Helen Sullivan, known to the world as Sully, has captured the media's attention as home designer to the rich and famous. When a late-night talk show host pushes too hard during an interview, the flamboyant architect makes a ratings splash: "Go off-limits again with me and I'll pull down your pants and spank your bare ass on live TV. OK? And that's just because I like you." After looking around, Sully says, "Anybody else mentions my personal life and I'll knock your goddamn teeth out."
If she were real, Sully would be either the best or the briefest guest ever on Artist Soapbox (artistsoapbox.org), theater artist Tamara Kissane's weekly interview podcast devoted to Triangle creators. But Sully is actually the title character in Kissane's contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder, a meditation on the lives, psyches, and limits of creative people that charts the rise and fall of a celebrated architect. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern debuts the show this week at Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough.
The podcast, now up to sixteen episodes, began last September; Kissane was working on the Ibsen script in the same period. As it happens, both projects are focused on what it takes for artists to make homes for themselves, not only in their immediate families but also in the communities where they live. Thus far, Kissane's guests have covered topics from burlesque and circus arts to being an artistic parent, from building functional infrastructure for theater companies to how to accurately measure one's own artistic growth. When artists don't have time to learn from one another, as Kissane observes, they keep re-creating the same wheel—and making the same mistakes.
"It's inefficient and unnecessary when we have an abundance of resources and knowledge in our own community," Kissane says. In that light, she views Sully, the controlling central character in The Master Builder, as a fascinating figure: a rock star who doesn't apologize for breaking the rules and has a hell of a good time doing so—at least, up to a point. But Sully is a cautionary figure as well.
"I think she operates with a scarcity model," Kissane says. "She has to have all the pie. That ultimately works against the best kinds of artists; it's not sustainable."
Those familiar with Ibsen's script will notice that Kissane has flipped the gender of the lead, a choice Kissane says came easily.
"Women are traditionally cast as homemakers," she says. "Sully literally is one: an architect who creates homes for other people but cannot make one for herself."
This change also brings the play into contact with contemporary dilemmas for women in the workplace, as Sully comes into conflict with coworkers and her partner.
"There's always that question, when people see women climbing," Kissane explains. "Is she neglecting the other areas in life she should be or is responsible for? There's always a tension between soaring in your work and putting down roots. I hold those tensions even now. My commitments in my family are in conflict with the commitment I want to make as an artist. Artist Soapbox and The Master Builder are ways for me to navigate that tension."