BWW Interview: Jeff Sullivan of FINDING NEVERLAND at Robinson Performance Hall
Star quality is like mercury. You can see and it's mesmerizing but you can't put your finger on exactly what it is. It can't be taught or bought, but for those that have it, you can tell immediately. When you combine star quality, with intelligence, kindness and talent you could very easily be talking about Jeff Sullivan. This Canadian import is touring the country as J.M.Barrie in the musical Finding Neverland. Though he is battling recycled air and adjustments in altitude, he was gracious enough to spend some time talking about his life, his art and the joys of never growing up.
Name: Jeff Sullivan
What was your first theater experience?
My first theater experience was actually seeing a community production during the holiday season. It might have been in the first grade or second grade and it would have been seeing something like the Nutcracker. If not the Nutcracker, it was something definitely ballet influenced. It was a school outing so we got to skip school, so that was already exciting. To be able to go and be in an audience setting and it was in a very beautiful theater, these beautiful red seats, like a classic theater. To just sit there as a child and watch a story told in the form of dance, in the form of expression of different varieties was amazing. To be able to see a story told through such different mediums and see all these people coming together to sit down and watch a theatrical experience together. I think that blew my mind and I fall in love with it.
I know you started choir young, but did you also take dance early?
I picked it up later, at about 17. I did start out in choir in elementary school, which was something that you had to be a part of in my school system until second or third grade and then you had the choice to opt in or opt out. Essentially, my choir teacher picks me because I was best friends with her daughter, and she said, "you know, obviously, you want to do it." I was shy at the time and I didn't even speak up to hold my own. And because of that, it made the world of difference because I stayed with the program. When choir moved on to show choir, it incorporated a little bit of dance. And then once I knew that I was going to move to New York City for school, I knew that I didn't have enough experience in dance, if I wanted to pursue musical theatre. I then took a couple classes in jazz and hip hop but nothing in ballet. You know, heaven forbid, but then of course the first thing you do in school in New York is ballet all the time. Because you need it and you have to have it and that's when my dance training started. I got my career start with being more of a dancer. One of the first tours that I ever got was Beauty and The Beast and I was the dancer track that covered Beast and Gaston. Being from Canada, I only had so much time to work. I had to be able to line up enough jobs and to be able to apply for a visa. So whatever job came my way I jumped at it at the first opportunity. Since I was able to sing, dance and act, I was always kind of perfect for the cover. And now it's coming full circle, where I'm starting to grow into the roles that I am more right for. So I'm very, very fortunate to be able to play this role of J.M. Barrie.
When did it click that you knew this was what you wanted to do?
I'm not like most people, there was never a moment where I knew for sure it was what I wanted to do. I never took the reins of my own fate. I instead tested the waters, did community productions, did show choir and had fun doing it, but essentially wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to make money, wanted to help people, wanted to pick a safe career choice, so mom and dad would be happy. It wasn't until I went down to a scout convention where the New York Film Academy was one of the many, many schools that were auditioning there. And I didn't even know that you could go to school for musical theater, because I'm from Canada, in this little tiny place in Canada. And they gave me a scholarship, just for auditioning. I always say, that because somebody believed in me enough to want me to pursue this career, I took it upon myself to believe in myself. Without their beliefs, which is funny, because that's the theme of our show, is to believe, it made the world of difference. And because of that, I decided to pursue this career. I said, being a doctor will always be there, I could be 30 and go to school and be a doctor. But I was 18 and moving to New York City, and just seeing what the States have at hand. It was a big gamble for me. It took somebody believing in me and made a world of difference.
What advice would you give for anyone that's wanting to be a stage performer?
Yeah, my go to answer for this, I actually just had a wonderful discussion at the stage door last night with a couple kids, is find what makes you "You". Know your own individuality and spend more time reflecting on who you are as a human being, and what makes you your own individual. Because no one can Take That away from you. You are your own person in this world. And there are so many musicals out there and musicals are what you love, what you want to do, but there are so many skill sets required. There's so many extra things that are now thrown into musicals, whether it be rollerblading, to fire breathing, to who knows what's coming next, especially on the new wave of musical theater that's coming out. I think, when you find your own peace of mind, because so many people get obsessed with just musical theater and wanting to saturate your life with only musical theatre, it's what you do outside of your job that's important. That will pay off ten fold, I think, in your career and for finding a balance with your life. Your love for musical theatre becomes your work, hopefully, if you're lucky enough to pursue this as a career. And then once it becomes your work, it becomes your everyday job. And so you want to find those things that ground you and keep you honest and real in your day to day life. Make you grateful for the opportunity to be able to do those roles and perform every night and all those things I think is really important individually.
Have you ever seen the film Neverland before you did the show?
I've still never seen the movie. I watched the first five minutes of it, and I said, No, I'm gonna save that for later. That's going to be a fun treat to watch after I finish the musical. I had seen the musical twice, loved the musical, loved the music. I know that this musical was a hybrid between the movie and the play because the movie is based on the play. And then the musical is based the movie but then also has to expand from the movie because it has to make it two and a half hours long. You have to embellish on certain things to make it a musical versus a movie. And I think the world that I knew that we were going to create together with the creative team was inspired by the movie. It's not as informed by the movie because there is a lot more textural insight that I could study through books through biographies There's all kinds of things that informs who I was as a character and what that plot was. Meanwhile, there's a lot of poetic liberties with the actual timeline of the story, but it is based in that truth of who he was, how he grew up, how he got his start.
Is there anything about J.M. Barrie's life that you feel like you can relate to or connect to more than others?
In my bio I mention that I dedicate the show to my younger brother. What I connect to most in this show is the creativity and the childlike whimsy that J.M. Barrie has throughout his entire life. Even though we open the show through a lens on him, being very frustrated with his life, and then he gets in touch with his childlike mentality. Yet again, he always did have that throughout his entire life. I think of my younger brother because he has Down syndrome, he truly is a child forever and will never grow up. That inspired me throughout my entire life growing up because he's four years younger. There could not be a better plotline to define how I grew up. There was unconditional love and then we just overwhelming sense of, no judgment, it's just open, open love and creativity and fun. I think that is truly what J.M. Barrie embodies.
What are the biggest challenges for you doing this role?
I think my biggest challenge with this role is the amount of stage time and the responsibility that comes with that. I get 20 minutes off stage, Barrie doesn't stop. He's on stage, he's jumping in and out of narrating and he's on for the majority of the time. So the biggest challenge for me is just making sure I rest enough, making sure I show up to work in a positive mindset and then devoting 100% of my creativity and energy to this role. To be honest that's kind of the easy part that I find in this show. The easy part is the creativity and fun and the goofing off a little bit. The hard part to me is the emotional roller coaster that you go on. Because even by the end of the show after a one show day, you can feel as rested as possible going into this show. Then after doing that show, you are just gassed, because we go through joy, sorrow, grief, and so many different ranges of emotions because of what happened in his life and how he was able to create Peter Pan. It does take a toll on you, because you want to be there 100% in all of those scenes, you have to be. So I think the emotional roller coaster is the biggest challenge for me. You want to apply so much of yourself to the role and connect to your own truth, that it's difficult. All the things that relate to you, whether you've lost somebody or whether you have gained something or you've gone through hard times in your life. How can you apply that to your craft and your show every single night? Those are the things that the audience will never know, because those help you with your truth and to relive those things every single night, you have to responsibly use those things. To have that in your backstory, and how you do the show can be taxing emotionally. I think that's my point. It's interesting, it's fascinating to me, what your body can adapt to as well, because in rehearsals, going day in and day out doing these things over and over again. I was like, wow, this is extremely hard. And now, it's fascinating to me that it's become reasonable.
I know you have done several tours, including international, how has this tour been for you?
So for me, the International touring circuit there are longer sit downs. You might have two weeks to a month to even a month and a half in some places. With this schedule, we have a very quick paced tour, we're lucky if we get a week in any place. Everything is pretty much three days to two days to one night in each venue. So it can be very taxing. There's a lot of travel, a lot of time on the bus, but you know, that's no stranger to touring. I think this is the first time this tour has been taken out on the schedule like this. So for me, my key ingredient is hydration, of course, you know spending all our time whether it be on a plane or a bus and the dry recycled air, making sure you rehydrate yourself. The recycled air will get you. Steaming is super helpful. We were in Salt Lake City last week which was wonderful, but then we are popped down and now we're in El Paso. So now we're in the middle of this, winter dry versus desert dry. Those climate changes are very drastic. So I think that is the another obstacle for this tour is making sure to do self care. It's hard to prepare for climate changes.
That brings up a question, can you physically feel those differences of being in a different climate? Is that noticeable?
Yeah absolutely. I think you notice it most when you're getting ready during your day. For me, I always go to the gym every day before the show because it's such a marathon. So I have to warm up my body and then I also do a vocal warm ups, then I steam and do all those things. Altitude is a big one, the amount of oxygen in the air. We were in Colorado and it was 6500 feet above sea level and the air quality, the extra amount of breath support that you need to take, you just need to breathe more so then you have to pace yourself during longer sentences. Say, if they have to want you to carry over breathes and stuff. It becomes almost like a mathematical game where you have to give and take and also breathe in new spots where you're not used to breathing. So it makes your brain work a little more which is always a fun test.
What's the one thing that you look forward to when the tour is done?
That's funny that you should ask that, because I was just looking at flights because I have not been home to Newfoundland, Canada in almost three years. That to me is too long. So I have been waiting to go home in a summer, for three years. And the end of the tour perfectly lined up. We finish June 23rd, I'll be headed back probably for good month. Just to enjoy that summer. Maybe go camping outdoors in nature. It will be a huge thing for me and getting to spend that time with my brother and my older brother as well as my mom and dad. It's been a long time. Especially with this show so heavily revolving around family and what makes us. I think that to me, has plucked my heartstrings more than ever to get back.
Do you have anything lined up after the tour is over?
No I don't. It's kind of hard because this tour is 10 months long so therefore most things audition about three months in advance. Towards the last three months my agent will probably be in contact with me to start putting video submissions in while I'm on the road. So nothing lined up yet, fingers crossed we'll see what happens. For me, because I am Canadian, my next goal is to pursue my green card and then once I get my green card, I would love to join the union hopefully go for more Broadway things.
Jeff Sullivan and the rest of Finding Neverland cast will be in Little Rock through December 22nd and 23rd. For tickets contact in person at Celebrity Attractions, via phone at 866.870.2717 or locally at 501.244.8800 or online at findingneverlandthemusical.com