SAN DIEGO — "I don't even think of myself as having a career. I just work for a theater," claimed Daniel Sullivan, artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Despite his humble self-image--and a lifelong commitment to regional theater--Sullivan is making quite an impact in all the right theatrical places.
Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport" is a hit on Broadway, with Cleavon Little and Judd Hirsch, because Sullivan read it, liked it, directed it in Seattle and nurtured it all the way to the Booth Theatre. He's in London now, completing casting for the West End production of "Rappaport" that he will also direct, starring actor Paul Scofield.
But last week the 45-year-old native San Franciscan squeezed two days from his busy schedule to transfer a new work by William Mastrosimone, "Cat's-Paw," from his own theater to San Diego's Old Globe as a last-minute season substitute.
Mastrosimone's play will run March 22 through May 4 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. It fills the gap left when Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien scratched Peter Parnell's "Romance Language" from its scheduled transfer from the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Parnell's play "needs some reshaping" before it sees further performances, O'Brien said.
Sullivan was quite happy to come to the rescue.
"Cat's-Paw" was just ending a two-week run in Seattle, not nearly satisfying enough for his cast, which is moving with the play to San Diego, he said. They had spent six weeks in rehearsal, after a "workshopping" process last year that helped Mastrosimone fine-tune the tense drama about a terrorist holding a hostage over an environmental issue.
It's not the first time Mastrosimone--best known for his startling victim's revenge drama "Extremities"--has worked with Sullivan and the Seattle Rep. The New Jersey playwright's "Shivaree" went through a similar gestation under Sullivan's guidance, premiering at the regional theater before a successful move east to New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre.
Mastrosimone "is extremely prolific, and we're just one of the places that he writes for," the director said. But as Sullivan spoke during a break in San Diego rehearsals of "Cat's-Paw," Mastrosimone was back in Seattle, readying another premiere (a play called "The Understanding") with another Seattle Rep director.
The bearded, quietly articulate Sullivan first met Mastrosimone at the Actor's Theatre in Louisville, where "Extremities" was unveiled.
"To see that play at 9 in the morning was quite a draining experience, and I remember thinking, who wrote this play?" Sullivan recalled. "It was so riveting, and yet strangely repulsive. I saw Bill over in a corner, this man who looked very powerful and quite strange. I was kind of afraid of him, until I met him. He was quite the opposite character.
"Bill's a tremendously gentle soul. His plays are violent in the reflection of the world, really."
The violence in "Cat's-Paw" begins with a bomb blast in front of the Environmental Protection Agency office, just before the play opens. The intensity doesn't let up, Sullivan said, as the terrorist, fanatically upset over undeterred water pollution, takes an EPA official hostage.
His interaction with a television journalist who arrives, eager for a story at whatever cost, gives the play its dramatic fiber, Sullivan said, making all too real a thesis that, on paper, hovers near comic absurdity.
"There is an absurd idea behind the play," he explained, "which becomes tremendously frightening when you realize you believe it, that there is an environmentalist who is a terrorist.
"The two ideas seem to be incompatible, but you begin to realize that if you were to believe that the environment was being poisoned, as it is, and that no one is doing enough about it, which they aren't, and you saw it as real--you didn't see it as either a hopefulness, a wishful thinking in terms of somebody doing something about it--but . . . you knew what was happening to the world, that it could drive you into violent acts that would seek publicity, which is what terrorism is all about. It's a way of focusing the world's attention on an idea the world refuses to focus on."
When Sullivan first staged readings of "Cat's-Paw," audiences may have been less attuned to its premise, but the director believes recent terrorist events have changed that. "I don't think anybody would deny that there is a symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media."
To keep the realism sharp-edged, Sullivan brought television producers, reporters and camera people in to watch the early workshopping.
His commitment to "Cat's-Paw" intensified when producers told him they would never send a reporter into such a dangerous situation, while the reporters he talked to scoffed at this idealism. They insisted that their producers would never pass up the opportunity for a such an exclusive.
"But we had to be very careful to not imitate life too closely," Sullivan said, "because it would be too absurd . . . the kinds of compromises that would be made in that room in reality would probably have been much more horrendous than the ones (that are) in this play.
"The possibilities now in the world for co-opting the media's attention are so limitless that we really don't have a precedent in terms of how to deal with it," he added. "God knows, censorship of any kind can't be the answer. Then education must be the answer, education of the media, education of the populace. . . ."