Sean Graney, director, playwright, and founder of The Hypocrites Theatre Company here in Chicago, is the kind of person who dreams big. For example, he is currently adapting 32 existing plays into one theatrical experience. Sound intriguing? Read on.
You've done a lot of writing, adapting and directing in Chicago—which came first?
I went to school at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. I was involved with a sketch comedy troupe in school, and I started getting really interested in playwriting as opposed to acting. I moved out to Chicago to be a playwright, and I wrote these really terrible plays and didn't know what I was doing. So I gave that up for a long time, started directing, and then I started my company, The Hypocrites. Eventually I began adapting classic plays, and that's sort of what led me back into writing.
What brought you to Chicago, and why did you start the Hypocrites here?
I stayed in Boston for a year after I graduated, but at the time, I thought nobody wanted to see theatre in Boston. I looked at Chicago and Seattle, because I was intimidated by the price tag of New York. I visited Chicago and didn't even visit Seattle. I just loved Chicago. After two years here, I noticed that there wasn't a lot of absurdist drama, which was my favorite at the time. So I wanted to start a company that would focus a little bit on absurdist drama, although we quickly stopped focusing on that.
I noticed that with Chicago theater, there were tons of companies and that you didn't have to make good theater to have success; you just had to sort of… not stop. So I started the company with a couple friends and decided to just keep going.
Do you prefer adapting or writing original plays?
I feel like my best work is derivative work, or work that is in conversation with another piece. I always see adapting as just an extension of my directing, more than writing. If there is a play that I want to direct, I never plan on how I'm going to approach it, or how it's going to manifest itself. I sort of let that organically happen, and I make decisions as I work on it. Any time I write an original piece, it doesn't come as easily and naturally.
Your play The Seven Sicknesses of Sophocles combines adaptations of seven plays into one production; now I hear you are working on an even bigger project with the Greeks?
I'm adapting all 32 surviving Greek tragedies into one sort of epic play called All Our Tragic. I've been working on it since February. I raised money from a crowd sourcing website for artists, to supplement my income for this year so I could devote time to it.
The script exists from beginning to end and there is a chronological unfolding of events, starting with Prometheus Bound going all the way up until the Furies. Characters come in and out of plays and everything starts to weave together. It's really this complicated, organic, free type of system that I've got going on in my brain, about who relates to whom, and how it all fits into place.
What gave you the idea to take on all of them?
About four years ago after an adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus, people suggested that I do a version of all three Oedipus plays. Then I started thinking about the four other plays of Sophocles; with narratives loosely connected to each other, I thought it might be interesting to make a long piece that has all seven Sophocles plays. While working on that I thought it was the most insane thing that anyone could ever do, presenting seven tragedies in one night. If I explained it everybody looked at me like I was crazy, but we produced it and people seemed to be hungry for it, interested in it.
Then I thought: out of all the thousands of tragedies written by the Greeks, there are only 32 that survived. I'd already done seven of them, plus two Aeschylus plays. Some of them combine stories, so I was about a third of the way there. I thought I could package the entire cannon of Greek tragedies in one experience.
What advice do you have for young people starting out in theater?
It's a long career, and things don't happen overnight. Have patience with yourself. You want to make your living doing this, have healthy relationships, and have happiness. That should be your goal, rather than getting your name in the paper or working at a certain theater.
Chicago will welcome anybody at any time with talent and work ethic. No matter how old they are, no matter what they look like...as long as they're nice, they'll work hard, and they have some degree of talent. You can do theater in Chicago.