Ned Sullivan represents the soul of Aspen community theater
November 13, 2009
ASPEN – One of Ned Sullivan’s most memorable stage moments came during Aspen Community Theatre’s 1990 production of “South Pacific.” Sullivan played a sailor, and among the equally anonymous sailors in the cast of extras was Gary Daniel. Daniel, a longtime performer at the Crystal Palace dinner theater, went on to play other Aspen Community Theatre roles where his character had an actual name: the King of Siam in “The King and I,” Don Quixote in “The Man of La Mancha.”
Sullivan, too, went on to additional ACT roles: a pirate in “Peter Pan,” the judge in last year’s “Chicago,” a Russian Orthodox priest in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and more nameless townspeople and street bums than he can remember. In “Annie,” he was Mr. Bundles – though Sullivan is quick to note “that was more a title than a name.”
Sullivan is comfortable with his anonymity. Earlier in his acting days, he would audition for somewhat more substantial parts – but with the expectation, even the hope, that he would be handed his customary role away from the spotlight. “Unlike most people who audition, I don’t want a big part,” Sullivan said. “I wanted the smallest role possible – to be on for 15 seconds and never be seen again. I’m perfectly content to be the person who hands over the letter and disappears.”
As time has passed, Sullivan has stopped auditioning. “The talent of the people auditioning has gone up. And my talent has gone down,” he explained. “If they need a warm body, I’m there. Sometimes they suddenly discover they need an extra body to drive the Wells Fargo wagon and carry the pool table onstage.”
The fact is, community theater groups always need someone like Sullivan. His primary function isn’t onstage, but behind it: He routinely and reliably helps out with behind-the-scenes tasks like building sets. He has become a specialist on the fly rail, which moves large objects onto and off the stage. He is also a member of ACT’s board of directors, where he says he plays the role of the skeptic: “Telling them which of their ideas just aren’t going to work,” said the 66-year-old Sullivan, who also volunteers extensively at the Wheeler Opera House, for the Boogie’s Fourth of July footrace, World Cup ski races, and Race for the Cure. (For a day job, he works winters at Bonnie’s, on Aspen Mountain; past jobs include the Merry-Go-Round and Highlands Cafe, as well as work as an Army Specialist Five, EMT, ski patroller and on construction crews.)
Over the years, however, those small roles – approximately 17 of them over the years – have added up to something of a legacy. It would hardly be an ACT production without Sullivan in a bit part. For the current production of “The Music Man,” he does indeed play the driver of the Wells Fargo wagon. He has no speaking lines – down from the four lines, or approximately four words each, that he spoke last year in “Chicago” – but Sullivan plays a significant role in “The Music Man”: He is the only cast member from the current production who was also in ACT’s 1978 version of the musical, the only one on the inside who can feel the pride in how far the organization has progressed over the decades.
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Sullivan recalls the early days, before cast members from the Crystal Palace were commonplace in ACT productions. He marvels at how the talent level has been boosted over the years, to the point where this year, he is surrounded by cast members like Nikki and Jon Boxer, both trained opera singers.
Sullivan is lightning quick in pointing out that he can’t compete, talent-wise, with the likes of the Boxers. But he points out that he takes his small roles seriously.
That was apparent in the 2004 production of “The Sound of Music.” My wife and I happened to be up close to the stage, and right in front of Sullivan, who played a Nazi guard. After the show, the most indelible image, for both me and my wife, was Sullivan’s menacing portrayal. When I think of ACT moments, that one sticks with me as much as anything. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one affected by Sullivan’s acting.
“A lot of people, particularly old Jewish people, said they [were physically affected] when the swastikas came down,” Sullivan said. “They said it was terrifying, saying I was one of the six or eight guards there, toward the end, and that’s when you really got the Nazi presence.
“But I wasn’t doing anything particularly sinister, other than just being up there.”
Sullivan said he doesn’t get stage fright. But he does have a certain fear associated with being in front of an audience.
“I hope people aren’t tired of seeing me onstage,” he said.