• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— When teaching, Sullivan gives students as much as she thinks they can handle. "Sometimes it's too much; sometimes they surprise me."

In the late '70s a 15-year-old kid came to her class. "He was so cute all the girls were after him. But this upset him, because they took his study-time." The student was Christian Hoff, original cast member of the La Jolla Playhouse's Jersey Boys.

From the start, Sullivan saw an "inner energy" in Hoff, "a passion so strong it jumps out at you." He kept asking for more scene-work, harder and harder tasks. He was her student for three years. She loved it when he'd say, "I can't do this scene."

"I say, sure you can. Take it apart. Check the Guideposts [the 12-stage process devised by Sullivan's best friend, Michael Shurtleff]. When they say they can't -- that's when they grow."

Sullivan calls Hoff's inner energy the "X-factor. You can tell who has it." Brian Stokes Mitchell, one of the first African Americans to attend Junior Theatre, enrolled when he was 14. The Broadway star, whom the New York Times recently called "the Last Leading Man," "had incredibly good looks but no idea how much talent he had. The X-factor: I saw him and knew."

Not all of her students aspire to stardom. Some take classes to land better parts in community theater. Another was too shy to talk to his employees. Then there's the married couple that loved each other but fought all the time. Sullivan pondered and pondered -- got an idea. "Let's try this before you see a psychiatrist." She gave them scenes from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "If you're going to scream and yell at each other, do it in a constructive way!"

Sullivan never liked her first two names -- "just D.J., thank you" -- but says she has never, even for a single day, hated what she does. But she admits to times when she was stumped. Years ago she got a call from a high school drama teacher who had a student she couldn't help: "See what you can do."

"Most teenagers are frisky," says Sullivan. "Annette was the shyest, quietest person I'd ever seen." She'd sit in a corner, "a little thing" huddled up, too embarrassed to stand before the group. "I could sense she was listening and had a strong commitment but needed her to start doing something."

So Sullivan had her arrive before class. They'd talk. When students came in, she fled to the corner. For a student's growth, real teachers, as opposed to self-proclaimed prophets or time-servers, recognize they're part of a larger, ongoing process. Thus after several months, when Annette's father called, wondering what to do, Sullivan recommended sending her to William Ball at ACT in San Francisco. "If anyone can get through that shell, it's him."

It happened in an instant. During a scene she told herself, "Oh hell, I'll just do it."

"When she finally broke through the dam," Ball told Sullivan, "it was phenomenal." Annette Bening was born.

Bening won a Screen Actors Guild award for American Beauty. Sullivan, a member of the national SAG board for 30 years, was at the ceremony. She reminded -- okay, ordered -- Bening to thank William Ball in her acceptance speech. Which Bening did.

A friend with Sullivan at the ceremony, who knew the Bening story, became perplexed. Here's this kid hunched in a corner, not participating at all. "Why didn't you just toss..."

"Because," Sullivan jumped in, "you never give up on a student!"

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!