Tony Award nominee. Paralympic runner. As if Katy Sullivan’s biography wasn’t impressive enough, she’s about to achieve another feat when she becomes the first disabled woman to play the lead role in a major U.S. production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Sullivan, a bilateral above-the-knee amputee, leads the cast of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s upcoming production, his directorial debut. Edward Hall Since becoming the company’s artistic director in October 2023.
Sullivan, an actress who has worked in theatre, television and film, created the role of Ani in Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Cost of Living”; He has appeared in productions off-Broadway in Los Angeles and London; the second was directed by Hall. . When she reprized the role on Broadway in 2022, she received a Tony nomination for best actress in a play.
Although “Richard III” is his Chicago Shakespeare debut, Sullivan is no stranger to the city. After graduating from Webster University, he followed a mentor’s advice to begin his professional career in Chicago’s powerful theater community. In 2003, he worked as an assistant director and casting intern at the Goodman Theater and performed in the 2010 world premiere of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “The Long Red Road” and starred in Northlight Theatre’s 2004 production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.”
Coming back to Chicago now “feels like coming home in a lot of ways,” Sullivan told the Tribune in a recent interview. Although she travels frequently for work, she recently bought a home here with her husband, Scott Aiello, who is also a cast member of “Richard III.” “I made friends who are still here that I reconnected with,” Sullivan said. “It’s a community of people who stick around because the business here is so great.”
The opportunity to play Richard III arose after Sullivan and Hall worked together on the 2019 production of “Cost of Living” at the Hampstead Theater in London; Hall was serving as artistic director and co-CEO at the time. During the first week of rehearsals, Hall was set on the idea that Sullivan would make a great Richard, and about five years later, Chicago Shakespeare turned out to be the right time and place. “For me, it’s a great thing because when you think of someone and you say, ‘I have to make this play with that person,’ that doesn’t happen very often and it does happen,” Hall said.
Believed to have been written in the early 1590s, “Richard III” is like a cross between “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” according to Hall. “At the heart of the play is a family drama; “That’s what keeps it alive through the centuries,” he said. “And the people in the family are very strong people; They control the whole country. When you unite an angry, belligerent family and give them the power to fight on a scale that goes far beyond the domestic squabbles we’re used to, you get both the epic and the domestic in a heartbeat.
Shakespeare was the last English king to die in battle. It depicts Richard as a hunchback. A 2012 archaeological excavation in a car park in Leicester, England, uncovered the 15th-century monarch’s skeleton, which actually had a curvature of the spine. Shakespeare’s association of physical deformity with the villain was a common method of Elizabethan playwrights, and political bias was also a factor since Richard wrote during the Tudor dynasty, which replaced the Plantagenet line.
She said Sullivan’s experience living with a disability helped her relate to Richard. “I walk into a room and people are shifting and looking and noticing, so I understand all of that. “I understand what it means to live your life from this place.”
But while many healthy players are focused on reviving Richard’s injury, Sullivan approaches the role from a position of strength. The four-time U.S. champion in the 100 meters, who finished sixth at the 2012 London Paralympics, spent a lot of time in the gym before rehearsals began to make sure he was ready for the physical build he and Hall envisioned for Richard.
“People tend to focus on what Richard can’t do rather than what Richard can do,” Sullivan said. “We took the approach of what Richard can do and I think a lot of people underestimate what he can do and end up where he does.”
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“It feels like I’m directing a new play, working with (Sullivan),” Hall said. “It describes a lot of psychological moments about Richard and how the world treated him, how the world related to him, from his mother to people on the street, and how that brutalized him. and it changed him as a person and how honest and open he was with the audience about that. This is an extremely complex study of how someone becomes a vicious murderer; It’s not necessarily a portrait of evil.”
Hall’s production is set in a Victorian sanatorium where Richard is the head prisoner and is surrounded by a chorus of attendants who play other roles in the story. It is a psychological space or dream world that is open to various interpretations; Maybe this is all going on in Richard’s head, or maybe this is his own version of hell. “It’s kind of like a Faustian journey in the beginning,” Hall said, “and you watch him slowly descend into hell. The next night he wakes up again and goes back to the beginning, like in ‘Groundhog Day.'”
In his first production as artistic director, Hall hopes audiences will not only have an exciting, unforgettable time at the theatre, but also take a more empathetic perspective. “When you walk down the street and look at people who look different to you, (I hope) it makes you think a little more deeply about who they might be and what their experiences might be,” he said.
“More than anything, I am excited to approach this role from a perspective of strength and power,” Sullivan said. “I think what people don’t realize is (because) they’re so focused on the fact that he had an injury in his life — (Richard) was a warrior. This man killed a king; This is how his brother came to the throne. So I think focusing on the deficiency does a great disservice to this character.
“I want him to feel dangerous,” he finished. “It’s not just psychologically dangerous; I want it to feel dangerous enough to break your neck at any moment. And that’s what he does.”
“Richard III” runs Feb. 2 through March 3 at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. It is performed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at; tickets $38-$92 chicagoshakes.com or 312-595-5600.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance writer.