Loyola Alumnus Ian Brennan is Glee Co-creator, Writer, Director
Chicago has been a place to cultivate the creative minds of artists, writers and entertainers for centuries. One of today’s most creative thinkers, Glee’s Ian Brennan, has called Chicago and Loyola University Chicago home.
Brennan grew up in Mount Prospect, a suburb of the city, and saw no point in leaving Chicago for college. He had dreamed of being an actor since he was 15, and participated in theater and show choir at Prospect High School.
“I wanted to stay in Chicago. Loyola was the only theater school in Chicago that encouraged people to audition outside of the department while they were still there,” Brennan said.
Now Brennan, 35, is the co-creator, writer and director of Fox’s hit television series “Glee”. Chicago is where Brennan grew his creative roots. Brennan said that while studying at Loyola he had to “become my own apprentice while I still had the comfort of being at school so I could get through the embarrassing theater. Like where you’re in a show, and there’s more people in the cast than there are in the audience… it was sort of charming rather than depressing,” he said.
After he graduated with degrees in theater and Spanish in 2000, he worked as an actor in Chicago. In 2003 he moved to New York, where he acted in plays for about five years.
Brennan had done some writing in college, and in 2005 he tried his hand at it again. He wrote the original screenplay for “Glee”.
He originally wrote “Glee” as a film. The screenplay was pitched to Ryan Murphy, but Murphy pitched it back as a television series. Brennan and co-creators Murphy and Brad Falchuk rewrote Brennan’s idea as a pilot.
“It [the original] was a little bit darker, a little bit drier. It was very funny, but it was a little less candy- colored as the show is … it was more sarcastic really. I sort of hated show choir. I did it because I wanted to be in the musical … so the script was sort of my way of enacting revenge on the fact that I was ever in a glee club.”
“Glee” was an immediate success. Brennan moved to California when the series debuted, and now the show is in its fourth season.
“It’s nice to be able to get up in the morning and know that that day I’ll be creatively fulfilled. Every job can be drudgery, but I don’t wake up and have to grumble and go off to a job that I hate. My job is one of the better parts of my day,” Brennan said.
As one of the show’s main writers, Brennan always has something to do, but ideas flow more fluidly some days than others.
“You do draw a blank, but then you just stare at it. And usually there’ll be some weird kernel of a thought.” Brennan said. “The good thing is after four years of something, you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, I’m the expert in this. There’s no one in the world who knows how to do this better than me. ‘ and then usually it comes. … I’m shocked that we’re still able to find funny things for the show at all, but particularly for the character [Sue] because of just the volume of the mean things she’s said over four years.”
Sue Sylvester is the cheerleading coach, but she is probably the least peppy and most sarcastic character on the show. Instead of cheering on her students and colleagues, she usually bullies them. She is one of the most humorous but cruelest characters on “Glee”, and most of her offensive quips are concocted in Brennan’s mind.
“I think everybody has mean thoughts running through their heads, and that’s just a character that has no filter… Just look for the tiniest flaw in someone or something and unpack it,” Brennan said. “… You have to know not only what she would say but what she wouldn’t say. She’s horrible, but there’s a moral clarity to her, which is helpful to think about when writing.”
Brennan trained as an actor, but with “Glee”, he has become a skilled writer and director as well.
He said his three jobs are “all different body parts of the same animal.” He liked performing as an actor, and he became intensely involved in the creative process of it.
“The more I acted, the more I realized how jealous I was of the playwright. It was sort of a position of such influence and creativity that I found myself jealous of it,” Brennan said. “Writing is difficult, and it’s a very, very lonely process as well. And once you’re writing on a day-to-day basis, and the same thing over and over again, where you’re writing the same characters, a lot of that drips away. The writing becomes a lot more improvisational and a lot more off the cuff and more fun.”
Brennan has incorporated directing into his routine as well. “Writing is a creative activity. Acting is interpretive. …Directing is entirely logistical,” he said.
He described directing as a much more strategic, constructive process, a contrast to the creative space he has grown accustom to working within. But the three jobs complement and inform each other, giving Brennan a wider scope.
“They’re all such different jobs, but there’s something similar about them,” he said.
Brennan attributes much of his success to his diligent work ethic. At Loyola, he took his classes seriously and found meaning in them, especially in his philosophy and theology courses. He recalled a philosophy class called Reimagine the Future that explained how people throughout history have made sense of the notion of the future. It’s a class that Brennan says he still tells people about.
Throughout his academic and professional life, Brennan has learned the value of a resilient work ethic, and it is something he advised students to value as well.
“You have to sort of blaze your own trail. You have to be the hardest worker in the room,” Brennan said. “That’s the one thing you can control. You can’t control if people are smarter than you or better looking. You can control if you work harder.”
He believes that he was fortunate to have studied at Loyola in such a vibrant city. It gave him the foundation and experience to follow the career path he was pulled toward. He learned that to find one’s place and be successful, “get going. If you want to be a writer, start writing now. If you want to be an actor, really get serious now. You gotta just dive right in.”