During his 65 years in San Diego, DJ Sullivan built a legacy in the local acting community. She was a performer, teacher and leader of an actors’ union. She ran her own theater company and training program. But former college students say what they will remember most about Sullivan – who died Dec. 23 at the age of 86 – was her maternal dedication to generations of San Diego actors.
âI called her the mother of a thousand actors, although it was probably double that,â said Jeff Smith, who served as a theater critic for the San Diego Reader from 1980 to 2019. âBy Dayâ like at night she would take calls from anyone. needed help with a monologue or questions about their character. She was one of the best teachers I have ever seen. She told you what you did. needed to hear, but in the nicest way possible.
Sullivan began her professional acting career at the Old Globe in the 1960s, worked regularly in small roles in television, commercials, and films in the 1970s and 1980s, and appeared in all four of horror parodies ” The “Killer Tomato Attack” of San Diego. movie theater. But it was her work as an acting coach – first at the San Diego Junior Theater from 1968 to 1985, then at her own Sullivan Players theater company in University Heights – that made her a good local figure. -loved. Three of his junior theater students – Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christian Hoff and Casey Nicholaw – won the Tony Awards on Broadway. She loved to celebrate the successes, big and small, of all of her students.
âShe approached every student the same whether or not they were training to pursue a professional career,â said Devlin, a San Diego actor who bears his name. “She could take you close to her heart and she could get things from you that no one else could.”
Sullivan’s impact of more than half a century on the San Diego acting community led the San Diego Theater Critics Circle to honor him in 2009 with its Craig Noel Lifetime Achievement Award. Renee Varnadore, the oldest of Sullivan’s three children, said the game held a place in her mother’s heart like nothing else.
âIn playing she found her only goal and she shared that love, compassion and kindness with everyone she came in contact with,â said Varnadore.
Donna Jean Sullivan was born on November 14, 1935 in Spokane, Washington. She took opera and theater lessons as a pre-teen to overcome her shy nature. At age 14, she landed the lead role in her high school play and went on to star in several school, community and religious productions. At 18, she married and in 1956 she moved with her husband to San Diego, where they had three children.
Varnadore said her parents divorced when her mother’s goal of becoming a professional actress conflicted with her husband’s desire for a traditional 1950s housewife. Varnadore said the divorce was difficult for her. his mother, but that he had also changed his life.
âAs their marriage fell apart, she became like a diamond inside. She has become this incredible moving person. If she had remained a housewife, she wouldn’t have found this.
Sullivan’s first career mentor was Craig Noel, the founding artistic director of the Old Globe in San Diego, who gave him a series of dramatic roles that Sullivan called “cry and die.” But she couldn’t support three children as a stage actress, so she started traveling back and forth to Los Angeles to film small character roles for the next several decades in TV commercials, movies. TV movies and TV series, such as “Dallas” and “Murder She Wrote.”
In LA, Sullivan studied for four years with drama teacher Michael Shurtleff, a casting legend who became his greatest mentor. In the 1970s, Sullivan got an office job with AFTRA, the union of television and radio workers, and became the organization’s regional president. She also joined the Screen Actors Guild and would become its regional president as well.
Varnadore said her mother flourished in the unions as a fighter for the underdogs.
âShe went to national conventions to bring up the concerns of small and daytime actors who weren’t in big cities like Los Angeles or New York. She wanted local voices to be heard.
At the San Diego Junior Theater, and later his own Sullivan Players, the now defunct Swedenborgian Theater on Park Boulevard, Sullivan trained actors from early adolescence to late adulthood. Former students say Sullivan treated every student, regardless of age, with the same seriousness. James “Jimmy” Saba, who has been the executive director of the Junior Theater since 2013, said he first met Sullivan in his early teens.
âDJ once said that if I was serious about acting, I should read at least one play a week. I went to the downtown library and picked up the first play I could find, “The American Dream” by Edward Albee. At 13, I had no idea what it was about, but I felt like a serious actor, âSaba said.
San Diego actor Daren Scott was also 13 when he enrolled in Sullivan Players classes in the 1970s. Scott described himself as an outcast whose parents didn’t want him to do theater. so he paid for his lessons by mowing the lawns and cycled to the theater. Scott said Sullivan not only taught him how to act, but often let him stay all day and attend adult classes to soak up the atmosphere.
âShe was the first person who saw something in me. Her support helped me shape who I became an adult, âScott said. “She was my theater mom and I just loved her.”
Dori Salois, executive director of the Vantage Theater in San Diego, first met Sullivan in Los Angeles when she needed coaching for a role in a television pilot. In 1985, she enrolled in Sullivan’s Master Acting Class, where her classmates included Scott, Devlin, and “Total Recall” movie actor Priscilla Allen.
âThis masterclass was a home for all of us,â said Salois. âThere is a danger in a comfortable theater classroom like this where the work is so great you can be content to just be in the classroom. But DJ got his people to audition. She had the talent to bring out the best in you, not just on stage, in movies or on TV, but in life, showing you the way with compassion and humor.
Growing health concerns led Sullivan to shut down Sullivan Players in 2015, after which she shared her teaching methods in a book, “Simplified subtext. To avoid being separated from her children as her health declined during the pandemic, Sullivan chose to spend her final months in hospice home care in San Diego. Varnadore said her mother passed away peacefully, surrounded by her family. .
âShe made all of her dreams come true. She lived a very, very good life and left a legacy in so many hearts, âsaid Varnardore.
Sullivan is survived by Varnadore of Baja California, Mexico, his son Timothy Simoneau of San Diego and his daughter Andrea Knepper of San Diego. She is also survived by her grandchildren, Katie, Sarah, Steven, Sean and Rochelle, and her great-grandson, Ivan. Sullivan’s cremated remains will be buried along with those of other family members in Spokane. Due to COVID, the family will postpone plans for a local memorial until spring. Details will be announced on the Sullivan Players fan page at facebook.com/sullivan.players.