By Chris Hewitt
On the table where Sean Graney sat during a Children’s Theatre Company rehearsal of “Busytown the Musical” about a month ago were 12 shiny red apples, arranged in two tidy rows in front of him.
These were the anti-cranky apples.
“He brought more yesterday,” says one of the director’s colleagues on the production. Another adds, “He shares them, too.”
Apples are central to the experience of working with Graney, who uses them to keep his energy up and his crankiness (he uses that word a lot) down. In part, this springs from the realization that he spent too much of the early part of his career not in the best of spirits.
“Eventually, I looked at my life and saw the things that were making me cranky and tried to get rid of them,” says Graney, 41.
“Now, I try to recognize when I’m getting cranky because I’ve found that, when directors get cranky, people stop being creative. It’s just like having a party. If you have a party, you’re not going to be cranky all night. You’d be the worst host in the world.”It’s difficult to imagine bad hosting from the affable Graney, who often interrupts himself in the middle of a thought to change his own mind, as in: “I’m trying to say this positively — wait, because it IS positive!” He’s clearly delighted to be immersed in the world of “Busytown,” which was written by Kevin Kling (with music by Michael Koerber), based on the beloved children’s books by Richard Scarry.
Graney, who works all over the country but is based in Chicago, had planned to make his CTC debut several seasons ago with “Lord of the Flies,” a project that was sacrificed to budget cuts. He and CTC Artistic Director Peter C. Brosius stayed in touch and eventually Brosius came to Graney with another idea.
“He said, ‘We’ve got this cute, little piece, “Busytown.” Wanna do it?’
“And I’m like, ‘YEAH! “Busytown?” I LOVE “Busytown.” ‘
“That really spoke to me: That I would get to live in this book for a while,” Graney says.
Scarry’s books present a universe of cute, fuzzy, vaguely anthropomorphic animals who make friends and help each other in a kind of adorable utopian society. Six actors, including CTC faves Dean Holt and Reed Sigmund, play multiple roles in the bright, primary-color world of “Busytown.”
Kling has added such narrative threads as a letter that Betsy Bear is writing to her grandmother, a path that is followed from the writing of the letter to its delivery.
With tonight’s opening, “Busytown” will undoubtedly make Graney the only director in the world who has an 80-minute play for young children and a 12-hour play for adults running at the same time.
The adult play, an adaptation of all 32 surviving Greek tragedies called “All Our Tragic” that was written and directed by Graney, was called “a watershed” by the Chicago Tribune. (It runs through Oct. 5 at Chicago’s Den Theatre if you have an entire day free).But Graney says there’s not such a huge difference between audiences of children and audiences of adults.
“The theater is a social event, more than anything else: A bunch of people in a room together, experiencing the exact same thing,” Graney says. “Even before I started to do children’s theater (he has also worked at Chicago Children’s Theatre), I would always joke that I was really doing children’s theater for adults.”
Graney says he has learned a few lessons in previous productions for kids — for instance, screaming onstage freaks out children — but that, basically, theater is theater.
“My main thing about children is: They’re people. So you treat them like people,” says Graney, who adds kids tend to be more open to crazy ideas and unanswerable questions than adults. (Asked if the animal characters in “Busytown” are adult animals or child animals, he explains to this adult, “Um, they’re animals who write letters and drive trains.”)
The director says it’s been a joy to work with CTC’s company of actors, who responded well to his process of encouraging everyone to bring in lots of ideas as “Busytown” took shape. That has made his job — to support, encourage and select — a lot easier.
In fact, jokes Graney, his take on directing couldn’t be simpler: “I just show up really early and bring lots of apples.”