Outside's his comfort zone
University of Illinois theater Professor Daniel Sullivan knows a lot about the myriad technical problems of outdoor theater.
After all, he's now directing his eighth Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park play — "King Lear" — at the open-air Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park.
"Of course, lighting is not what you would have in a regular proscenium theater," Sullivan said Wednesday by phone. "You have no lights overhead — that's just the moon up there. There's noise, helicopters, raccoons — all the sounds of nature.
"Last night for the first 15 minutes or so there was a string band playing outside the theater. They didn't want to stop, so that was a difficult thing. Those little problems that happen I'm quite used to."
The previews of "King Lear," starring John Lithgow and Annette Bening, started Tuesday night; the official opening, when reviews will be written, will be in a week or so. The play runs through Aug. 17 at the amphitheater on Central Park West.
As director, Sullivan cast "King Lear," putting Lithgow, a Tony- and Emmy-award winner actor, in the title role.
"I'm a friend of John's and I've done many shows with him," Sullivan said. "I always felt he would be good for the role."
Likewise, Bening and Sullivan are friends and he's directed her on stage before. The Golden Globe-winning actress and four-time Academy Award nominee plays Goneril, opposite Lithgow's king.
"She called me and asked if she could play the role and I said, 'Sure,' " Sullivan said.
Usually Sullivan, a Tony Award-winning director, helms the first of the Public Theater's two free Shakespeare productions in Central Park. This time he drew the late July-early August slot.
"We're lucking out this year because the weather hasn't been terrible," he said. "Usually it's so hot and muggy it's almost impossible to get the work done."
As most directors do with Shakespeare, Sullivan trimmed the script.
"I'd say about 20 percent was cut," he said. "It's still about 3 hours and 15 minutes. Intermission takes it a bit longer, to 3 and a half hours."
And even though the plays are free, presented with many outside distractions, Sullivan said he doesn't see audience members coming and going.
Famed Public Theater founder Joe Papp started the free Shakespeare in the Park tradition 52 years ago to make theater more accessible to the people. Since then more than 5 million people have seen more than 150 free productions of Shakespeare and other classical works and musicals at the 1,800-seat amphitheater.
Sullivan called the tradition great, saying no other city has a similar program. He also called theater in general "health care for the soul."
Considered one of the nation's leading stage directors, Sullivan in 2001 won the Tony Award for best direction, of "Proof," by David Auburn. In 2011 Sullivan was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
He's known for forging successful working relationships with several prominent American playwrights, among them Auburn, Donald Margulies and the late Wendy Wasserstein. This past year Sullivan brought Auburn, who won both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for "Proof," to the UI for workshop productions of the playwright's new play "Lost Lake."
That was part of the Sullivan Project, the brainstorm of Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, head of the UI Department of Theatre.
The Sullivan Project, which will take place each year at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, gives a playwright the opportunity to see his or her play in-development in a fully staged production, with professional actors and technical assistance.
The 2015 Sullivan Project will be Feb. 18-22. Sullivan declined to identify the play or playwright, saying he's still working on the details and will leave the announcement up to Jenkins.
In a couple of months, Sullivan will get back to Auburn's "Lost Lake," directing its world premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The two-hander opens there Nov. 11, with John Hawkes and Tracie Thoms in the roles Jake Weber and Opal Alladin played in the workshop productions at Krannert Center.
"It's a really good play, and Dave is continuing to work on it," Sullivan said. "(The Sullivan Project) was a dream for us. We got really good actors and the staff at the school was wonderful. So we're using the same designers in New York City."
Another recent Sullivan project: He directed at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles the world premiere of "The Country House" by Margulies, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. It closed there July 13; Sullivan will direct it again at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it opens Oct. 2.
Sullivan became a Swanlund Chair professor at the UI 15 years ago. He spends three months each academic year on campus, working with faculty and students.
This year he will be here over the spring semester. It's his only university teaching job and he enjoys it.
"For one thing, it keeps me in really strong touch with young people and that's necessary for me," the 74-year-old director said. "I just enjoy the interaction, and teaching kids.
"After I left Seattle Repertory — I ran that as artistic director for 19 years, as a nonprofit — I sort of missed the idea of service. I was working for myself basically for a long time, so it was good to find something else to do that was bringing service to a community."