Meet the Director: J.R. Sullivan of Irish Theatre of Chicago

By Connor Reilly '20 | English and Classics Major

[About a 6 MIN read]

JR Sullivan Meet the Artist
JR Sullivan Meet the Artist

Meet the Director: J.R. Sullivan of Irish Theatre of Chicago

By Connor Reilly '20 | English and Classics Major

[About a 6 MIN read]

The Irish Theatre of Chicago returns to the Center for an intense examination of our morality and the Catholic Church. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, A Parable is a cutting and powerful drama, written at the beginning of the Catholic Church abuse crisis and relevant to today. The play is presented in conjunction with the University’s 2019–2020 Notre Dame Forum, “Rebuild My Church: Crisis and Response.”

For the first of our two-part Meet the Artist series, we asked James (J.R.) Sullivan, the director of the Irish Theatre’s Doubt, A Parable, questions on bringing this play to the Center’s stage.

What does your rehearsal schedule look like leading up to a debut like Doubt?

Typically, professional productions average one month of rehearsal — a fact generally lamented by most but dictated by economic factors. As a director, I am intent on creating the kind of atmosphere that allows for honesty, vulnerability, and safety in the rehearsal room and a sense that creative exploration is protected and supported. Given the issues of this play, and its explosive nature, this is all the more important. Having sufficient time for a truthful performance to organically emerge is the goal, and the possibility of that must be protected whatever the circumstances of the rehearsal process.

For us, then, bringing the production to the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center has its own challenge. Moving the show and acclimating to its new space, requires protecting and nurturing all that was accomplished in the rehearsal hall and readying it for public performance in a matter of days. And so, the conduct of the first days of a limited rehearsal time has everything to do with how the last days will land.

Given the subject of the play, did you find it harder to rehearse than other roles you’ve had in the past?

Every play presents its own distinct set of challenges. Truth in everything is first and foremost. For me, it begins with the author’s intent. The author is the creative artist in the theater; we as directors, designers, and actors are interpretative collaborators. Each of these disciplines holds its own domains in craft and skill, and each is born of individual imagination and carried through with ensemble inventiveness and, yes, originality. But it all begins with respect for the author’s intent and setting one’s course for doing the play that the author wrote, and not departing from the original creative impulse.

John Patrick Shanley’s play, written in 2003 — the full title of which is Doubt, A Parable — appeared as the scandals of widespread sexual abuse by the clergy were headlined in the media, in public discourse, and in courtrooms of public judgment. In fact, it was in 2002 that national media coverage was everywhere, sparked by the investigations by the Boston Globe detailing widespread abuse and world-wide patterns of long-term abuse along with the Church’s hierarchical pattern of covering up that long-term abuse. The issue was everywhere in the news — and it rightfully remains at the forefront of public discourse.

But the intent of this play, especially in the cultural moment of its first appearance but no less now, upends expectation and is startling. Being true to that intent – an intent that must be revealed by the experience of the play — is our great challenge, especially given the core issue that intensifies the viewing of it.

“Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite …”

— John Patrick Shanley

What is the most rewarding part of this show for you?

As a director, the reward is the process, one that proceeds on a distinctive path back to the author’s intent and a fulfillment of that original purpose. The theater process is a collaborative one and the reward for me is the process — the work with designers, and with the actors who will embody the truth of each character.

How has Doubt challenged you artistically?

As a director, I am always challenged by any circumstance that would militate against clarity and purpose. It will always come down to the success or failure of fulfilling the author’s intent and fulfilling the aspirations of the play’s ensemble.

How do you think this play stands out from the 2008 movie version?

Any film – always distinctive for its own form — will have a tendency to mark a work of theater with an air of the definitive. But a play stands out from film with the certainty of the immediate. It happens in the now, and the force of that, of story, and of the power of its enactment, captures presence in a way that film cannot. And as mesmerizing as film art can be, and often is — and as brilliant as the 2008 film of this play surely is — the power of the story happening in the same space, breathing the same air as the audience watching it, lends it an authenticity that is the theatre’s greatest asset.

How does this play tie-in to the 19–20 Notre Dame Forum topic “Rebuild My Church: Crisis and Response?”

For this, I will quote the playwright, whose words — coming from the preface to his play — certainly have a great deal to do with his intent in the creation of the work. John Patrick Shanley writes: “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.”

What do you hope the audience takes away from this show?

Well, I would hope it will be no small amount of surprise, occasioned by expectation overturned by discovery.

Thank you to Mr. Sullivan for his informative and insightful answers on Doubt, A Parable and the process of staging such a difficult and provocative play. Be sure to check back later this week for our conversations with the actors on their role in the production. Don’t forget to order your tickets for Doubt, A Parable with two shows on February 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m.



John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning drama tests the murky depths of moral certainty, leaving you to wrestle with the weight of your doubts. Stay after the play for a conversation about some of the influences and decisions that designed the production.


Categories: Meet The Artist, News + Announcements