Radcliffe Fellow Sean Graney’s Four-Star Shakespeare

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
Harvard Arts Blog
February 19, 2014
By Olivia Munk '16

Sean Graney, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, loves to combine works of art. During his fellowship, Graney has worked on creating All Our Tragic, an adaptation of Greek tragedies. As the founder of The Hypocrites, a Chicago-based theater company, Graney has also worked to devise works based on notable Shakespeare plays. This week, the company will perform two of these works, Romeo Juliet and 12 Nights Feb. 19-22 at the American Repertory Theater's second stage Club Oberon. I spoke with Graney about his work at Harvard, the impetus for starting his own theater company and falling in love with Romeo and Juliet. Below is an edited and condensed version of our exchange.

What work have you pursued as a Radcliffe fellow?
I am adapting all 32 surviving Greek tragedies into one 12-hour theatrical event. I've been working on it for over two years now. I got a fellowship at Radcliffe to put the finishing touches on it.

Where did you get the idea for such a project?
I love Greek tragedies. About three or four years ago, I did the seven surviving plays of Sophocles in a five-hour evening. People thought it was crazy. Who wants to see seven tragedies in one night? It actually ended up doing really well. Much to my pleasure, audiences enjoyed it, both in Chicago and in New York. I looked for another project to do, and while I was exploring, I saw there are only 32 Greek tragedies. If I was smart, I could get it down to a 12-hour event. That's where I got the idea to do it. I love Greek tragedies. I think that people were still asking the same questions of our society now as they were then. It's interesting to visit these plays through our contemporary voice and see what answers, if any, we can come up with to the questions they were asking.

What is the origin of The Hypocrites?
We started back in 1997 in Chicago. It's everybody's dream. If you ask some kid in college, they always say, "I'd love to start a theater company someday!" That was always in the back of my mind. I moved to Chicago in 1995, and two years after that, I was living with two good friends of mine, and as I got to know the Chicago theater scene, I realized that there was some companies that were great and had been around a while, and there were some that had been around for a while and weren't so great. I felt like there was an absence for the exploration of the absurdist in Chicago. There were some companies where I loved some aspects of what they were doing, but not everything. I started my own company to explore the works of the absurdist, and to sort of take the best of all of the Chicago theater companies and put it on stage.

What was the process of creating adaptations?
It was maybe my tenth production of Romeo and Juliet, and it was a really terrible production. I started thinking: Why do people love this play? I love the play, and I love reading it, but I had never seen a good production of it. I'm sure that there are good productions out there. I've just never been lucky enough to see a good one. The thing that I never buy is why the families are fighting. I never buy into that, or care about why the families are so mad at each other. And if I don't care why the two families are so mad at each other, then I don't care that their love is taboo. And then there's the question: Are they just misguided kids without any proper role models? I thought the play wouldn't work if they're not in love, but if they fall in love so quickly, then Shakespeare must be dealing with some kind of irony there. Theses questions came up with me for Romeo and Juliet. I thought: I can't direct this play because I don't understand it.

Graney mashes up theater works to create adaptations such as "12 Nights" and "Romeo Juliet," both running at Club Oberon.
I'm so lost at why we love this play in society. Why is it this emblem of ill-fated, star-crossed lovers? That's where it started.

How did you shape the work?
I looked at different materials to go to rather than the Shakespeare play. I came across the opera The Capulets and the Montagues. The libretto set up some things that I admired. It was written in the early 19th century, and it dealt directly with a civil war that was going on at the time. They set it against that backdrop. Romeo was the leader of rebels who were against the ruling class of Capulets. That makes so much sense. With politics, they are fighting for their beliefs against these factions, that makes more sense than, "My family hates your family, so we can't be in love." My relationship with the script started rolling from there. I also consulted some other sources, such as poems Shakespeare drew from as well, and I combined all of these sources into a play.

How did you get the cast to four people?
The movie Moneyball is basically about the baseball revolution in the early 2000s, when the economics of baseball was that people were paying for huge stars that aren't delivering runs or winning games. It was important to have these stars on the teams, but people thought, instead of paying for stars, why don't we pay for two people who can earn more runs than these stars? We'll save money, and we'll get more runs on it. It was this weird thing where you started to pay for what would win the game rather than what would bring people into the stands. I thought: What does that have to do with theater? What do people pay for in theater? I looked at the budgets of our past shows and saw that we're paying so much for set, for materials and carpenters and master electricians and board operators. We're paying for all of these things that are great and necessary jobs within theater, but that's stuff that the audience doesn't see, or necessarily knows about, or cares about. That's not necessarily bringing in the money. Then, what does bring in the money? Actors do. What if I could design a show where most of the money, rather than going through people and material that they audience doesn't see, goes to the actors? I designed a show where I reduced the cast size, didn't hire any designers, and we didn't hire anybody to build anything. It was just me, an assistant, a stage manager and four actors. Those were the only people hired. We did everything. The actors are technically listed as the designers. It's not the way to do every show, but, for Shakespeare shows, it was exciting.

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