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Life of a Beggar

An Interview with Sean Graney

   It’s Labor Day weekend, and while most Chicagoans are planning their last summer escape, director Sean Graney is wrapping up an 80-hour week preparing for The Hypocrites opening of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera at the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage (running though Oct. 12). Admittedly, he confides that this is not the best time to interview him. There is a great deal of pressure, and with this being his first venture into musicals, expectations are running high. Graney’s mind is engulfed by the play, which focuses on the life of the underpaid and underfed, which perhaps explains why economics are weighing so heavily on his mind these days.
   I had just turned 23 when I first met Sean Graney. We were both just out of school and pretty poor. He used to skateboard alongside my bike, and we had a bad habit spending our paychecks on one too many PBR’s at the L&L Tavern. We rehearsed in cramped living rooms, had late-night meetings at dirty, vegetarian restaurants and performed in basements filled with broken down couches. We talked a lot. We yelled more. It was mostly about our no-money theater company.
   Chicago has defined Graney as one of the city’s creative leaders. The artistic director of The Hypocrites, he earned the city’s stamp of approval in 2004 with the label of “Chicagoan of the Year” in theater and “Best Avant Garde Director.” It was a good year, no doubt. He’s directed more than 30 plays since 1997, received plaques for direction and garnered some national recognition.
   As of now, he’s worked with all the big guns in town, including his upcoming production of Edward II at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and a public reading of his new play, which was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre. Did I mention he’s a playwright?
   “As far as playwrighting goes,” says Graney, “I really just feel lucky. I’ve never had to aggressively work the system. It's always been a fortunate byproduct of being a director. I am mostly a director, but writing has an individualistic freedom I don't find in directing. The initial creative output is beholden to anyone else.”
   What I know Graney to be is a passionate, crazed, highly empathetic man who once had a full head of hair. A guy who at the age of 25 swore to me that he would never make it to his 30s is now trying to find the balance between leading the life of an artist and having an actual life. Recently engaged to Redmoon Theater’s Artistic Associate Vanessa Stalling and seven years sober, Graney says the biggest challenge he is currently facing is simply becoming an adult.
   “It’s about having a decent life, a steady paycheck, an annual income that is comparable to others my age, and I’m not quite there yet,” says Graney, who made approximately $46,000 last year. “My goal is not the income of investment bankers or doctors, but something where I can live comfortably, take care of medical emergencies and not worry about money.
I really just want to have a good life with Vanessa and our pudgy cat, Krispy.”
   Fifty percent of Graney’s income comes via teaching theater at Columbia College and the University of Chicago, a percentage by which he’s not completely satisfied.
  “There’s really no one in the city that purely makes a living off directing, to my knowledge” says Graney. “I mean, even the most successful directors still teach. They may not need to, but it really supplements their income.
   “I’ve reached this point in my directing career because I begged people for work,” he continues. “I was always ready to work my ass off, but then, a few years ago, I realized I had to sit in front of powerful decision makers and beg them for work. Some people call it ‘selling yourself’. It feels like begging to me.”
   He says he’s not ashamed, nor does he consider it a necessary evil, just a necessary part of being a director. But does he think he'll ever need to stop begging?
   “I don’t know,” Graney says. “Once I feel I succeeded in a certain goal, I start begging someone for the next one. I seldom give myself time to relax and reflect on my career. When I was younger, my gauge for success was seeing my name in a complimentary review. Now, I gauge success by the paychecks I receive. Maybe someday, I’ll measure it by the happiness I feel from living life. Maybe then I’ll stop begging. Until then, is anyone hiring?” o

Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago