PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Daniel Sullivan

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Daniel Sullivan There really is no such thing as a New York theatre season without director Daniel Sullivan.
Daniel Sullivan
Daniel Sullivan Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Since stepping down as artistic director of Seattle Rep in 1997, no season has passed on Broadway and Off without at least one production piloted by the versatile Sullivan. More often, it's two productions, or three. Such was the case this season as well, which saw the constantly sought-after director stage Accent on Youth at MTC — a theatre company he guest-artistic-directed during the 2007-08 season. Next up is a new rendition of Twelfth Night in Central Park. The tireless Sullivan spoke to Playbill.com about his assignments, past, present and future.

Playbill.com: I have been told that you have wanted to stage Accent on Youth for some time. That surprised me, given the play is rather obscure. How did the play get on your radar?
Daniel Sullivan: Jack Viertel, years ago, at Jujamcyn Theatres sent me the play. He was interested at that time in putting together a commercial production. We looked at various possibilities. We were never able to actually cast it in a commercial way. We basically abandoned it. It was actually Mandy Greenfield at MTC who brought the play up again to me, knowing that I had been interested in it at one point, and knowing that I was looking for something for David [Hyde Pierce]. That's how that happened.

Playbill.com: What was it about the play that appealed so much?
DS: I thought the fit between David and the play was an excellent one.

Playbill.com: Do you like plays from that period, the 1930s?
DS: Very much. We have a tendency in this country to sort of ignore our past, and I think there are a lot of plays from that period, including Philip Barry's plays, that are interesting, and certainly worthy of exploration. We have a tendency to just look and the Kaufman and Hart, and Kaufman and Ferber plays, that have a sort of high energy. But we don't look at those plays that look at the behavior of that period. Even S.N. Behrman's plays, those plays, in terms of construction, are relatively simple. But they're still deeply subtextual works.

Playbill.com: You recently came off a season stepping in as the acting artistic director on Manhattan Theatre Club, while Lynne Meadow took a year-long sabbatical. You've been an artistic director before, for many years, at Seattle Rep. What was it like returning to that job?
DS: It was an odd experience. I had forgotten a lot of what I didn't like about being an artistic director. (Laughs) Though I just love the staff at MTC. It's a great group. And the working relationship was a good one. But I had done it for almost 19 years in Seattle. It took up a lot of time. Playbill.com: If you had to point to one or two things you were happiest about accomplishing at MTC during that season, what would they be?
DS: That the theatre is still alive. (Laughs) And I think the co-production we did with the Goodman Theatre of Ruined. Lynn Nottage is a favorite of mine, so I'm so glad she let us do it.

Playbill.com: Yes, that turned out well, didn't it? Pulitzer Prize for Drama and all. Now, you're going to be going back into Shakespeare, with Twelfth Night in Central Park.
DS: We're setting it in the early 19th century. I thought it would be interesting to set it when conventions had loosened up a bit. At first, [designers] Jane Greenwood and John Lee Beatty were talking about perhaps an early Victorian world, but then we thought that might be too corseted and starched, and we needed a freer period. I've done shows in the park before, and when I have people in heavy costumes in the middle of the summer, I feel really guilty.

Playbill.com: And no trap doors on this production, huh? You fell through one in 2007 while directing Midsummer Night's Dream in the park, and fractured four ribs.
DS: There's actually one big one center stage.

Playbill.com: Stay away from it!
DS: Yeah, I'm not going to go up there.

Playbill.com: You've put together quite a cast. Have you ever worked with Anne Hathaway, who will play Viola, before?
DS: I haven't. I met with her a few months ago, and I think she's delightful and will be wonderful in the role.

Playbill.com: And what do you do after Twelfth Night?
DS: Then I get a nice rest. And then we start in with Charlayne Woodard's Night Watcher at Primary Stages. Then Donald Margulies' play Time Stands Still at MTC.

Playbill.com: You've worked with Margulies so many times, including his Pulitzer Prize-winner, Dinner With Friends. You have directed more of the original productions of the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays of the past decade than any other director. What do you think of that?
DS: Just lucky.

Playbill.com: So you don't pilot them to greatness.
DS: Not at all. There's no way you can make a great play. A great play is a great play. You can't make a bad play good.