Dan Sullivan, a longtime theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, had a ready-made answer when people asked him what it was like to review theater for the paper.
It was, he said, “like someone pointing a microphone in your face after every performance and yelling, ‘What do you think?'”
Sullivan, one of the nation’s most widely read theater critics as he traveled around the country reviewing newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Los Angeles, died Tuesday of natural causes at his Minneapolis home, said his son, Ben Sullivan. He was 86 years old.
A theater critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1969 to 1991, Sullivan previously worked for St. Paul’s Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the New York Times. As director of the Eugene O’Neill National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut, from 1999 until his retirement in 2013, he also mentored many of the country’s current theater critics.
“Dan had a huge influence on the whole country,” said Chris Jones, theater critic for the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News and current director of the O’Neill National Critics Institute. “And he wrote at a time when the regional critic was a real power.
“Like many critics of his generation, he wrote as a neutral observer, saying what he saw. He also wanted to make it clear to the critics he mentored that part of their job was to tell people what was happening in the theater and replicate the experience in a review.
“If you couldn’t go see ‘Hamlet’, Dan would take you there and make you feel like you were there that night.
The 1963 season was Sullivan’s first season covering theater for the Minneapolis Tribune, and the 27-year-old critic was especially nervous about covering the very first show at the city’s brand new and highly anticipated Guthrie Theater.
As he wrote in American Theater magazine 30 years later, his review of “Hamlet,” starring George Grizzard, “was a mixed yes,” which he found “timid but readable.”
Born and raised in Worcester, Mass., Sullivan had covered music as well as off-Broadway for The New York Times, and, according to his son, “he was a truly accomplished pianist and a quick-witted person inclined to the music”.
He worked on songs such as “When Barbie Married GI Joe” and “Pizza Man – He Delivers” for the Brave New Workshop, a still-existing Minneapolis comedy troupe. And among the people he met through the troupe was Faith, his wife of 57 years.
The same year Sullivan started at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles theater producer Ron Sossi founded his Odyssey Theater Ensemble and praised Sullivan’s efforts to cover small theaters.
“He found the time to cover a lot of us,” Sossi said, “and he was always ready to talk and have conversations in the theater. He really reached out to understand what we were doing or trying to do.
Sullivan worked closely with the theater community with Sylvie Drake, the newspaper’s second-channel theater critic who worked with him for about 20 years.
“Dan was a natural mentor and a wonderful one,” said Drake, who served as the paper’s chief theater critic for several years.
Noting that Sullivan “left a trail of mentees,” Drake made it clear that she was one of them. “I had never worked in a newsroom before, and for the first few months he was writing little reviews of my columns, and he was always helpful. I could go to him with any problem.
Sullivan was there to help, whether it was with a synonym or the act of reporting and writing. When he retired from The Times in 1991, for example, he said he planned to teach art criticism and reporting at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and stated that in addition to his work at the National Critics Institute, he would also be an adviser to the Center for Arts Criticism in St. Paul.
“The best thing that was ever said about me as a critic was: it served its purpose,” he told Drake in “Under the Copper Beech: Conversations With American Theater Critics,” published by the Foundation of the American Theater Critics Assn.
“I wouldn’t mind having that on my headstone – leaving it up to the reader to decide what the purpose was.
“I knew it was a big country and I knew theater existed everywhere – and I didn’t feel like enough people took that seriously. It’s been one of the themes of my life from criticism, try to bring this to everyone’s attention.
Sullivan is survived by his wife, an author; and their three children, Maggie, Ben and Kate.
Isenberg is a former editor of The Times.
Los Angeles Times