Good Hometown talk with J.R. Sullivan

Robert Frost used to say he enjoyed a “good talk” to Dr. Peter Stanlis, who was his student and is now professor emeritus of Rockford College and author of an upcoming book on Frost.

Stanlis said those “good talks” were “education by conversation,” another Frost phrase, since good listening was a large part of the exchange.

With frost and snow now in the air, the time of year for the superb tradition of Hometown Holiday has arrived for the 12th year in a row. Charlotte’s Web hosts this fine weaving of poetry, music, original stories and comedy sketches at Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St., Dec. 9-12—the first night is already sold out—get your tickets. Now! Call 964-2248, then finish reading the rest of this.

That call will bring you to the talents of this year’s characters, and believe you me, they are “characters.” Veteran Chicago actor of the stage and screen, and Rockford native, Daniel Sullivan is a boisterous Christmas ham. The lovely Linda Abronski’s acting talents are always appreciated by the region’s theater goers. Marvelous Megon McDonough charms everyone with her singing and songwriting. The fast fingers of pianist Shawn Wallace will keep the melody flowing and toes in motion. Randy Sabin is recognized nationally for his music, humor and that jazzy violin.

Jim Sullivan, also known as the brother of Bob, stands as the central character of Hometown Holiday, and in a special place in our hearts as the founder of New American Theater. A favorite son of our city and Charlotte’s Web, where NAT began, Jim’s departure from the homestead was a sad day, but great in his reflecting growth and achievement. We all should be very proud of him.

Now a resident of New York City, his work there has been highly praised by The New York Times. This year alone, he has or will direct performances in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespearean Festival, University of South Carolina, Penn State University, and a recent booking in Los Angeles to direct The Belle of Amherst, a play based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson.

Recently, in the offices of The Rock River Times and by phone, we enjoyed some of Frost’s “good talk.” Sullivan’s show, Laughing Stock, at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater was going into the preview show, and he seemed particularly excited about being an associate artistic director for Hamlet and Merchant of Venice at the Utah Shakespearean Festival this summer.

TRRT: This is your 12th year for Hometown Holiday. It seems unbelievable.

SULLIVAN: Yes. The first show was in December of 1994.

TRRT: You’re certainly all over the country this year. Do you have an agent?

SULLIVAN: I have an agent in New York. Jobs come in from the network that exists in regional theater. I seem to get certain types of jobs in certain areas. Comedy in Milwaukee. Cutting edge in Washington, D.C. Shakespeare in Utah. I seem to have a different identity in each place, which is fine. I have always believed in diversity. When I was doing a whole season at NAT I always tried to do a mix of styles. I get the jobs, and my agent does the negotiations. He always gets me more than I would have the nerve to ask for (laughs).

TRRT: How do you feel about coming back to Rockford to do Hometown Holiday?

SULLIVAN: It’s a labor of love. I think it’s because I began my whole creative life here. That place and 22 years at NAT, it’s my home and theater. It’s definitely my base. I feel very loyal to Bill and Karen Howard for getting us started, for which they receive very little credit. They created the greenhouse that we grew from, and that faith and energy stretches all the way back to Charlotte, with her brother Steve starting the Orpheus Coffee House on West State Street [located where National City Bank now stands].

TRRT: Is there a particular theme to this year’s show?

SULLIVAN: It’s not just sentimental and telling stories to people I like. Rockford has always been much maligned for not being a creative place. Look what this place has done for me. I’m talking to family. I’m talking to folks I know from Charlotte’s Web, NAT and Beloit. I’ve always enjoyed that.

It gets me tuned up on my writing. I don’t get to do much of that directing actors and other people’s work. I’m all over the country. What happens is my decision to write brings me back home. Like Tom Waits says in a song, “I never knew the East Coast, until I went to the West Coast.” Irreverence is important, especially considering the glut of commercialism.

Dramatically, it’s not unrelated to the pieces I did at Charlotte’s Web. There’s an intimacy. In the ’80s and ’90s, we did a series called Christmas Cards. They were one-hour shows at the noon hour. For three weeks, the theater would be full. Dan and I would get up their and read half-hour pieces each, and that was the show.

When I was at NAT and it was difficult, people would ask, “Why are you sticking it out?” Why? It had value—just like this humor, poetry, drama and music depicts a wholesome time of the year. I think theater is particularly suitable for that, and it even derives from it.

One thing for sure, the material has become more original. Randy and Megon bringing their own material. Dan and Linda are excellent. Some of the pieces are from friends in Milwaukee and Utah and myself. There’s some poetry by others.

No question, its format derives from A Prairie Home Companion, but it’s designed and written for a northern Illinois audience.

Every year, I look out and see new faces, but then I see others going back decades to Charlotte’s Web and school, and that’s very important to me.

TRRT: What is special in the show to you this year?

SULLIVAN: I think Danny’s return is very special to me. He told me he wouldn’t come back to Rockford to do a show until hell froze over or the White Sox won a World Series. I’m really glad it was the latter.

I’m looking forward to working with him. It’s been 14 years since we were on the stage together.

Danny is doing a Truman Capote piece, “Christmas Morning.”

I’m doing a John Cheever piece, “Christmas is a Sad Season if You’re Poor.” It’s actually a very witty thing on the glut of giving.

I remember when we did the Christmas Cards, a half-hour each, for 300 people. That’s one of my fondest memories.

Dan is also doing a story by a friend of mine in Milwaukee about having a talking reindeer job in a mall for minimum wage.

We’ll be working together, and in spite of his White Sox statement, I glad he’s here.

And we’ll be at our mom’s in our bunk beds talking over the mysteries of life.

TRRT: Any final thoughts?

SULLIVAN: Enjoy the three musicians, Randy, Megon and Shawn. There’s a remarkable, luminous quality to those three.

Also, it’s really nice that NPR is involved and will record the performance on Sunday. They will broadcast it. We’ll be heard in the northern Illinois area in southern Wisconsin.

Make the call for tickets! The popularity of the show may disappoint some people who come for tickets at the door, and I don’t want that to happen.

From the Dec. 7-13, 2005, issue

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