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BWW Interview: Katy Sullivan of PANDORA at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Represents an Exciting Expansion of Possibilities in the World of Theater

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The award-winning actor and Paralympic athlete leads the cast in an imaginative retelling of the Pandora myth that speaks to our present times

BWW Interview: Katy Sullivan of PANDORA at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Represents an Exciting Expansion of Possibilities in the World of Theater
Actor and athlete Katy Sullivan
(Photo courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

The best part of my job as a theater writer is that I get to speak with fascinating people, and they don't come more fascinating than actor and Paralympic athlete Katy Sullivan, who plays the titular role in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's benefit online workshop reading of Pandora. This intriguing new work by acclaimed playwright Laurel Ollstein investigates the Pandora's box myth, delving into the world-changing curiosity and hope resulting from one woman's fateful actions. The streamed performance features a stellar cast of actors assembled from across the country and was recorded over Zoom under the direction of TheatreWorks Artistic Associate and Director of New Works Giovanna Sardelli. Pandora will be offered via video streaming from 6pm (PDT), Thursday, September 24, 2020 until 6pm (PDT), Monday, September 28, 2020. Viewers can sign up to receive a link to view Pandora at TheatreWorks.org without charge, although donations are encouraged to support TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. For additional information, visit TheatreWorks.org or call (650) 463-1960.

Sullivan is an award-winning actor, producer, writer, and athlete. She starred in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living (Manhattan Theatre Club and Williamstown Theatre Festival), and has been nominated for Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, Lucille Lortel, and Ovation Awards, and is a recipient of a Theatre World Award. Her TV credits include "Station 19," "My Name is Earl," "Last Man Standing," "Legit," and "NCIS: New Orleans." She is also a Paralympic track and field athlete, a four-time US Champion in 100m, and US record holder. Born a bi-lateral transfemoral amputee, missing both lower legs, she is also an in-demand public speaker on the topics of fighting for your dreams and making the things that help you stand out become the things that make you extraordinary.

I recently spoke by phone with Sullivan in Chicago where she is currently enjoying a respite away from her home base of New York City. She is delightful to talk to - instantly approachable, unguarded, funny and innately upbeat without ever coming across as saccharine or naive. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become involved with Pandora?

Laurel, the playwright, saw me do a reading at the Writers Guild West and also saw me do the LA production of Cost of Living. According to her, she had just kind of put me in the back of her mind as someone she wanted to work with at some point. She dreamt up the idea of this play through working with the Getty originally, and then asked me if I wanted to workshop it. It was a little complicated because I was in New York and she was in LA, so I flew to LA for a couple workshops last year, and then we did a workshop in New York. It's been really cool to be involved in the deep conversations about where we think these characters are going or where we see them expanding. And so much has changed, which I think is the really exciting and fun part of being involved in a brand-new work.

How would you describe the play? What are audiences in for?

The play is modern-ish, because it feels like we are in sort of a magical land where time and space are a little relative, a little fluid. It's a retelling of the myth of Pandora, who was the first woman ever created, and according to the myth, the perfect woman. As the story goes, she's given this box and told not to open it. When she does, she lets out all the evil in the world [laughs ironically] - "just like a woman!" So Laurel has taken those basic principles and ideas and sort of created a magical island where Pandora lives. We actually meet up with her on her wedding day. She's a newly created human so she is also learning everything, and curious and experiencing everything for the first time. So it's this really big reimagining of A VERY OLD story.

You're part of a terrific cast under the direction of the fabulous Giovanna Sardelli. What has the rehearsal process been like?

It's been this whole new world of what actors are having to experience and be a part of, this world of Zoom. Laurel and Giovanna put together an incredible group of people that just immediately jumped in and started playing, and we ended up finding these cools things and being able to tell the story in a way on Zoom that's totally different. It's a different medium, a whole new way of bringing a theatrical event to life. For actors, I think this whole experience with Covid and theaters shutting down kind of [left us] in this place of "How do we create art? How do we move forward?" This was sort of that first safe place to do this kind of thing. It was just invigorating and exciting to be back in a rehearsal room, even if it was a virtual room.

Your best-known stage work to date is your performance as Ani in Martyna Majok's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living. I have to ask about the scene where your character slips perilously while in the bathtub. It sounds harrowing for audiences. What was it like to actually play that scene?

You know, that play has really in many ways changed my life. Playing Ani was artistically one of the most amazing gifts I've ever been given as an actor. My last scene in the play, I lay in a bathtub the entire time so when we started working on the play, I was so worried that not enough was happening. [laughs] I mean it's just your head and neck sticking out of the bathtub. I think as actors we don't often trust that language can do a lot of the work for us. We don't have to be swinging our arms around and doing cartwheels and all this extra stuff. Sometimes you can just lay in a bathtub and talk and listen, and it can be incredibly compelling. That was something I had to learn to trust.

But also the slip-into-the-bathtub moment catches people so off guard, and I think that it's such smart writing for two reasons. One, Martyna has written it in such a way that you're not really expecting it. It's this quiet, really sensitive scene between this couple who are divorcing and then all of the sudden, it's this moment of danger. But what's also really compelling about it, I think, is having a performer with an actual disability play this role. You've established to the audience that I'm a double amputee, so it is one of those rare moments in the theater where the audience, unless they know me, truly doesn't know if the character is in danger or if I am in danger as a person. We've had people almost leap out of their chairs. Even underwater, I can hear people going "No, no, no!" In one instance when Eddie is walking back in, somebody from the audience was like, "Hurry up!" It is so rare in theater where you can truly take an audience's breath away in the moment, you're so suspended in the reality but [also wondering] where is the line of danger? And I think that's what's so incredible about that moment in that play.

Is it true that you had to learn how to use an electric wheelchair for that role?

I did! I'm a double amputee, but I've always worn prosthetics so I've never used a wheelchair in daily life, and especially not an electric one. There was a lot to learn, especially in certain productions. The production Off-Broadway we were on a rotating stage -

Which is a challenge for any actor to negotiate -

Which is a challenge anyhow, and [we had] wheels on wheels. I mean the number of times during tech that I was running into a flat! I was like, "I'm so sorry! I was not trying to do that." It was challenging, but we made it out alive, so that's good.

Both you and the play received rapturous reviews in New York. In The New York Times, critic Jesse Green noted your expert comic timing and said you needed to be cast in a classic Neil Simon role ASAP.

Yeah, that has yet to happen - no Neil Simon for me recently. But I have to say Pandora is such a refreshing change of pace from Cost of Living in that Pandora, my character, is very innocent and she has this lightness to her. I hope it comes across. It's so hard to tell when you do something on Zoom, and you don't have that live audience. But I've been able to use that comic timing in this piece and it's been tremendously fun to be someone who knows nothing but is incredibly curious. Imagine being a person who opens your eyes and you're an adult and it's your first day on earth and you have to go "What's that? Well, what's that?" You know?

You have a BFA in acting from Webster University, and I'm curious about your experience as an acting student with a disability. I mean, I went to acting school about 40 years ago, and I'm still a bit scarred from that whole experience! I'm not disabled, but I constantly struggled to find my place because I didn't fit any particular type. What was your educational experience like?

I'm not really certain what they saw in me, but I was never really singled out in any way. Did I participate in our production of 42nd Street where everyone was tap dancing? No, but I sang and I was in musicals in college, and I also got cast as Hedda Gabler, so my university was, I think, especially for that time, incredibly forward-thinking in giving me the opportunity to get the skills and really do the hard work and not treat me with kid gloves. I went to every movement class, I took gymnastics my sophomore year. I did the work, but I have to give them credit for giving me the opportunity to do the work.

And - I do think we're [now] sort of at a tipping point. We're in a moment of change and it's been cool to see more representation of people with disabilities, actual authentic portrayals, not taking an able-bodied person and sitting them in a wheelchair and you know having to bring in a disabled person to explain their life experience. Where performers with disabilities would in the past be brought on as consultants on a project or as movement coaches, now it's like "No, let that person actually play the role. Let us tell our own stories." I think there's starting to be more of a call for that, and it's exciting to see and be a part of.

There is so much conversation right now about how the make theater more representative of the actual world we live in, but even those discussions tend to focus mostly on issues of race and gender. Do you have thoughts on specific actions that could be taken to make theater more accessible for disabled folks? (Realizing of course that "disabled folks" covers a huge umbrella!)

I think the biggest piece is having more directors and producers realize that it doesn't mean extra work for other people in the company. Individuals with disabilities have spent their entire lives adapting to a world that was not set up for them, so we do that already, [laughs] like on the regular. We are master adapters; that's what we do.

I just think we need more thinking more outside the box. For example, looking at Ali Stroker playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma! The character's not written that way, the character never mentions it, they didn't make it about that, but - it adds a really interesting color to this character going out of her way to be promiscuous and bawdy and loud, and in a way that really got people's attention. And so I think more people need to be willing to take those risks, to say "Wow, it would be really interesting to have, you know, Miss Hannigan be a double amputee." There are ways of using performers with disabilities in really creative ways. People just have to not be afraid to say, "What is this gonna take?"

Right. And using Ali Stroker again as an example, I particularly enjoyed her in Spring Awakening because something about the energy of her zipping around that stage in a wheelchair totally matched the teen angst of that show. I thought it was a perfect visual expression of the underlying themes.

Yeah, so it is not looking at what someone's disadvantage is going to bring in terms of more complications, but what can someone's physical circumstance and appearance, who they are and what they bring to the table, what can that add to your production?

Is it a struggle for you to get seen for roles that aren't specifically disabled characters?

Um, yes and no. I'm sure there are hundreds of auditions that I've never known about because my agents tried to get me in and they're not gonna make me cry every week, you know? But that doesn't mean that there aren't opportunities for me to work. I also think that's why it's so vitally important when you are given an opportunity to make the absolute best out of that opportunity and take every opportunity that comes along with it. Because the number of times that I have been onstage in recent years and it led to something else, that has happened more often than me [getting cast by] walking into an audition room. I can do both, but more recently in my life, people have seen Cost of Living, they've seen me do other things, and then you know the producer from "Station 19" calls and says, "We have this character. Can she be in the season finale?" That sort of thing.

But like I said, you have to show up, you have to do the work. You have to push yourself to be your best and more. Work begets work, that's all I can say about that, at least with my career.

I recently watched the episode of "My Name Is Earl" that you were on, and I was struck by two different things. First off, that you were (once again!) playing someone in a wheelchair, which is not what you do in normal life, and also that your comedic style just fit in so naturally with that show I couldn't believe you weren't a regular cast member.

That's a really nice thing to say.

And that led me ask myself why weren't you a regular cast member? You fit in perfectly with the rest of the cast.

That would have been awesome. Everybody on that set was amazing and lovely. But that is the question. I actually do think things have started to change faster in theater for performers with disabilities a little bit than they have in television and film. I feel like film is sort of the last holdout because you need a star to play that person in a wheelchair, and it's like well, no one who's in a wheelchair is gonna be a star until they're given the opportunity to become a star. That's how that works, that's kind of the catch-22.

But I feel like we are seeing a massive shift. My big struggle is that still to this day, even characters written to have disabilities are far more likely to be written as men than they are as women. So being a female performer with a disability is even that much more of a challenge. And I have white privilege. Performers with disabilities that are people of color are even less represented.

I also have to touch on your remarkable success as a Paralympic athlete, which is way outside my bailiwick as a theater writer. I believe you're a 4-time US champion in the 100m. Is that right?

Yeah. I was given the opportunity to try running blades when I was 25, and I had never run before in my life. I would never have called myself an athlete. It was a really hard word for me to use about myself for a long time, even when I was going to competitions. It started as an opportunity for health and fitness, and I just happened to be quick.

I ended up using what I'd learned as an actor to perform as an athlete. If you think about it, it's theater. There are lights, sounds, costumes, there's an audience - it's a performance. So I approached being an athlete like I would playing a character, and started to think "OK, how would an athlete act? An athlete would probably get up at 4 in the morning and go to the gym. An athlete would probably put this cookie down." [etc.] It started out as almost playing a role because I was so fearful, kind of like fake it til you make it. And if you look at any stadium, any venue of competition, it's a theater. It's more like a Greek theater than it is theaters on Broadway.

That's really interesting! Often, I hear the exact reverse of that approach from actors, particularly in musical theater. They say being in a musical is like training for an athletic event. They talk about how they have to eat certain things at certain times of day -

100%

But I never thought about it going the other way.

Well, I wouldn't have thought about it, either, until I did it. [laughs] But, yeah, it ended up being this pretty random but extraordinary chapter in my life.

Which do you find more stressful - opening night of a new play or the final heat of a big competition?

Um, a hundred-thousand percent the final heat of a competition! Maybe it's because I grew up onstage and it feels like home to me. Opening night of course is nerve-wracking and you have the adrenaline and butterflies and all that stuff, but I feel way more like these are my people and this is my home than I ever did on a track. Not that the track wasn't an incredible place to be, but theater has my heart.


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From This Author Jim Munson