Stage Directions: Daniel Sullivan Shares His Secrets Behind Helming Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–Winning Drama

Interview   Stage Directions: Daniel Sullivan Shares His Secrets Behind Helming Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–Winning Drama
 
The longtime director reveals stories of working with Wendy Wasserstein and why he’ll never tire of Shakespeare.
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Daniel Sullivan Marc J. Franklin

“We’re imagining what the turn of the next century might feel like if world leaders continue to do nothing about the environment, about climate change, and the rise in autocracy around the world,” director Dan Sullivan says. “If human selfishness remained the same, what the world would look like. That’s the imaginative leap we’re taking.” Sullivan is talking about his upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, starring Kate Burton, Teagle F. Bougere, and Jonathan Cake and playing at the Delacorte Theatre in New York’s Central Park July 16–August 11.

The Shakespearean drama about a Roman general, a lust for power, an angry public, the nature of demagoguery, and the dangers faced by democracy, runs as part of the Joseph Papp Public Theatre’s summer Shakespeare in the Park series.

Sullivan, 79, has been directing professionally for nearly a half-century and has helmed more than 30 plays on Broadway. He won the directing Tony Award for David Auburn’s Proof in 2001, and has received seven other Tony nominations: for Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig, Herb Gardner’s Conversations With My Father, the 2002 revival of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, the 2010 revival of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and the 2017 revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Several plays he directed, among them Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends, The Heidi Chronicles, Proof, and Rabbit Hole, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Heidi and Proof, as well as Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, won the Tony for Best Play.) He recently helmed Donald Margulies’ Long Lost at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center-Stage I playing through June 30.

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Ellen Parker, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Joan Allen Gerry Goodstein

Sullivan was artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre from 1981 to 1996. For the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, he previously directed Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, King Lear, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Here, the longtime director talks about his decades-long approach to directing, working with Wendy Wasserstein, and why he’ll never tire of Shakespeare.

Why he became a director:
“Like most directors, like most people I know in any area of the theatre, I was an actor. I came up in high school doing plays. But I found finally that when I was in a play I was more interested in what everybody else was doing than what I was doing. So I love the mechanics of it. That was the first thing that interested me. I love music and dancing, so that sort of choreographic skill I found useful in terms of just bodies in space.”

His directing principles:
“I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I wouldn’t recognize it in myself. But I know that [one is] honesty, not just on the part of the actor in terms of a presentation but on my part also. I try not to be manipulative in my work. I try to be as honest as I possibly can, so that there’s a good degree of trust in the room when you work, that there’ll be no bull basically. I’m careful not to misspeak, let’s put it that way, because I know how easily someone can be knocked off the path they’re on. I try to use an actor’s instincts when I work, as well as my own.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I hope that it’s freeing. I don’t like to block a play right away. Again, I like to use the actor’s impulses. To me, that’s the balance that you have to keep—you have to keep the actor constantly using their own impulses and at the same time you have to lead. You have to protect the text and make sure everything’s making sense. There’s a way I think of being watchful and protective when working with actors so that you’re not constantly interrupting with observations but letting a thing grow, with the best instincts of whoever you’re working with.”

A mistake he made he learned from:
“The list goes on and on, and I’m still making mistakes and still learning. I think the biggest mistake you can make—and I find that with journeymen directors a lot—is the idea of control, that you have to control everything. That is the quickest way to lose control, I find. Or it’s the quickest way to produce bad work, because you’re basically stepping on actors’ instincts. It’s a very easy thing to fall into at the beginning, because you feel that you have to dominate in some way. You don’t see it as a group effort.”

About Coriolanus:
“It’s set in a world of shrinking possibilities. People are starving. The military governments of the various city-states are all at war. So it resembles Rome in the fifth century B.C. A remembered democratic world is trying to reestablish itself. That’s the world we’re trying to create here.

“The Roman general Coriolanus wants to become consul. Or he wants to follow his mother’s desire for him to become consul. Whether he actually wants it or not is up for debate. He never achieves it, because the people drag him down. He may have tyrannical instincts but he never actually gets to wield them. An overgrown child is a good description of this character. Because he’s so attached to his mother. He’s never really disentangled himself from that relationship. She is the one who sent him off to war when he was 16 years old, and he’s been at war ever since.

“Given this world of terribly reduced circumstances, and given this world of the military, where military heroes, people who keep the people safe, are preeminent, it’s sort of understandable that he’s on a trajectory that would lead him to become a tyrant. He gives no quarter, he is good at his job—keeping the people safe—but a terrible politician, which is the reason that he fails so remarkably at the job.”

Directing Shakespeare:
“I love to do Shakespeare because I just love to spend time in his mind. It’s a great, capacious mind to walk into. Every time you do it you learn so much. There are very few plays you can revisit as a director. Usually once you’ve done them you’ve done them. That’s not true of Shakespeare. Every time you come back to him, world circumstances, your own life, all of those changes seem to synthesize the breadth of these plays.

“I explore Shakespearean text in the same way I would explore a contemporary text. I think the difference between directing Shakespeare and a modern play is the amount of time—in the process of putting a play by Shakespeare on its feet you spend a lot more time at the table with the actors investigating the text, simply because of the denseness of the language. In order to be able to enter the text it requires a whole lot of keys you have to keep pulling out that give you a sense of the deeper meanings. Even when you’re contemporizing a text like we’re doing, the text remains purely Shakespeare and you have to understand it from the point of view of not just Rome fifth century B.C. but also of the point of view of Elizabethan England, because so many references are strictly Elizabethan.”

Working With Wendy Wasserstein:
“Wendy would usually give me maybe half a play. It would be something she was working on and not entirely finished. The same was true with Herb Gardner, where you would start with very unfinished work. Through discussions of what was there, of what was basically the idea of the play, the rest of it would come along. She’s greatly missed by me and by many, many others.”

The future:
“After Coriolanus it’s a well-deserved rest. I teach at the University of Illinois, I have for the last 20 years, so I go out there for the fall. Then back here to start a production of a musical of The Visitor that we’re doing at the Public.” [Editor’s note: The Visitor is a new Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) musical, starring David Hyde-Pierce and based on the 2007 Tom McCarthy film about a Connecticut professor who finds illegal immigrants living in his New York apartment, set for next March Off-Broadway at The Public.]

“I’d love to spend some time looking at more Eugene O’Neill. I’ve never done The Iceman Cometh. That’s a play I’d like to do. I’ve never done Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Those plays fascinate me. I feel very connected to them and I’d love to do productions of them sometime.”

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