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The Backstage Alchemist

Daniel Sullivan has nurtured the likes of Wendy Wasserstein. What does he have in mindfor John Patrick Shanley's 'Psychopathia Sexualis'? Hint: nothing too warm and fuzzy.

May 19, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Anyone who's followed American theater over the past decade has probably run across the name of director Daniel Sullivan. In fact, it would've been hard to avoid.

A nearly ubiquitous presence, Sullivan has been responsible for developing and bringing to Broadway plays such as Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport" (1985) and Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles" (1989) (which went on to win a Tony and a Pulitzer) and "The Sisters Rosensweig" (1992).

He has been nominated three times for Tonys, staged a number of hits at key off-Broadway venues and had more successful productions touring from here to Hoboken than virtually any other nonmusical director today.

Sullivan doesn't try to do it all, like some other regional theater artistic directors who have had success directing musicals on Broadway--such as the Old Globe's Jack O'Brien or former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff--and his work is more difficult to characterize. Unlike many others today, Sullivan doesn't direct in a flashy or high-concept style.

"I'm sort of stuck in realism, in relatively traditional storytelling," says the soft-spoken director, who tended to look away as he formed his thoughts during a recent conversation at the Mark Taper Forum, where his staging of John Patrick Shanley's "Psychopathia Sexualis" opens Thursday. The comedy about gender differences by the author of "Four Dogs and a Bone" is set in motion when a man confesses a sexual quirk to his fiancee.

Sullivan, 55, is the kind of man who considers his best work to be when "the direction disappears." And the director, like his work, is famously unobtrusive.

But don't let his low-key style fool you: This is a shrewd player with a knack for spotting commercially viable new plays.

Artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre since 1981--a post from which he will step down in one year's time--Sullivan is widely credited with putting that theater on the map. Yet he's known for nurturing new scripts.

The secret of his success seems to be, in large part, his way with writers. "It's posing questions, more than anything else," Sullivan says. "I've never known 'you should do this' [to help].

"The less attached I get to my own thinking and the more I pose questions, the more the writer has to work with," he continues. "It may sound a little like manipulation, and maybe it is, but it allows the writer ownership of what he or she is doing."


Clearly, Sullivan is a playwrights' director, as a wide range of artists will tell you.

"He loses himself in the play," says Gardner, who also developed "Conversations With My Father" with Sullivan. "He's only interested in what you're after, not what he's after.

"I would call him the state of the art," Gardner continues. "There's only about half a dozen really good directors, and he's four of them."

"Daniel Sullivan is a mysterious, good man who works very hard," says Bill Irwin, whose "Largely/New York" was created under Sullivan's aegis. "I don't entirely understand how he does it, but he makes amazing work happen--and he's always at work."

Sullivan's working ways, of course, didn't develop overnight.

He was raised in San Mateo and attended nearby San Francisco State. He became involved with the theater there, studying under Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, in particular.

In 1971, Sullivan went to the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, where Irving was director (Irving and Blau had taken over the theater in 1964, but Blau resigned in 1967). Although he was there ostensibly as an actor, Sullivan recalls, "They really didn't have much for me to do so they said 'here, go direct plays.' "

When Irving resigned in 1972, Sullivan continued to work in the N.Y. theater. Then, in 1979, he accepted the position of resident director at Seattle Rep.

One of his first moves in his new Northwest home was to establish a new play program. "The first play I had directed was [A.R.] Pete Gurney's 'Scenes From American Life' at Lincoln Center," Sullivan says. "I was used to the process of developing a new play and I missed it when I got out to Seattle."

What made the program devised by this self-described "slow reader" different was that it stressed refining a script before staging it. "The whole idea of developing a new play was not a current idea," he says. "You put on plays. You didn't develop them."

In 1981, Sullivan became the Rep's artistic director. Since then, he's staged more than two dozen plays, including main-stage productions of Shakespeare, Chekhov and other classics, as well as works by new vaudeville talents such as the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Irwin.

Yet the new play program has been, and remains, his calling card. In it, he has nurtured scripts such as "Cat's Paw" and "Shivaree" by William Mastrosimone and Gardner's "Conversations With My Father," which went to New York in 1991.

If such transfers are the measure of success, Sullivan's program has indeed done better than most. Yet he credits the setting as much as himself.

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