On Fleeting Success and the Constant Struggle

by Daniel Robert Sullivan

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to become a professional theatre actor?

Daniel Sullivan: There was no moment— there is only a constant struggle for the next gig. Let’s be real here: I am lucky. Right now. But success is fleeting. This year, for example, I am performing a lead role in the Las Vegas company of Jersey Boys and my first play, Prospect High: Brooklyn, was funded by TCG and published by Roundabout. Last year, however, I had months of unemployment and no health insurance. There is no actual deciding to be a professional actor. There is, instead, only deciding to never stop trying.

I decided to try every day to become a professional actor after seeing the first national tour of Starlight Express in 1990. That show had emotive passion, beautiful melodies, a tight storyline, contemporary design, and it was all wrapped up in a slick Broadway package. While I realize there is a place for raw and simple theatrical production, it was the slick packaging of that tour that made me want to be a part of the professional community.

Growing up in Rhode Island, national tours and regional theatres were my window into the world of professional theatre. The first-class energy of tours passing through the Providence Performing Arts Center hypnotized me, and the intensity of Trinity Rep company members convinced me they were heroic. When I learned a bit more about how the profession works, and the difficulty of booking a job, the resident company at Trinity Rep became representative of the pinnacle of success. The versatility of Trinity’s long-time members (Timothy Crowe, Fred Sullivan, Jr., Anne Scurria, Bob Colonna, etc.) made them the most impressive professional actors I’ve ever seen and the ones I continue to aspire to be like.

TCG: What is one challenge in the acting profession that you would like to change? How would you do so?

Daniel: I’d like to see more teenage experiences represented on stage. I’ve hijacked your question a bit in order to give that answer, because it’s more of a challenge to the theatre profession as a whole than specifically to actors, but it is a challenge I feel quite passionately about. Let’s put more teenage roles on professional stages, and let those roles represent legitimate viewpoints from that age group.

Here’s my reasoning: Most theatre professionals seem to have ‘caught the theatre bug’ while in high school. High school theatre is a thriving market for creative work. The theatergoing population is perpetually older and yet we talk incessantly about how to get younger people in the door. Colleges are producing more skilled actors than ever before; they are talented and can play meaty, young roles. So, let’s hold a mirror to the teenage experience more often. Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate is, to me, a perfect example of how this ‘mirror to the teenage experience’ is effective for the stage. I admire that play, and the theatres that have embraced it, very much.

I believe in working diligently on things I’m passionate about, so I’ve created and continue to revise Prospect High: Brooklyn. The play is issue-driven, easily producible, has a flexible cast size, and was devised from the real-life experiences of a group of New York City teenagers. I have worked as a teaching artist for many years, so I’m inherently fascinated by the circumstances that our young population encounters and cares about. I worked with a group of teens for six months to develop material for this play, and they are all co-authors. A draft of the play recently reached semi-finalist status at this year’s National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Center. The play had a 29-hour reading at Roundabout Theatre Company and will receive an upcoming workshop with the Nevada Conservatory Theatre. The teenagers and I are quite proud of it and cannot wait for its rolling world premier in high schools across this country next season. We believe it to be the first coordinated premier of a high school play ever! There are teenage experiences, especially big-city teenage experiences, that are quite specific and I believe that they can move the world at large.

TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career – a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an actor?

Daniel: After two years of auditions, I was cast as Tommy DeVito in the Toronto production of Jersey Boys. Continuing to play that role— a boisterous, high-spirited, raucous, inspiring, down and dirty guy with a roaring character arc—is more fulfilling than anything I’ve ever done. And for an unknown actor like me, it opened up a world of opportunity. Most specifically, it allowed me to inspire other dreamers and artists through my book: Places, Please! (Becoming A Jersey Boy).


But you asked about a lasting legacy, didn’t you? The emotions in that book will last, of course, but the legacy of an always-struggling actor isn’t so clear. A legacy for me is probably no more than a string of fulfilling jobs back-to-back, and that is not an easy situation to create. I’m currently in the midst of a career high with the Las Vegas company of Jersey Boys and am using the only vacation week in my contract to attend this year’s TCG Conference. But so many casting directors have told me “No,” and so many auditions have gone wrong, and so many great roles have paid so little. There is probably no lasting legacy for me, there is only the constant struggle for the next interesting project. I admit, I’m completely addicted to the theatre and I love every second of every day that I can play within its confines.

Daniel Robert Sullivan is currently appearing in the Las Vegas company of Jersey Boys as Tommy DeVito. He has performed at Kansas City Rep, Arizona Theatre Company, Pan Asian Rep, the York, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Gloucester Stage, and others. His backstage memoir, Places, Please! (Becoming A Jersey Boy), was published by Iguana Books, and his first play, Prospect High: Brooklyn, was published under Roundabout’s imprint at Smith & Kraus.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus (Jersey Boys image)