Dan Sullivan, a theater critic widely read in L.A. and New York, dies

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Dan Sullivan, longtime theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, had a ready reply when people asked him what it was like reviewing theater for the paper.

It was, he said, “Like having someone thrust a microphone in your face after every performance and shout, ‘What did you think?’”

Sullivan, among the country’s most read theater critics as he moved around the nation reviewing for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Los Angeles, died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Minneapolis, his son, Ben Sullivan, said. He was 86.

The Los Angeles Times theater critic from 1969 until 1991, Sullivan earlier worked at 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, Conn., from 1999 until retiring in 2013, he also mentored many of the nation’s current theater critics.

“Dan had a big influence on the whole country,” said Chris Jones, theater critic for the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News as well as current director of the O’Neill National Critics Institute. “And he wrote at a time when the regional critic was a real powerhouse.

“Like a lot of the critics of his generation, he wrote as a neutral observer, saying what he saw. He also wanted to impart on the critics he mentored that a part of their job was to tell people what went on in the theater and to replicate the experience in a review.

“If you couldn’t go see ‘Hamlet,’ Dan would take you there and make you feel as if you were there that night.”

Dan Sullivan in his office at The Times.

(From Ben Sullivan )

The 1963 season was Sullivan’s first season covering theater for the Minneapolis Tribune, and the 27-year-old critic was particularly nervous about covering the very first show at the city’s brand-new and much-anticipated Guthrie Theatre.

As he wrote in American Theatre magazine 30 years later, his review of “Hamlet,” starring George Grizzard, “was a qualified yes,” which struck him as “timid but readable.”

Born and raised in Worcester, Mass., Sullivan had covered music as well as off-Broadway for the New York Times, and, his son said, “he was a really accomplished piano player and a quick-witted, musically inclined person.”

He worked on such songs as “When Barbie Married GI Joe” and “Pizza Man — He Delivers” for the Brave New Workshop, a Minneapolis comedy troupe still in existence. And among the people he met through the troupe was Faith, his wife of 57 years.

The same year Sullivan began at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles theater producer Ron Sossi founded his Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and praised Sullivan’s efforts to cover smaller theater.

“He found time to cover a lot of us,” said Sossi, “and he was always willing to talk and have conversations about theater. He really reached out to understand what we were doing or trying to do.”

Sullivan worked closely covering the theater community with Sylvie Drake, the paper’s second-string theater critic who worked with him for about 20 years.

“Dan was a mentor by nature 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 she was one of them. “I had never worked in a newsroom before, and in the first few months, he would write little critiques 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 instance, he said he was planning to teach arts reviewing and reporting at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication and said that besides 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: He served the purpose,” he told Drake in “Under the Copper Beech: Conversations With American Theater Critics,” published by the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Assn.

“I wouldn’t mind having that on my tombstone — leaving it to the reader to decide what the purpose was.

“I knew it was a big country and I knew theater exists everywhere — and I didn’t feel enough people took that idea seriously. That has been one of the themes of my life as a critic, to try to bring that to everybody’s attention.”

Sullivan is survived by his wife, an author; and their three children, Maggie, Ben and Kate.

Isenberg is a former Times staff writer.

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