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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 Children.

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 about.

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! [applause]

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 of it.

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 families.

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 1930s.

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 play?

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 problematic.

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 period?

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 later.

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 another.

DS: Exactly.

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 child.

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 Osbornís voice.

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 the other.

TC: I wonder also if, in the context of September 11th, if we are viewing all kinds of plays about America differently now?

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 way.

TC: As you mentioned before, you began as an actor, first in San Francisco, I think thatís correct...

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 course!

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 you.

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 theater!

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 that process?

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 notes?

DS: I would, and I wouldnít take them! [laughter] Iíd go onstage and do the opposite. "Who does he think he is?" [laughter]

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 rehearsals?

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 mind...?

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 intervene...?

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 without auditions.

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 rehearsals.

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 going.

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 work.

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 getting there.

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 necessary.

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 Illinois?

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 your students?

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 designer.

TC: Do you ever get hit up for advice from your students? And what are you telling them? "Run, donít walk?"

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 around.

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. [laughter]

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 plays... [laughter]

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 writers.

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 heads.

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! [laughter]

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 class?

TW: More writers than actors.

DS: And you donít find them responsive...?

TW: Theyíre all mostly responsive, but Iíve been surprised by how immediately the actors get the particulars...

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.

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