Stories by Heart Interview with Daniel Sullivan

Posted on: January 17th, 2018 by Ted Sod


Dan Sullivan

Ted Sod: I want to start by talking about your getting involved with John Lithgow: Stories By Heart because, based on my research, it seems like the show has had a long journey.

Daniel Sullivan: Yes, Jack O’Brien first directed the show at Lincoln Center. I think that even before Lincoln Center, John had tried it out at a couple places and then asked Jack to take a look at it when he was doing it at Lincoln Center. Since that time, John has gone out on the road with it and has changed some material he’s doing. The order in which he’s doing it, etc. Since Jack was otherwise engaged with Carousel on Broadway, John asked me to get involved.

TS: I did notice that from reading reviews since about 2008 that the show has kept evolving.

DS: Right. The Ring Lardner story, “Haircut,” he added in later. He used to open with the Wodehouse, and he closes with that now. But through all of these changes, its reason for being has remained the same: it’s a tribute and a thank you to his parents.

TS: Do you see this as an autobiographical solo show?

DS: Well, it’s interesting because the actual stories that he was read to as a kid and that he reads to his parents during the end of their lives are 80% of the evening, and those stories really have nothing to do with his parents except for the fact that they were instrumental in his life as an actor.

TS: I didn’t know anything about Arthur Lithgow, his father. I didn’t know John was part of an acting dynasty.

DS: I actually remember meeting his father at a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference back in the late 1970s. He was a very elegant man, though I never saw him act and I never saw a production that he directed. He was a beloved figure in TCG and that whole beginning of the regional theatre world. He was part of all of that.

TS: Let’s talk a bit about directing solo shows because I know you’ve also directed Charlayne Woodard’s one-woman pieces. What are the challenges in directing solo shows? What do you appreciate about that form of theatre?

DS: If it works, it is thrilling. One of the things I loved about working with Charlayne and also John is simply the risk factor of walking out on stage and saying I’m going to entertain you for the next two hours. It takes extraordinary courage as well as the talent to be able to embody so many different characters as Charlayne does in her work and as John does in Stories By Heart. It’s dizzying. When John does the Wodehouse story, he has to keep all these balls in the air with all of these characters on stage at the same time. You begin to really believe you’re seeing all these people. That’s a kind of wonderful magic trick. When you do a one-person show, you need to have somebody who has the kind of huge range that John does. You feel his goodness and his good nature; that’s not fake.

TS: Solo shows seem to showcase the protean aspects of a performer. What I understand about solo shows is that it’s difficult because your acting partner is the audience and they don’t show up until the first preview. Is that true?

DS: Yes, that’s very true. As a director, you become the partner. There’s a kind of energy in John that’s very similar to Charlayne’s; it’s a kind of shaping energy. The performers have to have all these impulses, and your role as director is more one of channeling that energy than it is producing it. That person has to come with that energy and desire; it takes a lot of chutzpah.

Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: In his show, John talks about why human beings have a fundamental need for stories. I think you could talk about this idea because you’ve spent your life telling stories.

DS: Part of it is this great desire to make sense of the world. Narrative is the only way you can do that. The beginning, middle, and end of a story is a way of summing up our existence. I sense this is very true for John and this play. It’s a way for him to come to terms with his parents. One of the things John talks about at the beginning of his show is his father, who would direct and perform in different Shakespeare plays every night of the week in his company. The amount of energy that it takes to do that is extraordinary. You can see that same energy in John on stage in everything he does, certainly in this piece. He’s inexhaustible. The question is not so much do we need stories, but do the stories themselves keep us alive? Give us heart or the courage to live? He never states this boldly in the piece, but it’s there.

TS: I’m also curious if you think that this is something that we learn from childhood when our parents read to us?

DS: I think that’s true certainly. My father had a book of Russian folk tales that had been translated by Arthur Ransome. It was a little slender black book, and it used to terrify us. So, my father would bring this thing out and all five of us would gather around. It was an odd moment because there was such a tenderness in the gathering of all the children around my father as he would read. For me, it was one of the most weirdly sensual experiences as I got to be in my father’s lap and at the same time the stories always ended with people being put in sacks and thrown in the river. Awful things like that. We just obviously hung on every word and they were terrifying, but those were some of the closest and most tender moments that I remember with my father as a child.

TS: Was he a good reader?

DS: Yes, he was a good reader, and you could hear his appreciation of the writing as he read. You could hear him being drawn in, and I think that was important. It wasn’t as though he was an actor in any way. You could just hear his love for the words.


Lithgow as King Lear

TS: I wanted to ask about you and John collaborating together -- is this the fourth time you have worked together?

DS: I think so. We did The Retreat from Moscow, The Columnist, then King Lear, and a fundraiser for the Public Theater in the park where John sang “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General” made up to look like General Flynn. With appropriate changes to the lyrics. It was hilarious.

TS: Can you talk about working with an actor like John on multiple projects? What makes you want to work with certain actors again?

DS: First of all, if there’s no trust, you won’t work with same theatre actors over time. There’s usually a lack of vanity not just on the actor’s part, but on the director’s part also. Actors have to be honest with themselves, and the director depends on that. Both actor and director have to be aware of the fact that you’re going to be honest with one another and kind at the same time. I think it’s easy to develop relationships that are ongoing between a director and the actor, and I have a lot of relationships with actors that way. John is one of them. You always hear people talk about the shorthand that actors and directors develop, and I think that’s also true. You don’t have to say much because you share similar views of the world and how people behave in it.

TS: What do you personally make of the Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse stories? Are you a fan of both writers?

DS: I would say that I like Lardner and certainly “Haircut” is a brilliant piece of writing. One of his very best pieces. And Wodehouse and all of those Uncle Fred stories are really hilarious. It’s almost Monty Python-esque. You can really see the lineage there. It’s so completely mad.

TS: “Haircut” is told from a singular voice, and you get a sense of the homogeneity of that town and the people living there. It seems like it speaks to the times we are living in.

DS: You’re right that it does speak to our time. There’s a real sense of enveloping darkness in that piece that is also very surprising. The wonderful thing is that the barber doesn’t understand the consequences. He doesn’t quite understand the story he’s telling. It’s not that he’s an unreliable narrator, just a naive one. Which is a wonderful technique I feel.

Photo By Joan Marcus

TS: I also love that in the Wodehouse piece, he’s showcasing a charming criminal. Both stories deal with this criminal element.

DS: That’s very true.

TS: I’ve always thought that Americans appreciate a conman -- they love stories about people who get away with murder.

DS: Of course, in the Wodehouse piece it’s basically about adventurousness. Uncle Fred just loves to make trouble and get himself into situations that he has to try to find outrageous ways to get out of.

TS: What else is coming up for you as director?

DS: I’m directing Shaw’s Saint Joan at Manhattan Theatre Club. That’s the big thing I’m working on right now -- trying to put all that together. Condola Rashad is playing Saint Joan. I saw her in A Doll’s House, Part 2, and I thought, there she is -- there’s Saint Joan.

John Lithgow: Stories By Heart opened at The American Airlines Theatre on January 11, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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The Healing Power of Storytelling

Posted on: January 10th, 2018 by Nick Mecikalski


Arthur Lithgow with his children

In Stories By Heart, John Lithgow describes a moment in which his aging and chronically ill father experienced a transformation of body and mind while listening to a story out of a childhood storybook. Wheezing with laughter and flooded with good spirits, “my father came back to life” as he heard the story, Lithgow explains. This newfound “life” seemed to sustain his father for over a year, Lithgow says, providing him strength in his ongoing fight against his illness and depression. The phenomenon Lithgow witnessed, as miraculous as it may seem, is not without precedent or scientific backing. “Bibliotherapy,” the use of literature and storytelling as instruments of healing, is an increasingly common practice, and its therapeutic potential, though not uncontroversial, finds much support in any array of scientific studies and documented anecdotes.

Bibliotherapy has been connected with the alleviation of symptoms in people with a wide variety of illnesses, syndromes, and disabilities throughout recorded history. There are stories of neurological patients speaking for the first time in months after reading poetry; seniors with dementia experiencing an abatement of agitated behavior after hearing poems and stories; and sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis and acute physical pain finding noticeable relief during and after diving into a book. In one study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2011, storytelling was found to help a group of patients control their high blood pressure. In another conducted by the University of Bucharest in 2015, adults with severe intellectual disabilities experienced a strengthening of their communication skills and a decrease in instances of negative behavior after sessions of storytelling and active drama therapy. Some recipients of bibliotherapy have even been known to experience improvements so drastic that they have stopped visiting their doctors and reduced their dosage of medication.

Recent studies are illuminating the psychological and neurological reasons behind the effectiveness of bibliotherapy. Reading itself has been shown to have a trancelike effect on the brain similar to that of meditation, and studies have found that those who read regularly have markedly better sleep, greater self-esteem, lower stress levels, and lower rates of depression than do those who rarely or never read. Reading, then, can induce the same therapeutic effects in the mind as deep relaxation. Stories also have been proven to stimulate the brain’s mirror neurons, which serve as our “centers of empathy.” Reading fiction or nonfiction stories activates the mirror neurons in a similar way to observing or interacting with others in day-to-day life. This strengthens the brain’s empathic connections, resulting in heightened social competence and improved mental health overall. The success of bibliotherapy, then, can very much be attributed to a combination of proven neurological factors.

Production photo by Joan Marcus

Bibliotherapy has been on the rise in recent years, from book clubs aimed specifically at providing a place of healing and community to those who need it, to “reading pharmacies” that match literature to an array of physical and mental conditions, to reference books that recommend novels based on personal behaviors or habits that a reader would like to remedy. Books are by no means a guaranteed “cure” for any ailment or a wholesale substitute for doctors, medicine, or professional therapy, and there are medical professionals who caution against treating bibliotherapy as a magic bullet. But, as John Lithgow attests in Stories By Heart, stories really can serve as agents of healing, and their positive impact on our physical and mental health is not to be discounted.

John Lithgow: Stories By Heart begins opens at the American Airlines Theater on January 11, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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Tellers of Tales

Posted on: January 4th, 2018 by Leah Reddy


Tellers of Tales; 100 Short Stories from the United States, England, France, Russia and Germany was compiled by W. Somerset Maugham, a successful English playwright (his play The Constant Wife was produced at Roundabout in 2005) and author, and published in 1939. The first edition of the book, likely the one from which Arthur Lithgow read, was 1,574 pages long and weighed 4.5 pounds. As The New York Times book reviewer put it, the book is “so heavy that if while reading it in bed you fall asleep and drop it, you’ll likely break a rib.”

When Maugham began work on Tellers of Tales, his aim was to show how the short story had developed since the beginning of the 19th century. Writers, Maugham noted, write in whatever medium will pay them, and short stories were in demand in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Before 1850, annuals -- ornate literary yearbooks aimed at young women and sold as gifts each holiday season -- were popular. Annuals were replaced by magazines, which paid top dollar for short stories. In America, the rise of the short story was further driven by lax copyright law: it was cheaper for publishers to pirate the work of foreign novelists rather than pay American writers for original work. American writers thus turned their attention to short stories.

Ultimately, Maugham concluded that while writing styles and subjects had changed, “what was a good story at the beginning of the 19th century is still a good story,” and he abandoned his plan of charting the short story’s development. He instead gathered the 100 short stories he found most “moving, exciting, and amusing” because fiction must, first and foremost, entertain the reader.

Organized in approximate chronological order, Tellers of Tales opens with “The Two Drovers” by Sir Walter Scott. First published in 1827, it tells of two cattle drovers in Scotland in 1795 who get into an argument that ends in murder and an execution.

Tellers of Tales includes the work of 96 different authors from five countries, with most stories coming from England and the United States. Maugham contrasts the well-made short stories of authors like Edgar Allan Poe, whose tale “The Gold-Bug” is included, with those of Anton Chekhov, whose realistic, seemingly plotless stories influenced a generation of writers.

Chekhov’s short story “Mouzhiks,” (The Peasants), a grim, realistic tale set in an impoverished rural community, is included. Maugham breaks with chronology for the Russian stories, placing them all together because to absorb them “one has to shift one’s outlook on life, one’s feelings on all manner of things, on to another plane.”

Tellers of Tales also includes “The Nowaks,” a short story from Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. “The Nowaks,” like the other stories in that book (including “Sally Bowles,” the inspiration for the musical Cabaret), is a semi-autobiographical account of Isherwood’s life in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s.

Maugham ends Tellers of Tales with Oklahoma Race Riots by Frances W. Prentice, a true account of the 1921 Tulsa race riots. “It is the death of the short story,” Maugham noted in his introduction, “if it can be beaten at it’s own game by the naked truth.”


John Lithgow: Stories By Heart opens at The American Airlines Theatre on January 11, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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