July 6, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Dan Granata’s Acting and Writing

What are you working on—on the side?

I’ve been an actor and writer for most of my life—I double-majored in English and Theatre, and I can’t think of a period where I wasn’t working on at least one writing project, in rehearsals, performing in a show, or all of the above. I’ve done Shakespeare in an outdoor amphitheater, helped shape brand new plays in Chicago storefronts and theatres, played with a house team at iO (formerly ImprovOlympic), been in commercials for national brands, created short films with fellow comedy folks, and everything in between. I’ve written and performed essays featured on WBEZ, banged out copy on spec for corporate clients, filed reviews and features on theatre for Time Out Chicago and others, inflicted upon the world various incarnations of my own blog and many, many tweets.

In the past few years, I’ve branched out even further. This year, for instance, from January to April, I was just a regular actor, playing Monsieur Defarge in a stage adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities,” but since then, I’ve been acting as producer, doing marketing, strategy, and fundraising for a production headed to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scotland, in August. And throughout, I’ve continued working with The Improvised Star Trek (IST), a troupe, who improvise a weekly podcast (and companion live show), chronicling the original adventures of the ne’er-do-well USS Sisyphus.

My role with IST is probably the hardest to explain, but maybe the most representative of the way my creative pursuits are evolving. While I occasionally sit in on the podcast (as a godlike Carl Sagan, or whatever), right now I’m most excited about working behind the scenes on technical projects that compliment or enhance the rest of what the group does. For instance, a year or so ago, I hacked together some DJ equipment and a theatrical sound-cue program to make a custom “foley system,” which I use during our live shows to provide all the beeps, door swooshes, and French horn-laden underscoring that tells the audience, “This is Star Trek.”

How do you manage to work 
on your side project(s)?

I just don’t sleep very much. That’s not a joke—but I don’t think I really have a choice, to be honest. Every creative project is, in my head, a problem to be solved. “How do I get the audience to feel the same way about this character as I do, using only the lines in this script?” “How do I get people who have never seen this show to love it like I do, in 30 seconds?” “How can I play any sound effect I want, instantly, while not having to turn away from the stage and from inside this postage-stamp tech booth?” Once I say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…,” I want to make it happen—and it seems like “but that would be a lot of work” is not an argument that has any purchase with me.

But I’m not 24 anymore, so the tactic of staying up all night is not as viable as it once was. So I suppose a more straightforward answer might be that I’m trying to choose my battles more: up until a year or so ago, I was performing in at least 3–4 shows a year, which pretty much meant my evenings were devoted to rehearsals or performances year-round. I finally made a conscious recognition that I wasn’t pursuing a career as “an actor” anymore, so the opportunity cost of all those hours was suddenly very high. Now I may do no more than one show a year, so I’m choosier about what I submit my headshot for.

With any project, whether it’s at my job as a front-end developer or something for myself, the problem tends to be that I want to work on them too much, and I exhaust myself (not to mention my long-suffering girlfriend). Lists have been my enemy, because I have a very unhinged notion of how much I can do in a given hour. It’s very similar to the old “eyes bigger than your stomach” analogy—so I guess I’m working on “portion control.” I try and limit myself to, say, 10 hours a week for side projects, because that’s probably the highest sustainable number I can expect from myself, and then try and hold myself to that. It’s excruciating to stop myself when I feel like I’m on the edge of a breakthrough—but way better for my long-term sanity.

Why have side projects?

Well, the more I think about it, I don’t know that I consider anything I do “a side project”—it’s hard for me to place a hard line down between where one pursuit ends and another begins, and the boundaries are only getting muddier for me. As a matter of fact, my entire web development career grew out of a side project: In 2006, I was getting involved in the Chicago theatre scene and wanted to learn more about the community, so I went down a rabbit hole of research, which ended up with me dusting off an ancient copy of MS Access and building a database, of details about local theatre companies, with skills I think I had last used in high school. When I started blogging about what I was doing, a guy, who would become one of my closest friends, contacted me and said, “Hey, you should make this into a crowd-sourcing project! I’ll teach you Ruby on Rails!” A few years later, he co-founded a creative agency and hired me to help develop web projects.

And now, of course, I’m using my relatively-newfound programming skills to support my writing, performance, and producing projects—and to imagine entirely new ones. Knowing one programming language opens the door to a whole host of other skills, which, for me, just means more possibilities. In the last year, I’ve dove into audio and video editing, animation, cinematography, and photography. I’m constantly looking for opportunities to add a new tool to my arsenal—and I’m as likely to donate my evenings to client work if there’s a knotty problem with an interesting solution in it.

And on it goes: my sound-engineering work with Improvised Star Trek led me to start piano lessons. My recent experiments with woodworking were successful enough for my sister to ask me to build the arch she got married under this summer. There’s just a lot of cool stuff out there, and it all seems to interest me, I guess.

I think I’ve always been this way: even in school, I may have disliked certain teachers, but never subjects—somehow I always found a way in, and set up shop. I’m a tinkerer and maker of things, and whether it’s a website for Sony or giving a face and voice to a Dickens-villain, I just want to be able to use as much of my brain as possible, keep expanding my toolkit, and have enough energy left over to get up tomorrow and do it all again. I’m lucky, that right now, I more or less get to do this from morning to night. I may wear a lot of different hats, but it’s the same guy, and it’s all part of the same story.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Dan Granata.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

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