We interviewed playwright/actor/director Michael Gene Sullivan, who will be teaching a class, "The Playwright as Juggler," with us this spring.
Jonathan Spector: You wear many different hats in the theater – as an actor, a playwright, a director and an artistic director. How do keep a balance between all these fields? Do you think of them as a separate endeavors or all a part of the same thing?
Michael Gene Sullivan: I've been very fortunate in having the chance to do all three! And ...how can I say this without sound hokey... they are all, basically the same thing - all aspects of trying to solve the problem of how to tell an important story to an audience. It's all a collaboration, and I've been lucky enough to see the collaboration from each side. I think every actor, writer, and director should do each of the other jobs at least once. Not only will it give them a better understanding of their co-creators, it will make their own work deeper.
Another good thing about acting, writing, and directing is I have alot to offer when it comes to employment, though the myopia of some theaters is startling. Despite great reviews for directing, and the success of my adaptation 1984 and my scripts for the Mime Troupe, most local theaters think of me only as an actor. I performed on tour at the Actor's Gang theater, and the L.A. time said wonderful things about my performance, but the Actor's Gang sees me only as a writer. It really confuses some people when they see you doing something else. But is is fun!
JS: You’ve been the Artistic Director and head writer for the San Francisco Mime Troupe for several years. How did you initially get involved with the Mime Troupe? How do you think the role of the mime troupe has changed since it’s founding, and where do you see it going in the future?
MGS: The Mime Troupe is a Collective. We don't have an Artistic Director. A lot of people make that mistake. At first I thought Arthur Holden was Artistic Director, then Joan Holden, then Dan Chumley. It wasn't until I worked with the Troupe that I understood the Collective Directorship. It's a particular model, and frequently people think whoever is the most prominent Trouper at any given moment is the Artistic Director. Right now I'm an actor, director, and resident playwright.
I first saw the Troupe as a teenager when my father brought me to a show. I was blown away. Music, comedy, and a radical call to arms. And it was free! What more could anyone ask?
When the Troupe started it was at the forefront of the Free Speech movement. People today don't understand how outrageous it was back in the Sixties to say things like "The War is wrong!" or question Capitalism as the system that can produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Odds were you'd get jailed, or beaten, or both. The Troupe made controversy entertaining and informative, revolutionary, and fun. There were still arrests, but as the public became more aware of the problems in our country that had been glossed over the message of the Troupe became less shocking and more an explanation to citizens hungry for information.
The Troupe's job is still to inform and entertain, to point out injustices, and to show the inequalities and cruelty inherent in a system that puts profit before people. And to make people laugh while they are watching it!
My hope with the Troupe has always been to create a world where a company like the MIme Troupe isn't needed. But the way things are going, that may be a while off.
JS: You wrote an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 that was produced to great acclaim by the Actor’s Gang in LA and directed by Tim Robbins. You’re now working with Robbins on a film adaptation. What’s the process of working with a director to adapt a play of yours into a film?
MGS: Ahhhh.... 1984. Well, first of all the show is still touring! It just played Notre Dame, and there is interest in another international tour this Fall! That sucker has been running, off and on, since 2006.
As for the screenplay, I tried to write the play in such a way that it could work on stage or screen. I wanted it to be intimate, slightly claustrophobic, but with space to open out onto the big screen. When Tim told me he wanted to do a film adaptation I was worried he was going to push to make it all Hollywood - boobs, explosions, and car chases. Now, I like exploding car/boob chases as much as the next guy, but I didn't want them in the film. Well, over the course of a weekend he worked on the script without me, and gave me his adaptation of my play. I was shocked - it was almost exactly what I'd written! I think he added, like, one external shot. See, the concept is the play is the re-enactment of Winston's confession by four Party Members, so there was already space for flashback, voice over action, everything. So what could have been a painful, nasty fight between me and Tim - who is about a foot taller than me - was avoided!
The film project is still up in the air at this point. It's the only bad thing about Bush not being in office - everything feels less Orwellian. For now...
JS: What’s up next for you?
MGS: Well, I just finished directing a circus - what a dream come true! Right now I'm preparing for the Mime Troupe summer show. I'll be in it, and most likely write it - though I haven't decided yet. I also have another play I'm adapting from a novel written in the 20's about taking the country back from the speculating Capitalists as America headed into the Great Depression. Sound familiar? I also have a screenplay I was commissioned to write on the life of Duke Ellington. I've gotten some interest from L.A. and I just got back from laying groundwork for pitching the script to a studio. Then there's my adaptation of Christmas Carol...