Fred Sullivan Jr. was recently awarded the Independent Reviewers of New England’s award for best actor in a drama. Sullivan received the award for his performance as Walter Burns in Trinity Repertory Company’s production of “His Girl Friday.” Since joining Trinity in 1984, Sullivan has acted in more than 100 productions as a resident acting-company member. He has directed two productions for Trinity and also teaches acting at the Rhode Island School of Design, The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre and Trinity.
PBN: Tell us about your role as Walter Burns. How did you prepare?
SULLIVAN: [Walter Burns is] Bugs Bunny/Groucho Marx: funny, aggressively single-minded and egomaniacal. But he had a vulnerable, soft side as well because he had lost the love of his life. I approached him as I approach any role – by searching the text for clues as to his sense of humor and pain, and his key intentions and relationships so I could personalize him as much as possible and actively and fully serve the story and rhythms of the text.
PBN: How is directing a show different from acting in it?
SULLIVAN: Acting and directing are distinctly separate responsibilities, but they definitely inform one another. My favorite directors understand the art of acting thoroughly. I believe 75 percent of directing is carving, shaping and physically blocking the play based on the needs, actions and psychology of the characters, so it’s helpful to have the capacity to understand all of them from the inside. Twenty-five percent is a vision, working with the designers to bring a personal response … and always keeping in mind what the audience’s experience should ideally be.
PBN: How have productions at Trinity changed in your 28 seasons with the company?
SULLIVAN: Time has changed many things. We have seen six artistic directors, and drastically changed fire-department regulations [have limited] the configuration of the actor-audience relationship, which was such a vibrant part of Trinity’s identity ... but the same principles of selfless ensemble playing, intense script exploration, vibrant and brave physical staging and actor-audience relationship remain at the core of every Trinity Rep. production. I often see potential for a new golden age in Rhode Island theater at Trinity Rep. •