very specific to the
immediate human need. It is both beneath and above politics, letís put it that
TC: As you mentioned before, you
began as an actor, first in San Francisco, I think thatís
DS: Yes, and I was the first
person on the Beaumont stage! [laughter] In 1965. It was Dantonís Death,
a sort of scandalously bad production [laughter]...
TC: Not because of you, of
DS: I didnít actually have a
speaking role, but [the director] Herb Blau invented a prologue in which a young
aristocrat walked out onto the stage, Jo Mielzinerís perspective setting, and
was immediately gutted by four...[laughter]
TC: And that was
DS: And that was me. I was
chased onto the stage, stabbed until bleeding, and then I was revolved off, I
remember... [laughter]... it was a terribly exciting moment in the
TC: Well, from such auspicious
beginnings...Iím curious how you use your background as a performer when you
direct, and how important it is for you to use what you learned as an actor to
DS: I suppose I think like an
actor. So in some ways, I wouldnít say to an actor anything I wouldnít want said
to me as an actor. Iím a fairly reticent director, letís put it that way. Iím as
careful as I possible can be, to be as honest as I possibly can. Never to say
anything that isnít true, donít manipulateóI try to get what I need in the
simplest, most straightforward way. I think that actors eventually come to trust
that, that thereíll be no bullshit in the room.
Certainly when it comes to inventing business, when it comes
to finding an action for a character, I think like an actor.
TC: I think it was in 1971óyouíd
already been working at the Beaumont a number of yearsóand you were given the
opportunity to direct for the first time. A play by A.R. Gurney.
DS: Right. Pete Gurneyís play,
Scenes from American Life. It was being directed by somebody else. I was
on salary here and doing nothing. They fired this director, I donít know why,
and they looked around for somebody and they didnít have any money to pay
anybody else and I was on salary, so they basically said to me "you know what
youíre doing, go do that." And so I did.
TC: Did you have any
apprehension, like "what the hell am I doing?"
DS: No, it felt absolutely
natural. One of the reasons I wasnít a particularly good actor is I was also
watching everybody else on stage. I was always more interested in what everybody
else was doing than what I was doing. So I could easily walk into the room with
many opinions, letís put it that way.
TC: How soon after that did you
stop acting altogether and go full-time to directing?
DS: Immediately. I did, when I
was running Seattle Rep, I would very often act with the company, when we would
do a particular project. I would only act in plays, however, that I directed. I
could never get anybody to actually cast me. [laughter] I would direct myself,
and itís interesting, because I would very seldomly take my own direction!
[laughter] Much to the dismay of the actors, as I recall.
TC: Would you give yourself
DS: I would, and I wouldnít take
them! [laughter] Iíd go onstage and do the opposite. "Who does he think he is?"
TC: Well, I donít want to hog
the mic forever. Are there any questions from the audience?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: Iím sorry, I
havenít had the chance to see Morningís At Seven yet, but I have seen a
lot of your work and I think that Proof is certainly one of the most
brilliant things Iíve ever seen. That first act curtain... I was just about
knocked out of my seat!
Two-part question, if I might. First, Proof was such
a good play. Was there a lot of work done on the script during
DS: No, there wasnít a lot of
work done. Iíd say, probably, the more successful new plays Iíve doneócertainly
the three plays that won Pulitzersówere probably the plays I did less actual
text work on, than other plays. Structurally they were extremely sound before I
ever got my hands on them. A lot of things are done in rehearsals, discoveries
are made, but the plays were already there.
AM #1: The second part of my
question is: you talked about not having the blocking in mind when you start and
you kind of let the actors go. Do you have a picture in your
DS: Absolutely. Iíd say the
picture is pretty strong. Very often, the actors will intersect with that
picture, but I try not to force it, because I find that the discoveries you can
make in the moment are going to be much, much stronger than what you have in
your head. However, if nothingís happening, you can go with what you have in
your head. I mean, I donít think you could put together a groundplan for a play,
unless you had some idea of how youíre going to use it.
AM #1: Can I ask you one last
thing? At what point in the process when an actorís not giving you what you
want, is not going with the picture you have in your head... when do you have to
DS: I would say almost all the
way, from the first reading of the play. I will jump in immediately if it seems
as though thereís the wrong... you donít hear that all the time in a reading,
youíll cast somebody for a specific reason, because they seem to you to be very
close to this role, but they donít see themselves that way. So theyíre doing
completely different, so youíve got to get them back relatively quickly or
youíre going to waste a lot of time. So, yeah, Iíll do that right away. And then
as you progress, as you go further, as you begin to understand the character
better, we will continue to adjust.
AM #2: You said that the first
person you cast then becomes the person around whom you cast the rest of the
parts. In this production, who was the first person you cast and what were you
looking for when you went to cast the other roles?
DS: I think Elizabeth Franz was
actually the first person to come aboard, but I donít remember. I think it was
Elizabeth and Franny Sternhagen came on at the same time. From that point on,
itís just basically all instinct and intuition that youíre going to come up with
names seem to fit. You have to be careful in terms of ages and you certainly
donít want to pick people who would not fit the family at all...
TC: In this case, you didnít
audition anyone, they were just people whose work you knew.
DS: Thatís right. I think the
only person thatís in the play that we auditioned was Stephen Tobolosky, who
plays Homer, and that really happened because Andrť [Bishop, LCTís Artistic
Director] didnít really know his work that well, so we brought him in for Andrť
to see. But had Andrť not wanted that, we would have just cast all the people
TC: We have a ringer in the
audience. Iím pleased to introduce the very distinguished set and costume
designer, Tony Walton! [applause]
TONY WALTON: I was just
wondering, Dan, if you have very strong feelings about whether the actors should
know much about their roles or even knowing their dialogue before they start
DS: Iím of two minds there,
because I find that very often things can go a lot smoother if people are more
familiar with their words. One of the things can be most irritating in the
rehearsal process is you have some people "on book," some people off book, some
people not knowing a thing, some people not looking up from their book. If
youíre not all on the same playing field, very often, it can make for slow
But you can never legislate that, and particularly in this
country. The English like to come to the table with their lines learned.
American actors, particularly the strong union actorsóI remember Phil Bosco,
here in this theater, would never look at his script past his 8-hour call!
[laughter] Seriously! He would come with the script, look at it, but he would
not look at it if it wasnít during prescribed union hours. And weíve got
somebody like that in Morningís At Seven.
So youíd like to have everybody up and ready to play, as
quickly as possible. But Iíve also seen wonderful performances come from actors
who will not let go of that book until the last minute, who will keep holding
onto it. They will not feel the pressure of performance; the book is a was of
relaxing, of telling the actor "this is still a process, this is not real yet,
youíre still working on this."
I know several actors, wonderful actors, who work in that
way. Part of the art of directing, I think, is navigating different ways of
AM #3: Iím wondering if you use
improvisation as a rehearsal technique, to explore characters or situations in a
play. If so, did you use it with this production?
DS: Iím afraid Iím basically
embarassed by improvisation. [laughter] And I know a lot of wonderful people use
it all the time. I just donít like it. And part of the reason I donít like it
is, I like to hear the authorís words and I donít like to hear the sort of
misshapen text of the actor in an improvisation. Occasionally, I have used it
when I have felt that the actor likes it. That the actors themselves are used to
it, and have used it as a technique, and I canít think of any other way of
But generally no, I do the opposite. I isolate in the
rehearsal process the problem and concentrate on the text, not on extraneous
things. This is very specific to me. I admire directors who can do this; for me,
itís a waste of time.
AM #4: What are the changes and
challenges youíve encountered from the beginning of your directing career to
where you are now?
DS: I donít feel there have been
any changes whatsoever. I think itís still very scary to start a rehearsal
process, completely surprising when itís harmonious, terrifying when itís awful
[laughter] and itís awful a lot of the time. You can never predict whatís going
to happen when you get in the room with 10, 12 actors and a playwright. You just
have no idea. Itís what makes us keep coming back to it, I think, but itís also
this huge risk and the risk doesnít change. The amount of money that goes into
putting a play on changes, from venue to venue and from year to year. But I
ignore that part myself.
TC: This may be a good moment,
then, to ask you a question Iíve been wanting to ask you about. Obviously,
youíve had a long experience in the not-for-profit theater and youíve also
worked a lot in the commercial world of theater. Iím curious what your
observations are about the blurring of the lines between the two sides of the
theater business and where you think weíre headed in the future?
DS: Well, I think whatís
happened in the last twenty years is... I donít think itís so much as the lines
are blurred, but you really wouldnít have any significant theater at all, if it
werenít for the non-profit theater. It just wouldnít be here. Almost every
significant play that has grown up in this country has grown up in the
non-profit, regional theaters. Very little has come out of New York, out of the
New York commercial theater.
I donít see why that will change. It certainly takes
subscribership or Membership, like Lincoln Center Theater has, to support that
kind of risk-taking. As the cost of putting the play on on Broadway continues to
spiral out of control, itís just going to get more and more
TC: You seem to be consciously
investing some part of your life in developing the next generation of theater
artists. You mentioned before that youíre teaching at the University of
Illinois. Why do you make time for that in your busy schedule and... why
DS: I donít know. [laughter]
They asked me, I guess. Also, after leaving Seattle Repówhere Iíd been for
almost 20 years and being of service to the non-profit world since college,
really, until about four years ago when I started to work for myself, I started
to feel the need to give back.
Teaching allows me to do that. It also allows me to try and
codify what it is I know, which I hadnít been doing. I thought it was getting
kind of late, I should do that.
TC: And what are you teaching
DS: I teach acting. I teach
directing for designers, which is an interesting class, basically teaching
designers how to read a play and how to think like a director and not a set
TC: Do you ever get hit up for
advice from your students? And what are you telling them? "Run, donít
DS: You mean in terms of career
advice? I think, obviously, the only thing you can finally leave a student with
is: if this isnít the only thing you want to do with your life, donít do it. You
really have to burn with a passion for it. This life can be a happy one, if that
flame continues to burn.
TC: If you were starting out
today, would you go about it the same way? Would you have started as an actor...
or did you always know you wanted to be ending up as a director?
DS: No, I was actually quite
surprised that ... I felt I could do it, but I was very surprised to even have a
career. I think I must have been in my mid-40s before I realized, "oh, I guess
this is what I do." [laughter]
TC: It snuck up on you. Now
recently, youíve begun to branch out into television and film. You did the movie
version of Substance of Fire and a TV adaptation of Far East. Did
you enjoy that and do you think youíll do more of that?
DS: I didnít really enjoy it.
Itís very time-consuming and very boring. [laughter]
TC: A lot of waiting
DS: You wait around forever. You
actually have to have two jobs, you have to have something else to do while
youíre doing that, or youíll go absolutely crazy!
TC: That would be a "no", then.
DS: It takes a whole lot of
time, it can take a year to do a movie. You can do five plays...
TC: Well, you can do five
TONY WALTON: One more quickie. I
actually teach the reverse class of what youíre teaching. I teach a design
course for directors, writers and actors at The New School, and interestingly I
find that actors get to the crux faster than the directors or
DS: Interesting. Iíve always
felt that, if we could work differently, if we could just get directors and
designers and actors together and talk about the play for a while and then go
into the design stage, how much better things could be. Because I do think that
actors think very essentially, they have wonderful images playing in their
I donít know about you, but I find so many of the writers
that we have writing today have very little visual imagination. They think very
little about how you get from one scene to another. They turn to the director
and say, "well, thatís your problem!" [laughter] You say, "but sheís on stage in
1975 at the end of this scene and she begins the next scene in 1985... how do
you do that?" "Itís up to you."
TC: Call Tony Walton!
DS: And in some things, thatís
fine, when you donít have a writer who is insisting on controlling the visuals,
you can have more freedom. [to TW:] Do you have a lot of writers in that
TW: More writers than
DS: And you donít find them
TW: Theyíre all mostly
responsive, but Iíve been surprised by how immediately the actors get the
AM #5: Is your approach the same
for classical plays as it is for contemporary theater?
DS: Yes, Iíd say it was exactly
the same. I try and create a completely honest world for a play to live in,
whatever its period. Iíll research the period, to try and understand the context
of the language...
TC: Unfortunately, we have to
stop here, but I just want to thank all of you for being here tonightówith a
special thanks to Dan Sullivan! [applause] Good night, everyone.