What the Director Saw: Onstage with the Hypocrites’ Sean Graney

If you were to approach Sean Graney out of context, he could pass quite easily as another nerd here at the University of Chicago—if one could ignore the soul patch and bald head for a moment. As I was fumbling around with the tape recorder, the easygoing director, dressed in a hoodie, whipped out a four-by-four Rubik’s cube. “I can do a regular one in about 1:20, but this one is harder to figure out,” he explains. “In high school, I didn’t do sports or anything else…so that’s how I got involved in theater, and I just fell in love with it.”

Upping the geek ante, he started a theater club at his high school and continued to study theater as an actor at Emerson College in Boston: “I was an actor, but I was a really terrible actor … some people are good, and some people are bad, and I was just a bad actor.” He got into playwriting in his junior year, and graduated in 1994 with a BFA in Theatre and Writing. The year after he graduated, he moved to Chicago to become a playwright, explaining, “Chicago had a reputation at the time as one of the better theater cities in the country for people just starting out. So I was either going to move to Chicago or Seattle—because I was intimidated by how much New York cost—and I decided to visit both cities, and I didn’t end up ever going to Seattle.” The basis for his decision was the signature show of the Neo-Futurists theater company, “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” currently running its 19th season: “I loved it and I was like, if this could run for five years—at the time it was five years—this is the city for me! So I went back to Boston, got everything in order and moved out here.”

Like many a modern struggling artist, he found employment first at a Starbucks, writing in his free time. “I wanted to be a playwright, but I didn’t know what that meant, so I wrote these horrible plays, sitting in my bedroom getting really drunk and stoned.” Working himself out of the post-college funk, “I decided to stop getting drunk and stoned so much, and I got a job in theater as a house manager for Shakespeare Rep[ertory], which is now Chicago Shakespeare.” He only worked there for one season, but made contacts in the theatre scene and learned an important lesson: “I realized that it was really easy to start a theater company, that any old idiot could start one.” Considering himself at least at that level, he started his theater company, The Hypocrites, at the age of 25. “It’s always been my dream to have a theater company. I think it’s every college kid’s dream.”

However, his motivations for starting his own theater company weren’t merely hubristic: “There was a specific type of theater that I liked that wasn’t fully getting made.” That is, absurdist theater: think ‘Waiting for Godot’ or ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’” “That was the type of theater that really excited me, non-naturalistic theater…I didn’t think that a lot of people in this city were doing theater not based in psychological realism,” he comments. Graney has directed almost every production of the Hypocrites.

Almost exclusively featuring absurdist plays in its earlier seasons (heavy on the Beckett and Ionesco), the Hypocrites moved into more mainstream productions such as “Angels in America” and “Death of a Salesman,” both of which met with much critical acclaim. Of their success, Graney says, “It’s really easy to start [a theater company], and then you just have to try to get the theater company’s name in the paper as much as you can and then people think you’re successful—it’s really weird. But it’s hard to maintain it.” The Hypocrites have been going strong for eleven seasons now, though they don’t have a space yet and are non-equity, which means that their actors have day jobs.

His directorial style has said to be tough on the actors, extremely emotionally demanding. I mentioned a quote from him in a 2003 interview with PerformInk: “I think the playwright is the slave to the Art. So the playwright knocks out his or her ego to create universal, long-lasting Art. Then the director needs to be a slave to the playwright. Everything you do as a director needs to come from what the playwright wants. The actors and designers are then slaves to the director. I demand of actors a complete mental and physical commitment to the role. And it always goes back to the playwright.”

Graney laughs the quote off, exclaiming, “That was a long time ago!” He’s backed off from that stance, professing, “I think that everybody’s job in theater is equally as important…and it usually starts with the script, and you do your best to try to figure out what the playwright is saying, but that all depends on what the actors are doing, what the designers are doing, and what the director wants to do, sometimes.” So no more slavery, but he adds, “Everybody should have their own input, but it’s the director’s job to provide unity to a production…to make sure everything fits together in a cohesive ‘art package.’”

Graney has been excellent in producing these art packages, having been named Chicagoan of the Year in Theater by the Tribune and having won a Joseph Jefferson Citation in directing. Chicago theater critics hardly ever mention Sean Graney’s name without the phrase “rising star” in the same sentence.

This “rising star” status has led to his current gig directing “What the Butler Saw” at Court Theatre. Graney recounts, “About two years ago I said [to Charlie Newell, artistic director at Court Theatre] that I’d be really interested in working at the Court and I know that it’s probably not for several, several years off, but you let me know what I can do to start that process going.” The moment came sooner than Graney expected, but not too soon at all, judging from the final product. “What the Butler Saw” by Joe Orton is a classic farce about a philandering psychiatrist who, in the midst of seducing a young job applicant, builds an increasingly convoluted set of lies to prevent his wife, among others, from discovering the truth.

Of his direction, Graney opines, “This play specifically is a pretty explicit, graphic, extreme play, so I think to not do it in that way would be awkward and bizarre—not in a good way.” He has executed the play brilliantly, and the acting is superb, especially on the part of Mechelle Moe (who joins Graney from the Hypocrites) and Mary Beth Fisher (who was in “Arcadia” earlier this year). Despite the occasionally slapstick dialogue, the actors play the characters convincingly, appearing inapprehensive even in extreme undress. The set design is impeccable and the white sterility is convincing as a psychiatrists’ office, though there’s plenty to make a mess with.

Graney’s involvement with theater at the UofC does not end there. He is also directing “Top Girls,” a production for University Theater (UT). “Top Girls” will be running from November 28 through December 1. “I’ve been teaching over there [UT] for about three years now and Heidi Culman, the head of the department of UT, asked me if I would be interested in directing a play there. And I said, yes, very interested.” Though he’s directing in so many different theaters with different audiences, he insists that it doesn’t have an impact on his directing: “I try not to worry too much about catering to different audiences…It’s just how I interact with the play, and it doesn’t matter what the setting is. It’s the same.”