A recent graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Thomas E. Sullivan received his drama training from the Atlantic Acting School. Making his off-Broadway debut in the play Straight, Sullivan favorably impressed critics for his portrayal of the wisecracking Chris, the male love interest of the sexually ambivalent protagonist, Ben. We spoke after one of the final performances.
Brent: What a treat! I’ve gotten to interview all three cast members of Straight—you, Jake Epstein, and Jenna Gavigan. This was your Off-Broadway debut, and the New York Times praised you for your slacker jokiness and sharp timing. That must have felt pretty good. Was Chris an easy part for you to learn?
Tom: Chris was a particularly challenging role for me in terms of memorization, primarily because the character speaks in a very modern way. His vernacular is not so dissimilar from my own, and I found it difficult to memorize in rehearsals for this reason.
Brent: That’s surprising. One would think the familiarity would make it easier, unlike, say, Shakespeare. How did you tackle this?
Tom: I usually sit down with a friend and just pace for hours and hours until I can go a whole scene without getting a word wrong, and this project was no exception. It took a long time to get everything down!
Brent: I’ll bet. You had some very long, moving passages, as well as some great comedic riffs. In my opinion, Chris has the funniest line in the play.
Tom: I’m guessing you mean, “Not every gay guy, like, burps glitter.”
Brent: Clever stuff! Chris has a very intense—and often infuriating—relationship with Ben, urging him to come clean about his sexuality. Some scenes generated a lot of emotional reaction from the audience in a small theater. How do you stay focused and tune out off-stage noise and distractions?
Tom: I utilize a technique called Practical Aesthetics, which keeps me focused exclusively on my scene partner while I'm onstage. In other words, I'm working to achieve a specific change in my scene partner.
Brent: I’ve heard that David Mamet is a big proponent of this method. It’s precisely what you say—identify what your character wants the other character to say or do, then commit as if your life depended on it.
Tom: Exactly. It's really hard to get distracted when there is such a tangible task at hand.
Brent: It’s also an effective memory device. Your drive and your partner’s resistance spark the action and move it forward; you set each other up for the next line. That kind of tussling is very much alive in Mamet, and Straight has a similar dynamic. Still, it’s possible that you may blank on your lines. What do you do when that happens?
Tom: No matter what, there are definitely moments where anyone would just space out on stage. Once you come out of that moment, it's important to just throw yourself back into the analysis and action that Practical Aesthetics dictates. Because we have such firm foundation, it's pretty easy to find your way back into the scene after you've "left it" for a little bit.
Brent: And you have other characters to prompt you and help you find your way. Well, this has been a real pleasure. No doubt you have many great roles ahead of you. Thank you for talking with me.
Tom: Thanks, Brent!