Performer and teacher DJ Sullivan recalled as “mother of a thousand” San Diego actors

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.

“I called her the mother of a thousand actors, although it was probably double that,” said Jeff Smith, who served as a theater critic for the San Diego Reader from 1980 to 2019. “By Day” 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.

“She approached every student the same whether or not they were training to pursue a professional career,” 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.

“In playing she found her only goal and she shared that love, compassion and kindness with everyone she came in contact with,” 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.

“As 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.”

DJ Sullivan, left, with his mentor Michael Shurtleff in an undated photo.

(Renée Varnadore)

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.

“She 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.

“DJ 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, ”Saba said.

DJ Sullivan died on December 23, 2021 in San Diego at the age of 86.

DJ Sullivan died on December 23, 2021 in San Diego at the age of 86.


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.

“She was the first person who saw something in me. Her support helped me shape who I became an adult, ”Scott 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.

“This masterclass was a home for all of us,” said Salois. “There 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.

DJ Sullivan, center, on stage with his three children, Andrea, left, Timothy and Renee.

DJ Sullivan, center, on stage with his three children, Andrea, left, Timothy and Renee, during his last acting presentation with Sullivan Players in San Diego.

(Renée Vernadore)

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. .

“She made all of her dreams come true. She lived a very, very good life and left a legacy in so many hearts, ”said 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