Ian Sullivan is obsessed with stories, and to tell the story of his newest venture -- a burgeoning theater company established in his hometown -- he borrows from another.
"The first duty of a storyteller is to tell stories," he said, quoting from the main character in Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," in which a writer is interrogated after a series of murders mimic his stories. Or is it the only duty of a storyteller? The character in the play can't quite remember, but either way, he's sure he's meant to tell stories -- as is Sullivan.
The Wantagh native moved back to Long Island from Philadelphia in March, about the same time he established the Long Island Theatre Collective, which has the goal of providing a venue that allows area actors to thrive locally rather than head to Broadway, where the opportunities can be limited and conditions of employment grueling.
The collective, which the Holy Trinity Diocesan High School graduate established with a group of reconnected theater buddies -- four from his high school in Hicksville and four he met while attending the University at Albany -- aims to bring additional high-quality theater to Long Island -- and a variety of it.
Sullivan, 29, who has been working as a professional actor -- primarily in theater -- since graduating from college, said the amount of vibrant new work by young professionals he found in other cities inspired him, and he wanted to bring that kind of storytelling back home.
"There's a sense on Long Island that if you want to see high-caliber theater, you go into New York City," he said. "That's just not true."
He wants the Long Island Theatre Collective to be vibrant and cutting-edge. He said he will work with local talent to produce original adaptations of classic theater as well as adventurous work like "The Pillowman," which the company will put on in September at Bellmore Presbyterian Church.
Bard in the backyard
The company launched its inaugural season on June 21 with "Rude Mechanicals in Fairyland," a 30-minute original adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," to an audience of about 50 people in the backyard of the Wantagh home where Sullivan grew up. A full production of the adaptation is planned for next June.
"Founder's Day," as the members of the collective called the performance, was an important first step. It showed them what they were capable of and how they could bring together their individual skills and interests and also accommodate one another's needs, Sullivan said.
A group of 11 worked on the opener. They built the set; Sullivan wrote the adaptation; actor Tom Brown, another Holy Trinity graduate, was in the cast and wrote an original score; Sullivan's mother, Schery, an artist, donated work to auction off that day, and his father, Jim, spruced up their backyard for guests. Ticket sales and other donations helped to pay the seven actors; and the entire group worked tirelessly to find rehearsal time between their day jobs and other commitments.
Though they had each met in small groups, the night before performance day was the first time the full cast could rehearse together. Actors showed up as late as 11 p.m. and stayed through morning, said Brown, who arrived last -- after his bartending shift ended.
"It's a family business that's a theater company," Sullivan said, explaining that without the history together and the deep sense of trust in one another, the company could not work.
The board envisions a first-year budget of $7,000 to $8,000 to cover royalties, pay the actors, rent space and build sets and costumes. About $3,000 has been raised so far in online donations. To make up they difference, the board is seeking personal donations and corporate sponsorships. General admission tickets priced around $20 will contribute.
Brown, 29, of Amityville, remembers dreaming up the collective with Sullivan back in high school. "We always had all these ideas about starting our own company, but the pieces never came together."
Sullivan uses another story to explain how that finally happened.
"It's like the montage scene from 'Ocean's Eleven,' " he said, referring to the 2001 remake of the classic Rat Pack film in which Danny Ocean -- portrayed by George Clooney -- scrambles to persuade various ex-cons to join in on a new venture. "It was going from one person to the next person, like, 'Let's pull off this heist.' "
Sullivan and Brown said the timing for the company finally felt right, and in Sullivan's analogy, he is Danny Ocean, wooing people back into the business.
Still in love with theater
Chris Cuoccio, 27, another actor in the collective, had given up on theater and taken a job in finance. He commutes from his home in Floral Park to his Manhattan office daily and hadn't seen Sullivan in years. But in March, he ran into Sullivan at an event for Holy Trinity alumni. Cuoccio recalls that before leaving, Sullivan tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I'm going to give you a call; I have something I want to talk to you about."
Cuoccio said he remembers thinking, "I hope it's something to do with theater."
Ilana Landecker of Astoria, who studied acting at University at Albany with Sullivan, worked professionally for a while after college, but said she became "disenchanted" with the industry. She eventually went to law school and thought her acting days were behind her. But she reconnected with Sullivan and offered her legal services to help him establish the business. Now she's on the company's board of directors and is acting in and directing the shows. Landecker, 29, grew up in Long Beach and attended high school there, but met Sullivan and his friends through their respective high school theater programs.
"All of our lives led us to these different places, but it all led us back here," she said. "It's just wonderful and just so beautiful that we're all working back together."
Sullivan is not just revisiting old friends, but also old stamping grounds. In the fall, he begins a new job at his alma mater as the acting teacher and show director -- or, as he puts it, "telling stories full time."
What they are all most passionate about, Brown said, is what they'll be able to bring to the community.
"People want stories," he said. "They want to tell stories, they want to hear stories. That's what we do. That's how we communicate."
The inaugural season of the Long Island Theatre Collective is scheduled to include four productions, including a festival of newly discovered work. The locations of some performances have yet to be decided. For more information, visit the group's website at litheatrecollective.com.
"The Pillowman" by Martin McDonagh; Sept. 26-27, 8 p.m., Bellmore Presbyterian Church; directed by Ilana Landecker
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens; adapted by Ian Sullivan; Dec. 19-21
Long Island New Plays Festival; April 17-18, 2015
"Rude Mechanicals in Fairyland," an adaptation by Ian Sullivan of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; June 19-21, 2015