In publicity photos, Sean Graney, 41, usually appears to be the uber-serious theatrical artist with his shaved head and laser gaze. But on this morning, in his basement office off Radcliffe Yard, he looks years younger in a shapeless black hat and scarf. His face crinkles often into a goofy grin, followed by a high-pitched laugh. Told he's not as expected, he says, "I know! I know!" and laughs some more.
Letting his fun side come out in plays like "Romeo Juliet" and "12 Nights" — which his Chicago troupe the Hypocrites performs in repertory at Oberon Feb. 18-22 — has been the answer to a real artistic crisis, he says.
"The best way to describe it is, I ran out of things to say for a while," says Graney, a Saugus native who is back in the Boston area this year for a fellowship at Radcliffe. "I still had to direct and make a living, and the company needed me to direct, but the joy was sucked out of it for me, and I didn't understand why I was doing it."
He found his way through the company's beach-party-style production of "Pirates of Penzance," which premiered in Chicago in late 2010. It eventually played a handful of performances at the American Repertory Theater's Emerging America festival in 2012 and returned in 2013 for a run at the Loeb Drama Center.
"The success of 'Pirates' was in how joyful it was for me to make and how joyful it was for most audiences," he says. "I just decided, until I have something more to say, I will create pieces that are extremely enjoyable for me to create. I'm having fun hanging out with people I love, in hopes that audiences will have fun with this material as well."
"Romeo Juliet" and "12 Nights" require only four actors each — there's a lot of doubling — and Graney went beyond Shakespeare's plays for source material. Hence, the tweaks to the titles. In part, Graney says, he did it because he comes away from Shakespeare's plays with questions, as with "Romeo and Juliet": "Why are the families fighting? Why are they so mad at each other?" He found a 19th-century opera about the Montagues and the Capulets that turned Romeo into a rebel against the Capulet regime, and its libretto became a main text. His take on "Twelfth Night" borrows from 16th-century comedies.
Mixing and matching source material was standard procedure until the mid-1800s, he says, noting that Shakespeare did it himself. But not everyone approves. At Shakespeare plays, he says, audience members sometimes try to read along. "With 'Romeo Juliet,' we had one woman show up with a book, and four minutes into it, she slammed her book shut and left." Another laugh.
At Oberon, "Romeo Juliet" and "12 Nights" are also promoted as family friendly, for ages 10 and up. Graney has regularly directed children's shows in Chicago. But when kids first turned up in the "Pirates" audience, it was a surprise.
"I never imagined it being family friendly at all, it just didn't cross my mind. But the Sunday matinees, people were bringing their kids," he says. "Adults would watch the show and enjoy it, and the kids would enjoy the music, but they would also go around playing with the beach balls and getting in the way of the actors."
The resulting fun gave the Hypocrites a sense that, when appropriate, they should keep kids in mind.
"Introducing young people to stories adapted from Shakespeare is something we're all really interested in," said Ariane Barbanell, director of special projects for the American Repertory Theater and associate producer of Oberon. The company's second venue, Oberon specializes in the immersive and interactive, but despite its edgy reputation (see: "The Donkey Show"), that also means family shows, she says.
"We had so much success with some of the matinee programming we do for kids," she said. "We're inclusive at Oberon. We think there are ways to embrace all ages."
Graney grew up not far from the Square One Mall. He and a friend started a drama club at Saugus High School, doing typical student-musical fare like "Grease." ("And I can't sing," he notes.) He graduated from Emerson College in 1994 with a BFA in acting but was already moving more toward a backstage role.
Soon thereafter he wrote and directed a play called "Dinner," which he describes as "a college playwright trying to be Ionesco," that was performed at the Middle East in Central Square.
"Nobody came to see it," he says with a self-mocking frown. "I got mad at Boston. 'Nobody wants to see my plays? I'll go to some city that cares about theater.' But the truth was, it was a bad play, and I didn't know what I was doing. I unfairly blamed Boston for my own inadequacies. But moving to Chicago was a great choice for me."
By 1997 he had started the Hypocrites with two friends, and as artistic director led the company to considerable acclaim, with repertoire that included Chekhov and Mamet and Wilder. Graney has also directed plays at other respected Chicago theaters. He stepped out of the artistic director's job with the Hypocrites a few years ago, but it remains his artistic home. He's not quite sure where he and wife Vanessa are headed once their Cambridge sojourn ends.
Graney's Radcliffe fellowship was the result of a suggestion from ART artistic director Diane Paulus. It has allowed him to spend the year developing and workshopping a new piece called "All Our Tragic" that combines all 32 surviving Greek tragedies into one theatrical experience. On this day, he's sitting not far from a map of Greece in the otherwise undecorated office, mulling a pile of Kindles for the cast of about 20 to use to read the script. But the devices have to be charged.
"They give me this office, I get money, I get research money, I get all the facilities of Harvard University. It's like a dream come true," he says, laughing again. "I am still waiting for them to be like, 'We made a terrible mistake, and we need you to give everything back.' "
ROMEO JULIET and 12 NIGHTS
Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Cambridge 617-547-8300. http://www.cluboberon.com
Director: Sean Graney
Date of first performance: Feb. 18
Date closing: Feb. 22
Ticket price: $20