Lee Sullivan takes a final bow in Hudson Reed’s ‘Betrayal’
If You Go …
What: ‘Betrayal,’ presented by Hudson Reed Ensemble
When: Nov. 1-2, 7 & 9, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rio Grande Room
Cost: $20, available at the door and at www.hudsonreedensemble.org
Lee Sullivan has transformed into the workhorse of Aspen theater over the past two decades, working on productions throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and molding himself to roles big and small. Sullivan ends his prolific run on local stages this fall in Hudson Reed Ensemble’s presentation of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which opened Thursday.
A Tennessee native who has lived in the valley for 25 years, Sullivan is a rare breed of Renaissance man — a dedicated, dynamic performer but also a rancher, he is equally at ease shoeing a horse as he is with a Shakespearean soliloquy. The morning after “Betrayal” ends its two-week run at the Rio Grande Room, Sullivan will head back south to begin a new chapter of his life.
Now in his 50s, Sullivan came to acting late, but the seeds of his stage life were planted in fifth grade, when he wrote and performed a skit at the Holy Rosary Academy talent show in his hometown of Donelson, Tennessee, outside Nashville. Sullivan played Humphrey Bogart opposite a friend who played John Wayne in a “Tonight Show”-styled conversation.
“I was really struck by the response of people to entertainment and the performing arts,” Sullivan said. “As a kid, it’s rare you get to stand out in something other than sports or singing a solo in the choir or whatever.”
He put aside his creative pursuits, though, and dedicated his education and adult life to the outdoors and agriculture. After landing in the valley in May 1989, he managed the McBride Ranch in Old Snowmass. Early in his time here, he began singing with the Aspen Choral Society and at Crossroads Church.
In 1997, he got word through the church that Aspen Community Theatre was staging “Jesus Christ Superstar” — a musical that Sullivan knew and loved well. He auditioned, got a part in the ensemble and was hooked on acting.
“Singing and dancing on stage, I fell in love with the whole process,” he said. “It was a daunting thing to see done — it’s a product that’s made in human form.”
Sullivan continued performing with Aspen Community Theatre in the ensuing years and began auditioning and landing parts with local professional companies such as Theatre Aspen and Thunder River Theatre Company. He had the range to do musicals, to play for laughs or to disappear into small, dramatic roles as a character actor while also offering his technical skills in sound production and backstage crew.
Kent Reed, the founder of Theatre Aspen and Hudson Reed Ensemble, who directs Sullivan in “Betrayal,” gave Sullivan his first shot at a lead role in a 2005 production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Reed had seen Sullivan in a supporting part in Theatre Aspen’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and immediately saw him as John Proctor, the conflicted protagonist of Miller’s tense drama.
“Instinctively, I went up to him, and I said, ‘I am not doing the play if you don’t play John Proctor,’” Reed recalled. “And I meant it.”
The role was a turning point for Sullivan as a performer.
“It was a huge challenge,” Sullivan recalled. “But I really identified with (Proctor) as a character.”
He quickly became one of the valley’s most recognizable actors. He produced and starred in the political drama “Speak Truth to Power” in 2007, appeared regularly at the Aspen Fringe Festival and did an operetta at the Snowmass Chapel and an opera with Symphony in the Valley. He performed as local characters in the Aspen Historical Society’s “A Brief History of Aspen” and remained an Aspen Community Theatre stalwart.
Six years ago, he left the ranch to start his own small business as a handyman to free up more time for acting, and he has had a prolific run since then, performing in as many as five shows per year.
“I considered him from the get-go a galvanizing person — a person who has great stage presence, and that is a rare quality in actors,” Reed said.
Two of his most indelible performances came in leads at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale, as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and as zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy in “House of Blue Leaves.” A locally shot short film featuring Sullivan and titled “Absolution” is slated for release next year.
He’s also been a fixture in Hudson Reed Ensemble’s summertime Shakespeare in the Park productions, with roles ranging from Petruchio in an Old West adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” to the rascally sprite Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“That was a fun one,” he said. “I love energetic roles where you can just go nuts.”
At the SoL Theatre, a Carbondale children’s troupe, he later played Oberon in its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and was able to mentor the show’s young Puck.
Sullivan has often volunteered his time to assist with technical aspects of productions for theater companies throughout the valley.
“He’s schlepped for us day and night,” Reed said.
“I’ve just been a local guy that wanted to meet a need,” Sullivan said of his behind-the-scenes work. “It’s all avocational investment.”
His approach to acting is mostly visceral, he said. He looks for ways he can relate to a character and settles into the character’s skin but allows the playwright’s words and his director’s vision to shape his performance.
“Lee sometimes has a tendency to be overpassionate, and once that is refined — which it inevitably is in rehearsals — then his natural in-the-moment instinctual reaction to what’s going on is amazing to watch,” Reed said.
In “Betrayal,” a British drama that follows a love affair in reverse time, Sullivan stars opposite Nikki Boxer and Franz Alderfer. The cast worked with Aspen resident Brit Katherine Sand as a dialect coach for the accents, and Sullivan looked at film work by Colin Firth — whose voice has a low register near Sullivan’s — to guide him.
The morning after “Betrayal” closes on Nov. 9, Sullivan will hit the road for North Carolina, where he’s reuniting with his former wife and will be working with her at the nonprofit Hope for Horses, which she founded. The group rehabilitates horses that owners can’t take care of — and might euthanize otherwise — and provides adoption services for them.
“She’s my first love, and she’s who I want for the rest of my life,” Sullivan said.
He plans to take a break from acting as he settles into his new life and home, but he is open to auditioning again around western North Carolina eventually. Looking back on his life in Aspen and on local stages — including 15 Hudson Reed shows — has been gratifying for Sullivan.
“I love having sentimentality about the value of your life,” he said. “It warms you. It doesn’t make you cold. There’s enough coldness to deal with in life.”
Being a part of the Aspen community and its rare, holistic mix of outdoor and cultural pursuits has been fulfilling for Sullivan, he said, but he’s ready to start fresh in Carolina.
“I’m not getting weepy about it,” he said of leaving. “I’ve never made a transition in my life where I’m not happy about it. I’m grateful to be able to. … I’m going home is the way I’m looking at it.”
His director, Reed, meanwhile, echoed the sentiments of local theatergoers who’ve grown accustomed to seeing Sullivan perform, saying, “I rue Lee’s leaving the valley. I’ll miss his friendship, I’ll miss his generosity, and I’ll miss his presence as an actor in this valley, because he is one of the few who has a great deal of talent.”
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