InDepth InterView: Daniel Sullivan Talks ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, GOOD PEOPLE, MERCHANT & More
Having directed a handful of the most acclaimed performances of the season - among them Al Pacino and Lily Rabe in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, as well as GOOD PEOPLE'S Frances McDormand- the last thing you would expect Daniel Sullivan to be doing would be taking on one of Shakespeare's most problematic plays - ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL - and putting it on in Central Park; yet, Mr. Sullivan soldiers on. Discussing the intricacies of the text to MERCHANT that he so finely honed onstage this season, in addition to illustrating what audiences can expect from the esteemed cast of his new Shakespeare production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, ALL'S WELL - including performances by Tonya Pinkins, Reg Rogers and more - we also take a look back at some of his past plays and his own performances as an actor in the 1960s and 1970s - plus, what it was like to understudy a young Al Pacino - and, we also look ahead to the increasingly bright future for MERCHANT, GOOD PEOPLE and Mr. Sullivan himself. Additionally, Mr. Sullivan shares some opinions of the film versions of the plays he has famously directed- such as PROOF, DINNER WITH FRIENDS and RABBIT HOLE - and reveals plans for a West Coast remounting of MERCHANT in the near future, a possible transfer of GOOD PEOPLE as well as his anticipation for his next project, THE COLUMNIST, premiering at the Manhattan Theatre Club early next season.
Performances of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL begin June 6 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Further information on tickets and dates can be found at www.ShakespeareInThePark.org.
PC: So, who are you voting for: Lily or Frances?
DS: (Laughs.) Uh, oh - I'm taking that one to my grave!
PC: Was it your plan to do GOOD PEOPLE and MERCHANT in the same season - such disparately different pieces - or did it all just happen that way?
DS: It all just happened that way. The show in the Park eventually went to Broadway, so it wasn't supposed to be a part of the Broadway season originally - it just happened. And, Al happened to be available for that Broadway run so that's why that happened. GOOD PEOPLE had been on the dock
PC: Lily Rabe did this column and spoke about how different the spaces were in the Park versus on Broadway for MERCHANT. Could you tell me about adapting the production to the two vastly different venues?
DS: Well, that particular move was actually fortuitous because MERCHANT OF VENICE is almost all interiors to begin with. We do everything in the Park so we can adapt it easily, but it was a much more intimate space at the Broadhurst and I thought that the interior scenes of the play played much better because of that.
PC: Indeed. What about working with an actor with the magnitude of Al Pacino? He is perhaps the greatest actor alive.
DS: Yeah - and, he is a theatre guy. So, he understands what is required there. He is, of course, a magnificent film actor, but he got his start on the stage and he returns to the stage a lot. He is a hard-working guy with a lot of discipline.
PC: Had you two worked together previously? I know you have been in major productions of MERCHANT OF VENICE before.
DS: No, I had never worked with him - but, I knew him. Years ago I understudied him when I was working at Lincoln Center back in the sixties. So, I knew him from back then.
PC: What was the production you did together back then?
DS: CAMINO REAL - the [Tennessee] Williams. He played Kilroy in that and I understudied him.
PC: Speaking of your acting career, what was that production of Brecht's GOOD WOMAN OF SEZUAN like?
DS: That was one that was done at Lincoln, also, in the mid-sixties. It was directed by Bob Simons.
PC: Tonya Pinkins is one of the great musical theatre actresses and she will be participating in both Shakespeare-In-The-Park productions this season, correct?
DS: Yeah, she is going to be in both productions. I knew Tonya and I worked with her years ago in MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR at the Delacorte. She played one of the merry wives. So, I knew she had the Shakespeare chops and she was available, so she came out from LA to do it.
PC: Will this production be using an original score?
DS: Yes, an original score by Tom Kitt.
PC: Oh, wow - a Pulitzer Prize-winner and a Tony-winner - and he did such great work on THE WINTER'S TALE last year.
DS: Yes, he did WINTER'S TALE last year and I was so impressed with what he did. So, I was anxious to work with him.
PC: There are only one or two songs in the text of ALL‘S WELL, from what I remember.
DS: Yeah, there are no songs in this production. There was one song - that I cut! (Laughs.)
PC: You can't always have it all!
DS: We've eliminated that song, so Tom's contribution is basically all underscore.
PC: I don't think a lot of people are familiar with ALL'S WELL, so could you tell us what you think it has to say today?
DS: Yeah, a lot of people think they are familiar with it and they say, "How's AS YOU LIKE IT going?" And, I have to say, "No, it's actually ALL'S WELL." And, they reply, "Oh? What is that about?" So, yeah. As you know, it is considered one of the three problem plays of Shakespeare.
PC: And how do you see those?
DS: Well, that term "problem play" has been changed over the years from a play about problem issues to a play that's hard to do. (Laughs.)
PC: That's so true.
DS: Yeah, the "problem" is how you do it! (Laughs.)
PC: What is ALL'S WELL about to you?
DS: It's about love and loyalty. It is about bad choices, romantically. It is about the empowerment of women. It is about very, very many different themes that are sort of bound of together. It is very much about religion and religion's place in our lives today.
PC: Many believe Shakespeare was atheistic, or at least agnostic...
PC: How do you think that informs the religious commentary in the play? It's particularly prevalent in ALL'S WELL.
DS: Well, I think that, certainly, Shakespeare believed that very often we leave to heaven the things we have to take control of ourselves.
PC: Totally - calls to action.
DS: This play really makes that argument. It's something that he talked about in many plays, and, certainly, in a scene in this, to paraphrase: "When should we look to heaven to intercede and when should we take matters into our own hands?"
PC: What is your personal favorite moment or line in the play?
DS: Well, I don't know that I could be specific about a moment in the play.
PC: What about a moment that has stayed with you when you saw it yourself as an audience member sometime in the past?
DS: I only saw this play once, actually, when I was eight years old.
PC: What production was it?
DS: I didn't see the Trevor Nunn production - which, apparently, was very good. I didn't see the David Jones production out in the Park - which is much loved. I somehow missed ALL'S WELL all along. I did see it when I was eight years old at Ashland and I remember the character of Paroles.
PC: Of course!
DS: Yes, if you can imagine that for an eight-year-old kid that would have been quite a hoot, you know? (Laughs.)
PC: Without question.
DS: He is still an extraordinarily vivid character - and, as played by Reg Rogers, maybe he is even more vivid. He is also in MEASURE [FOR MEASURE] in the Park coming up.
PC: Is there a clear-cut directorial stamp on this production of ALL'S WELL that you have imposed?
DS: Well, for this ALL'S WELL we are doing it in a post-World War I period. So, the science in the play and the medicine in the play that is central to it becomes something that we can really understand and identify with.
PC: What did you find you had to cut - besides the song?
DS: Well, not too much - it runs two and a half and it's a short play to begin with.
PC: Did you ever consider doing MEASURE in the Park this season as well?
DS: Yeah, David Esbjornson is doing MEASURE. If I did both of these plays I would be a dead man. (Laughs.)
PC: How wonderful you have imparted Shakespeare to hundreds of thousands of people with that entirely sold-out run of MERCHANT, coming after it being in the Park, and here you are again in the Park.
DS: Yes, it was sold out the entire run.
PC: When Lily did this column she told me that somehow every performance it managed to get better.
DS: Yeah, yeah - absolutely.
PC: Do you feel that will be true about this production of ALL'S WELL?
DS: Very much so. Certainly, that happens with most productions of Shakespeare - you know, actors get more and more comfortable and you begin to understand the solidity of the structure of these plays. It becomes more and more apparent as you work on them. That's something the actors can really also feel as the run goes on, I think.
PC: Do you have any particular opinions of the film versions of the plays you've directed - DINNER WITH FRIENDS? RABBIT HOLE? PROOF?
DS: Yeah, I've seen them all - RABBIT HOLE, PROOF. I usually don't see them right away, but, yeah, I've seen them. And, I always prefer the plays - of course I do, though, because that is where they are most at home. But, certainly, I have enjoyed all three of those.
PC: SPINNING INTO BUTTER is one of the worst films I have ever seen, did you happen to see that one?
DS: No, I did not see it.
PC: What is next?
DS: Well, the next thing I am supposed to be doing is that we are trying to get together a production of MERCHANT OF VENICE in Los Angeles and San Francisco, so that is the next thing. Then, I am doing a play about Joseph Alsop called THE COLUMNIST at MTC.
PC: I believe Michael Riedel wrote a column on that positively raving about it.
DS: Did he? I don't know.
PC: Is it a really great text? Are you excited about working on it?
DS: Yes - yes, I am.
PC: Is there any interest in a transfer of GOOD PEOPLE, as well?
DS: That, certainly is being talked about - but, I have no idea whether or not it will come to fruition.
PC: We'll have to see.
DS: Yeah, we will have to see what happens!
PC: Seth Numrich spoke so favorably of working with you on MERCHANT earlier this season, as well.
DS: How nice of him. I saw him in WAR HORSE and he was just wonderful.
PC: Define collaboration in terms of this production of ALL'S WELL.
DS: Well, I don't know that it is any different on this production than any other production that I ever did. Obviously, as a director of Shakespeare, there is a slight difference in the sense of how you go about it because you, yourself, are responsible for the sort of visual world that the play takes place in. And, there are strictures to that that all of the actors have to sort of buy onto when you start to work. So, that is an important process, but the actual work of the actor is always a collaborative one with me.
PC: Is there a line in your mind from the play you can't shake?
DS: Oh, God, I don't know. I really couldn't even come up with one right now - I'm in the middle of tech! (Laughs.)
PC: You're an impossibly busy man! Thank you so much for this, Dan. Have a great day.
DS: Thanks, Pat. I really appreciate it. Bye.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos
From This Author Pat Cerasaro