Sean Graney

Sean Graney

It’s rare that you get to meet the director of a play for the first time while sitting on stage during the opening performance. While I was watching Yeomen of the Guard at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Saturday, I noticed a guy sitting on the stage floor next to me – yes, we were both on stage at the OSF’s Thomas Theatre – who seemed to be paying especially keen attention to the actors. When the show’s one-minute intermission came, I asked if he might be a member of the company.

“I’m the director,” Sean Graney said. I gave him my card and said I’d like to interview him later.

Graney is artistic director of The Hypocrites theater in Chicago, where he’s made a name for himself nationally by, among other things, doing Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in unusual stagings – allowing a few dozen audience members not only to be on stage throughout the performance but to interact with the show in an arrangement called “promenade seating.”

We talked by phone on Wednesday.

How did you develop the idea of doing a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta with dozens of audience members on stage? Did you spring it on the world full blown, or were there baby steps?

There were definite baby steps. The first one we did was in 2010. We did Pirates of Penzance with my theater company Hypocrites, in Chicago. We were looking for a public-domain musical to do. I had long since discredited Gilbert & Sullivan – like a fool, basically. Then I thought, I should look at Pirates. And it’s one of the most brilliant musicals, ever.

One of the things I wanted to do: I had seen Sweeney Todd on Broadway directed by the great John Doyle, so I knew I wanted to explore the idea of actors playing their own instruments. I was going to do it with 10 people playing their own instruments, and we hired a composer to do an arrangement.

That first year was a disaster. The first year we did Pirates, it was just like nobody knew what was going on. We went about the arrangements backwards. We didn’t even know the audience was going to be on stage until about a week and a half before we opened.

I had been working in promenade. I had done two or three promenade shows before. And I wanted it to be in promenade. But then I was like, the actors were doing so much, singing, playing instruments. I thought it might be a little too much to throw at them.

We couldn’t settle on a set design. I thought, let’s try to figure out in promenade setting how to do it. And then the set really made sense to me and the show gained an immediacy that we all really enjoyed.

Then we opened and we thought we were a disaster. We thought it was the worst thing in the world. But we were lucky to see the audiences liked a lot about it.

We remounted Pirates for next year and made a lot of changes and a lot of adjustments in how we did it. And then we decided to do Mikado. And then two years after Mikado we did Pinafore. We were lucky to tour around the country.

From doing those three we developed a loose formula about what works. There are no rules for each different piece.

You had done promenade plays before.

The first one I tried was a play called 4.48 Psychosis, by the late Sarah Kane, this great, really aggressive British playwright. She wrote this play, then she ended up killing herself. This was one of her final plays. It’s free form: There are no character descriptions. It’s open text.

I had equated her work with (Antonin) Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. I was a big fan of Artaud. I went back and reread his book. He proposed – I think he was being symbolic – to abolish the line between audience and performer. That opened up my mind. That means the audience should interact with the play.

That’s how I decided to do 4.48 Psychosis in that manner. And it wasn’t a success at all. I learned a lot by doing this play in promenade. It’s a really aggressive, sad play.

That sounds like a rather difference experience from Gilbert & Sullivan.

Completely different. It was meant to be shocking and disarming. And it wasn’t meant to endow the audience with autonomy, which is what I think the real power of promenade is. It’s about celebrating theater. And I don’t think 4.48 was necessarily about that.

As soon as we did Pirates in promenade, it made the most sense. This is why we do promenade! It’s a celebration of society. It’s a celebration of being in a room with each other. That says more about the philosophy of why I like promenade. I realized that Gilbert and Sullivan’s stuff is really suited to promenade.

How does a promenade show in the Gilbert & Sullivan version develop over the course of the run?

With a show like Yeomen it’s going to run for 140 performances. I’m not going to be in town for all that, though I’m going to come back later in the summer. It’s going to be really interesting to see how a show like that expands.

Normally the actors get more confident playing their instruments. They get more confident navigating the audience. They develop some fine tunings for the jokes. They learn where improvisation is more helpful. The show normally gets a lot better and crisper as it goes on.

Does the audience participation develop as well?

Test audiences and preview audiences are generally the same type of people as opening night: They are generally people who all want to be there. They are optimistic for the experience.

Once the show starts running, you get high school groups, you get seniors in there, you get different types of audiences. Then the actors start to know that these type of jokes work for the high school kids, these type of jokes work for the seniors. These work for the family types of audiences.

What’s the worst thing that’s happened in one of these show?

Nothing. Nothing bad has happened. Once in a while, very rarely, an actor will trip. One woman in the audience got her foot stepped on. She didn’t even complain. So much of the rehearsal process is geared to how to move around the audience.

As I watched you on stage there it seemed like almost all your attention was focused on making sure that child in front of us didn’t get stepped on.

I pay special attention to that. Opening night audiences tend to be more aggressively involved than some of the other audiences. And I’m there. But we have people wandering the stage to look out for those things as well. And the actors pay attention to what’s going on. But you can’t be too safe. And it would break my heart if a child got hurt.

Don’t you occasionally have someone, perhaps who has been enjoying the onstage bar a little too much, step in and try to take over the show?

That’s a really interesting thing. How do you protect your actors? Well, my actors don’t need protection. They go to the supermarket all by themselves. They go to bars where there are drunk people all the time. It’s like there is something about the fact that people are on stage being watched by 300 plus people. Everything you do is broadcast socially, right?

Basically every play we go to is about how we interact in society. It’s about how you treat people in certain situations. How do you hang out in a room with people.

The audience goes to normal plays, they are told exactly where to sit. The lights go down, if you open candy, people yell at you. You’re not allowed to interact with people while you’re at a play.

That’s what I like about promenade. In promenade, you are watching a play about people in society and you’re in the audience, in a society. So while you’re watching the play you have to decide, how can I fit into this society best?

Once in a while someone will take a liberty that is surprising, something they haven’t done before, slightly confusing or diverging or slightly malicious in nature. That’s rare. And usually other people give them dirty looks – and the actors communicate really quickly and efficiently, like, hey, that’s not how we act here. That’s not helpful here.

We have never had to ask anybody to leave. None of my actors has ever been touched inappropriately. You’d be surprised at how well people behave.

My hope is that I am constantly surprising and inspiring the audience with the show. The devil makes work for idle hands. If you bore the audience I would imagine there would be more chance for people to entertain themselves through drunken maliciousness.

That’s actually kind of reassuring.

If you’re constantly feeding them entertainment – great songs, and emotional depth once in a while, and beautiful images, and you’re constantly asking them to move and rewarding them when they move, and they can look around and see the smiles of people around them – it’s very rare that anyone would transcend that into being malicious.

Has anyone transcended that in a good way for you?

People amaze me all the time. People spontaneously getting up and dancing with the actors. People taking it on themselves to clear a bench when they know an actor is coming around. Helping out a stranger. Small acts of compassion and empathy and decency are happening all the time in these audiences.

It’s inspiring to me to watch that. That’s one of the true joys of doing these shows.

Where do you go from here? Are you able to take this approach into other kinds of plays?

The next promenade thing I’m going to be doing is an opera version of Cinderella that was written by this woman Pauline Viardot-Garcia in 1904. I’m doing that in promenade style. It will have more elegance to it instead of silliness, and I think there will be different rules for that interaction. I am not sure how that’s going to manifest itself. That’s the next exploration I’ll be taking with the audience.

That is going to be in Chicago in November and December.

I was thinking when I was sitting up there the other day that it would be a wonderful experience to sit on stage like that for a regular opera.

It will be more operatic than the Gilbert & Sullivan we do. It still won’t feel like Turandot or something – not quite as operatic. And there is a time limit. Anything over an hour and a half, I think the audience – you get bored more quickly. Everything has to be no more than 90 minutes.

Explain the one-minute intermission. What’s that about?

Gilbert & Sullivan always has two acts, and there is always a time shift between the acts. When we did Pirates we found it hard to get the idea of that time shift. And the Act I finale is always the most amazing piece of music, it’s the most complicated piece of music in a Gilbert & Sullivan play. It’s a finale that is bigger than the finale of the play.

It would be exhausting for the actors to go right into Act II. We realized we needed need a breather. So we called it a one-minute intermission. And the top of Act II is never numbers that move the story along. So if people do leave to pee, they don’t miss anything.

Thanks very much.

Thanks very much for talking with me.