A 'Cymbeline' for Our Times :: Fred Sullivan, Jr. Chats About CSC's Shakespeare on the Common

Friday July 5, 2019

Fred Sullivan, Jr. has long been a force on the New England theater scene; in addition to his 13 seasons with the Boston-based Commonwealth Shakespeare Company he was a resident actor with Trinity Rep in Providence, RI, for 35 seasons and, since 1996, he has served as Resident Director at The Gamm Theatre in Warwick, RI.

Over the course of those years, Sullivan has appeared in and directed hundreds of productions, as well as keeping busy as an acting teacher (including also serving Gamm Theatre as a member of their teaching artist staff).

One company he's not directed for - until now, that is - is Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which presents the annual Shakespeare on the Common. The long-running theatrical tradition brings a classic from the Bard's canon to the Common for a month each summer. Under starry skies or on rain, CSC's lavish productions never fail to impress and delight, and draw thousands for each free performance (though donations are always gratefully accepted).

This year's offering is "Cymbeline," a play about mistaken identities, gender-bending disguises, royal power struggles, family loyalty... all the usual Shakespearean elements, though they are blended together in a way that falls between tragedy and comedy. It's an intricate an oddly flavored play, and it's the one that Sullivan suggested when CSC Founding Artistic Director Steve Maler approached him about helming a production.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves - let's let Fred Sullivan, Jr. explain how it all came together, and "Cymbeline," one of the Bard's less-frequently produced plays, was his project of choice.

EDGE: You have deep and varied experience as an actor, Fred, including 13 seasons with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. How did that long association get started?

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: Steve [Maler] hired me thirteen years ago after he saw me play Falstaff at Trinity Rep, and he asked me to play Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I fell in love with him, the venue, the mission statement... I had been acting professionally for about 25 years and I was tired. And I found at CSC — free to all, five thousand people a night, professional actors from all over — I found it so exciting that I kind of signed on for life! The next year I played Jacques in "As You Like It," and got the Norton Award for best actor, and we were just kind of on a roll.

I love Steve; he is so articulate about theater as [a kind of] community service. I love the venue. The first night I was out there as Bottom, with the late Larry Coen and a bunch of the other clowns, I burst into tears because I just had never seen an audience like that. And I have been an actor at Trinity Rep for 35 years — I did 128 plays there. And there's only so much you can reboot yourself for.

EDGE: So how did you come to get the assignment of directing "Cymbeline?"

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: On the closing night of "Romeo and Juliet," which was two years ago, Steve said to me, "I'm going to do 'Richard III' next year. Would you direct the following year?" I am a resident director at GAM Theater in Rhode Island, and he had come down and seen 'Hamlet' and 'Much Ado About Nothing.' So he said to me, "Would you direct one of the late romances? I'd love for you to do 'The Winter's Tale.' " I have done sixty productions of Shakespeare and I'm on 28 out of the 37, and I had done "The Winter's Tale" three times. So I said, "Can I do 'Cymbeline' if you want a late romance?" And he said, "Really?" And I said, "Yeah, it's the only one I haven't done, and I'm intrigued by it."

So he said okay, and for two years I've been thinking non-stop about how to make it the most beautiful and moving and fun [production that I can] so that it's for everybody. It's a dense play — a complicated play, I was just writing a synopsis for the program, and I laughed out loud because there are so many complex turns. But that's why I chose to approach it as a complete fairy tale, to kind of remove the multi-personality of the play.

EDGE: "Cymbeline" is made up of elements that Shakespeare often uses, but the way those elements are assembled is — I'm not sure; problematic? Is this maybe one of Shakespeare's "problem plays?"

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: In his late romances, [Shakespeare] constantly put tragedy and comedy together — like "The Tempest" and "The Winter's Tale." It's usually a clash of two countries instead of two families, and there's a lot of magic and dreams. It fits so well as a fairy tale.

I just love the education that I've had in the theater, and I'm still learning — and that's why I picked "Cymbeline," because I wanted to do an unknown, I wanted to bring everything I had to it and share it, and make the argument that it's as good as "Much Ado About Nothing" or "The Tempest." It really is! There are so many elements and so much beautiful language and huge characters and engaging scenes, that you just say, "This is a great play. Why isn't this done all the time?" You have to cut it with care, you have to come up with a big idea as to how to present it, but it's really worth your time.

EDGE: You raise a good point. I don't know how many times I've seen "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Romeo and Juliet," "Twelfth Night," and so on. But "Cymbeline" just doesn't seem to get produced very often.

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: If you do "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a lot of people are not going to be surprised by the story, because most people have seen it, However, I do believe that we should always approach them for people who don't know [those more frequently produced plays]. I love it when young audiences gasp when Polonius is killed [in "Hamlet"]. I don't need to put it on the Moon or have six people show it off the back of a truck to make it exciting. He really does a lot of the work for you. You just have to mine [a Shakespeare play] for its truth.

And "Cymbeline" is great — and yes, it's a fairy tale, but so what? So are the monsters and wizards on an island that you get in "The Tempest." I mean, how much more fairy tale can you get?

EDGE Fairy tales do have a tendency to reflect reality — and "Cymbeline" is not a bad choice for this moment in time because you've got royal intrigue and deceptions of various sorts, and all these things are happening among the highest leaders in the land. It doesn't seem to be misplaced, thematically.

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: Not at all. We constantly will bring up the political landscape, or we will talk about things that we just read in the news. And that always happens in a rehearsal process. I agree with you three thousand percent.

People are like, "Why are you doing 'Cymbeline' now?" Because Shakespeare explores all that is human, and that doesn't go out of fashion. This play has a lot of — to borrow a phrase — toxic masculinity in it, with these crazy, raging, competitive men, and there's a beautiful, wise, radiant young woman in the middle of this whole thing. I'm so thrilled with the casting of [Nora Eschenheimer as Imogen] — she has worked with me four or five times, and she can really handle the verse, and she's really in character all the time. And then I have all these incredible boys — I have Remo [Airaldi], who was at A.R.T. for 25 years. He's a longstanding member of CSC like myself. I have the Artistic Director of the GAM Theatre, [Tony Estrella,] as Cymbeline. I have Jesse Hinson from Actors' Shakespeare Company as Iachimo. And I have Kelby Aken as Cloten — there's just an amazing amount of talent on that stage.

Casting this was a dream because the actors that I got are amazing; they're gentle and sweet and funny and light, and then they can turn around and you're terrified of them.

EDGE: This play has historically been hard to categorize. You call "Cymbeline" a romance, and CSC has taken to calling it a "dramedy," which is a neologism, but I'd say it fits.

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: I called it a tragicomedy in a couple of meetings we had. It's very much like 'The Winter's Tale," which starts off as "Othello" and ends up as "As You Like It." The last four plays he wrote — "Pericles," "Cymbeline," "The Winter's Tale," and "The Tempest"— are classified as romances; [they are] the last ones wrote when he was giving up the stage. They were done indoors because the Globe had burned down. So they had tricks of bringing gods in, and they all had similar qualities.

[When it came to the question of how to present it,] I decided on the old tale. There's a wicked queen, there are lost boys, there's a bereaved king, there's a pastoral country family, there are elements of fables. One of the first lines in the play is, "Howsoe'er 'tis strange, / Or that the negligence may well be laugh'd at, / Yet is it true, sir." I think that's Shakespeare saying there are implausible reunions, there are crazy plot twists, there's the god Jupiter who comes down — but you believe it, because it's human.

EDGE: In addition to being an actor and a director, you are also an acting teacher. Do you find that your experience teaching informs your directorial approach, or is the directorial role quite different from that of an instructor?

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: Absolutely. I've been very fortunate in that I have always been employed, my whole life, within this art form. My first job was teaching young kids and directing children's plays. I've worked with the best. I've learned a lot, and I pass it on in my class that I've been teaching since I was young. The class is wonderful, and it keeps me honest because when I have to explain to a beginner why I'm passionate about the art of acting, it fills the toolbox up with a vocabulary that comes in handy when I'm working with all levels of actors.

Plus, I'm passionate about acting, which a lot of directors are not! I'm not saying I'm special, but I think the acting benefits when someone like me, who has acted his whole life, directs. And not all actors want to direct. Remo said to me last night, "You are a great acting coach!" I said, "I think directing is easier than acting." And he went, "Oh, oooh!" He would never direct a play — he has no interest in it, and he doesn't think he has the ability. But because I started very young, I think I need to do it between acting gigs to kind of look at the art form from the other side of the footlights. The teaching does really help with the communication skills.

EDGE: So, when you're working with this great cast you've got, with their sweetness and light and capacity for ferocity, do you find you're bringing them back to that youthful passion for acting that kids naturally have? Is that fairy tale sense of wonder something you're looking to coax from them?

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: Yeah; the one thing I kind of am slightly intolerant about is sometimes the selfishness of the medium or the selfishness of the performer. I tend to surround myself when I'm directing with — well, sweetness and lightness is part of it, but they are not all Pollyannas. But they are really sane, focused, hard-working, respectful, kind, really good people. And you want to be in the room with them. I've got letters from every single cast member saying, "This room is the most fun and the most healthy I've been in in a long time." I look for that.

These guys can do anything — it's a really amazing bunch. They have multiple gifts. We've written five original songs, there are two major fights, and it's just kind of thrilling to watch it all come together with this cast. I handpicked them all from forty years of being a professional in the theater; they come from Rhode Island, they come from New York, they come from Boston, and they have forged an incredible ensemble. I'm madly in love with them; I think they're the best cast I've had in recent memory.

EDGE: You're certainly used to performing out in the open after so long with CSC, but when it comes to directing in an open-air venue like the Boston Common, what are you finding the challenges to be?

Fred Sullivan, Jr.: I'm used to what happens out there, so I'm constantly saying, "We're running around like zoo animals right now, but it may be wet out there [come show time]."


Fred Sullivan, Jr.: So we have to be able to adapt our energies to observe common sense safety. It can get tough out there. I have performed in a wool uniform in 103 [degree] temperature in "All's Well That Ends Well," and I slipped off the stage once in a rainstorm. There's a lot of things that [can challenge the actors].

You don't have to so much adapt the performances [to fit the venue's large outdoor nature], although... The best story is when I was playing Bottom [there was a point] when he gets an idea. I put one finger in the air, and I said, "Aha!" And Steve said, "Can you stand up when you get the idea?" And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because we're on a football field." There's a certain amount of size [in the acting style that the outdoor venue calls for] — it's not over-acting; it's just that we have to extend the body. It's our job to engage the audience and to tell a story in a visceral way. The most important thing you can bring to it is passion and enthusiasm, and get everybody on the same page.

Outside is tough. It gets hot, and it rains.

"Cymbeline" runs from July 17 — August 4 on the Boston Common and is free of charge. For more information, please go to https://commshakes.org/

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