Dan Sullivan | ATCA emeritus and founding member, mentor, teacher

Dan Sullivan | ATCA emeritus and founding member, mentor, teacher

Dan Sullivan at The Times (photo courtesy of Ben Sullivan)

Dan Sullivan, gentle mentor, director of the O’Neill Center National Critics Institute for many years, and co-founder of the American Theatre Critics Association, passed away Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Minneapolis. He was 86.

Sullivan was born in 1935, attended Holy Cross College and the University of Minnesota, wrote for a number of publications including the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the New York times, and for 22 years (1969-1991) as the Los Angeles Times theater critic. He married his wife Faith in 1965 at the beginning of all these adventures.

In Under the Copper Beech: Conversations with American Theater Critics edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins and published by the Foundation of ATCA in 2004, the recollections of many of the organization’s founders are preserved in dialogue form. A 1996 interview of Sullivan by Sylvie Drake, recently named ATCA’s newest emeritus member, appears in that volume and is a tremendous read. When Drake asks about the foundation of ATCA and Sullivan’s role, he is funny and self-effacing.

“My role was as kind of a naysayer, but it’s a little hazy. I do remember a meeting in August 1974. I had become a dramaturg at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut and perhaps that was why i was in on this meeting. Henry Hewes, who was theater critic of the Saturday Review — to whom I give credit for starting the organization — said that he wanted to have a meeting at the O’Neill to discuss a notional critics” organization. And i said, ‘Henry, I hate organizations, I don’t think critics should be in them. I don’t even like our L.A. Drama Critics’ Circle. I’m only in that to keep the peace.’ And he said, ‘Well, come to the meeting anyway.’ And I came, grudgingly. Some good had come out of the L.A. Drama Critics’ Circle in terms of awards and I thought maybe that’s what this group would do.

I was appointed to the ATCA constitution committee with Dick Coe, of the Washington Post, and some other people. My job with the constitution committee was to go site under a tree and write some guiding principles for the organization that we could live with and I think that ones we came up with are still there: including number five, which was the right to disagree with all of the above — which I insisted on. I think critics should never feel they have to go with the party line on anything”

Under the Copper Beech, pp. 198-199.

Many current and former ATCA members and writers of all stripes have offered their reflections on social media over the past few days. One offered this quotation attributed to Sullivan himself

“But being a good critic … makes you a better appreciator of life. It’s a miracle – what can happen in a room when a bunch of actors get together to tell a story. My favorite moment in theater isn’t when the curtain comes up. It’s at the end, when the audience acknowledges what happened for them.”

Dominic Papatola, ATCA Executive Committee chair from 2005-2007, reflected on his Minnesota legacy.

The Los Angeles Times published memories and some smashing photos honoring Sullivan.

The O’Neill, where Sullivan headed the National Critics Institute for 15 years, noted his passing on October 7, sharing the LA Times article on Twitter. “We are saddened by the passing of critic Dan Sullivan. He led the National Critics Institute from 1999-2013, and many critics who passed through our campus benefitted from his mentorship. We hope you’ll take a moment to read about his life and impact.” The O’Neill also shared their own image of Dan with students, “under the copper beech” and dispensing wisdom in the Connecticut summer sunshine.

Current ATCA member and head of the O’Neill National Critics Institute Chris Jones offered his words of remembrance.

Member Don Shirley’s Substack reflections about his old friend (link provided below) highlight Sullivan’s wit and charm, focusing in particular on his own yearend tradition of lists of theatrical lowlights, his Bah-Humbug Awards. But more than anything, Shirley reflects, Sullivan was an essential witness to LA’s theater scene.

“During the ‘70s and ‘80s — two decades when theater in Greater LA was rapidly proliferating — Sullivan was its most important chronicler. And he helped expand public awareness of the region’s theater not only by bearing witness but by bringing a winning wit to that task. The often playful quality of his prose probably drew readers who weren’t all that interested in theater, as well as the fervent fans.”

Emeritus member Larry Devine expressed his appreciation of his old friend in a Facebook post dated the day after Sullivan died, the text of which Devine agreed to have posted here.

“Dan Sullivan, the finest of thoughtful theater critics, was one of a kind and his big world around Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Waterford, Conn., and Worcester, Mass., will miss him and be much the poorer for his loss. Dan died yesterday in Minnesota, following two years of intermittent illness following a series of strokes caused by a fall. He was a friend to every good theater critic and a mentor to a lot of them on their way up. And honest and forthright. He served the theater from those early days with Dudley Riggs in the Twin Cities and in his distinguished tenure in Los Angeles at the Times and in the damn near 50 years he gave at very little dough to the National Critics Institute at the O’Neill Theater Center. Dan was one of the founders 48 years ago of the American Theater Critics Association. Anyone who was there that July in the Production Cottage would remember Dan’s stenography in taking down suggested by-laws and codes of conduct for this new outfit. And, so typically, one sighs in recalling it, his finalizing the whole moralizing list, written on his yellow, lined note pads, in his thick Sharpie printing, “the right to disagree with all of the above.” Written with love and admiration for our rare good friend and journalist, and the same to his brilliant Faith and to his children.”

More news on any memorials or commemorations will be posted here as they are received.

Additional coverage:

October 5, 2022 Pioneer Press (Mary Ann Grossmann)
October 6, 2022 Los Angeles Times obituary (Barbara Isenberg)
October 10, 2022 Angeles Stage (Don Shirley)
October 11, 2022 MassLive (Ryan Mancini)
October 17, 2022 American Theatre (Chris Jones)

 Submitted by Martha Wade Steketee

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