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.
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.
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.
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.
2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart