A music and theatre critic for more than 30 years, Sullivan has been with NCI since 1977. He originally came to the O’Neill Center as a dramaturge for two years in 1972 and ‘73. Then in ‘77 he returned to the O’Neill to teach at NCI. He has been back every summer since.
Sullivan was raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a druggist and a bookkeeper (among other things). As a kid, he was, in his words, “a little smartass.” When asked if his parents took him to many cultural events he responds, “they weren’t arts type people.” Despite this, Sullivan’s mother did take him to his first theatrical experience, Lady in the Dark. He was seduced that night by the mirror-ball and has had a love affair with the theatre ever since.
He completed a degree in English from Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and while he was there, he worked as the co-editor of the school newspaper. After graduation, he figured the only way he was going to make any money doing what he loved – writing – was to work for a newspaper. He tried his hand at writing plays, but upon directing his first one-act play at school, was told by one of the priests, “Sullivan, this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen on stage.” After being turned down by Columbia School of Journalism (only to have them call later and ask him to come to the school) Sullivan did his graduate work at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism in Minneapolis.
While in graduate school, Sullivan began to write for a political-satire group, Brave New Workshop. The group is still in existence today. It was there that he met his wife of nearly 48 years, Faith, a successful novelist.
As a music and theatre critic, Sullivan began his journalism career at the St. Paul Pioneer Press covering the “Labor” beat and theatre. When offered an opportunity to become the music critic for the Minneapolis Tribune, he jumped at the chance.
After three years in Minneapolis, Sullivan found himself on his way to Los Angeles, the recipient of a fellowship from the Rockefeller Project for the Training of Music Critics. He had promised his boss at the Tribune that he would be back. The fellowship enabled him to study at USC for one year where he listened to music and took piano lessons. The second year of the program involved an apprenticeship at a major newspaper. Sullivan was selected by the music critic of the N.Y. Times, Harold Schonberg, to apprentice at the Times. So it was off to New York City.
After completing a year at the N.Y. Times, the paper offered to bring him on as an employee. He expressed an interest in moving away from music and more towards theatre. He felt that was where his strengths lay, his superiors responded, “Looking at your music writing, we think your right.” Sullivan was now the number two theatre critic at one of the largest newspapers in the country, in the theatre capital of the world.
In the one-and-only time in his life he got fall-down drunk, Sullivan said it was the night he had dinner with his Tribune boss at famed restaurant 21. He hadto tell him he wouldn’t be coming back to Minneapolis. Much to his relief, his boss replied, “we knew.”
Sullivan and his wife lived on Staten Island while he was at the Times. After three years, Faith began to pine for the life they had in California. When Sullivan learned of a position at the L.A. Times, he applied for the job and got it. He recalls asking them if he could have his own office, “Well, of course! We’re a big league organization.” So he said yes and he and Faith moved to Los Angeles.
During his tenure at the L.A. Times, he took two sabbaticals: a year was spent up north at Stanford University studying theatre. He was hanging lights, painting sets, acting, learning all facets of theatre production from the other side. The second sabbatical found he and Faith back in Minneapolis. One day they had the thought “what if we just didn’t go back?”
After returning to the L.A. Times, Sullivan worked a few more years before taking early retirement in 1991 and returning to Minneapolis where he is an adjunct professor at the Journalism School at the University of Minneapolis.
When asked if he had anything to do with the founding of the American Theatre Critics Association, he replies “my role was as kind of a naysayer.” He told founder, Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review, “I hate organizations. I don’t think critics should be in them.” He ultimately begrudgingly went along with the idea, hoping it would engage younger critics to become involved. He has furthered that goal via his role at NCI and his teaching at the University of Minnesota. Sullivan has also been an advocate calling for a more diverse range of voices in theatre criticism, he cites the dearth of female, Latino and African American voices in theatre criticism.
I asked Sullivan if his wife accompanied him to the theatre. He said it started out that way, but as a former actress she always had strong opinions of her own. They would inevitably get into an argument on the way home from a show with him railing, “alright, you’re probably right but shut up, I have to write the thing and you’re totally confusing me.”
I had to call Dan after interviewing him for this article. I had a few follow-up questions. I happened to ask him if his wife missed him while he was away at the O’Neill Theater Center this past summer, her reply was “about fifteen minutes a day.” You can still sense the playfulness between them, even over the phone. From my experience, Dan Sullivan is a man who likes to laugh.
One thing can’t be denied, Dan Sullivan has certainly made his mark on the world of theatre criticism. It is said that a theatre critic conducts his education in public. Sullivan readily admits to this, but adds, “I helped other people conduct their theater education, too.” This cannot be denied.
A note of thanks to Sylvie Drake. In 1996 she interviewed Dan Sullivan for the book, Under the Copper Beach: Conversations with American Theater Critics. This book is the history of the founding of the American Theater Critics Association. Her interview was most helpful in filling in holes in the timeline.