by Jesse Hamlin
Director Daniel Sullivan on SF State, Al Pacino and the revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross".
Director Daniel Sullivan (B.A.,'62) has just finished rehearsing "Glengarry Glen Ross" with Al Pacino, Richard Schiff and John C. McGinley. The actors play the desperate real estate salesmen in the current Broadway revival of David Mamet's 1984 play about men and money and what they're worth in the ruthless world of American business.
"Al is great to work with, mainly because we're the same age and get tired about the same time," says the wry-humored Sullivan. He directed Pacino in the acclaimed 2010 Delacorte Theater production of "The Merchant of Venice," one of many Shakespearean works Sullivan has helmed in a fruitful, diverse career on and off Broadway and in film. He has not only directed Broadway revivals of works by everyone from Harold Pinter to Eugene O'Neill, but also directed premiers of major plays by Wendy Wasserstein, Herb Gardner, Donald Margulies and David Auburn " Sullivan won a 2001 Tony Award for directing Auburn's prize-winning "Proof."
Pacino, who played top dog Ricky Roma in James Foley's 1992 film version of Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, came to Sullivan eager to take on a new role: Roma's down-on-his-luck mentor, Shelly "The Machine" Levene.
"[Pacino] called me one day and said he was re-reading "Glengarry" and what a great play it was," says Sullivan, on the phone from the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, actress Mimi Lieber. "He told me he didn't really know the other characters and wanted to do Shelly. It was an interesting idea that never would've occurred to me."
Sullivan, who came out of the celebrated San Francisco Actor's Workshop founded by SF State Theatre Arts Professors Herbert Blau and Jules Irving, loves collaborating with actors and writers who surprise him, particularly when they are working on renowned plays, which reveal themselves anew through a contemporary prism.
Today, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, the "Glengarry" real estate hustlers who seemed like "bottom feeders when the play first came out, we now see as the guys at J.P. Morgan Chase," Sullivan says with a laugh. What doesn't change is the rhythm of Mamet's riffing language, "the counterpoint that's constantly there. Young actors sometimes have a tendency to draw it out and find meaning. But the meaning is in the rhythm."
"Mentoring is really important to me... It's great to be able to tell young people that theatre can be a life for them."
Pacino, he goes on, "is a wily actor. He's very intuitive, but he lays down a methodi- cal base for what he's doing," says Sullivan, who started out as an actor at SF State, appearing in a slew of shows that ranged from Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" to Ben Jonson's "Volpone." He was one of the talented kids Blau and Irving " who were big on avant-garde and absurdist plays " plucked to perform at the Actor's Workshop, where Sullivan appeared in Beckett's "Endgame" and Pinter's "The Caretaker."
When Blau and Irving were tapped in 1965 to run the repertory theatre company at New York's prestigious Lincoln Center, they took Sullivan and a handful of others with them. He found his métier when Irving asked him to take over the direction of a new play by A.R. Gurney, "Scenes for an American Life." It was his first professional directing job.
"It was a new play and that's what I've enjoyed the most, directing new plays," Sullivan says. "I like being around writers. I like the process of developing the plays."
Sullivan grew up in San Mateo, where he performed in musicals as a kid. He studied English at SF State before switching to theatre. "I tried out for musicals as a way to meet girls and have a social life. Then I started to read plays and became interested in them."
He studied with Irving and with Tom Tyrell, a polished professional actor who "had a great love and appreciation of actors. He never pontificated. He made you feel like a peer." Sullivan's peers at SF State included: Paul Gemignani (B.A.,'68), who became a major musical director associated with Stephen Sondheim; David Emmes (M.F.A., '62) and Martin Benson (B.A., '71), co-founders of South Coast Rep and longtime Sullivan friends and colleagues; and the noted actor Jeffrey Tambor (B.A.,'65). "I saw everything Jeffrey did at State and thought "he's a genius"," says Sullivan, who recalls performing with Tambor on the McKenna Theatre stage in "Volpone." It was Sullivan, though, in the role of Mosca, who was singled out by a student newspaper reviewer. "His energy, dexterity and mobility high- light every scene," wrote the critic, who praised Sullivan's "wonderfully comic style."
"State was kind of a theatre factory at the time," says Sullivan, "with one production after another. I remember doing "The Miser" [by Moliore] and the musical "Where's Charley?" It was great training."
Sullivan served as artistic director for Seattle Repertory Theatre from 1981 to 1997, where one of the many plays he directed was his own "Inspecting Carol." Now a theatre professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he thrives on teaching.
"I love working with young people and seeing them go out into the world," says Sullivan, who will direct Alec Baldwin in a revival of Lyle Kessler's "Orphans" on Broadway in the spring. "Mentoring is really important to me. I remember the way I was mentored by Jules and Herb and other teachers at State. It's great to be able to tell young people that theatre can be a life for them."