Backstage Blog

Bold and Beautiful…Miss Bible Belt

Pageant the Musical is composed of  variety of beauty contestants with distinct personalities. We had an opportunity to chat with the actors about their characters, pageants, what inspired them to perform, and a chance to ask a mock pageant question as themselves. Our first contestant is Miss Bible Belt, Ryan Fahey.

Bible BeltWhat makes your character a winner?

Her blind faith in winning. She’s a pro and it’s with that finesse that she is able to confidently walk out on the stage to WIN!

How did you prepare for this show?

I watched a number of evangelist singers, mainly those who were larger than life. How did they perform their songs to spread the gospel, but most importantly SHOWCASE their TALENT?  What about them could I take and translate into a #1 winner? Miss Bible Belt can be preachy, so I focused on getting judges and audiences to not feel she’s too abrasive, but more a likeable force to be reckoned with.

What did you learn about beauty pageants that you didn’t know before?

All of us as contestants watched numerous beauty pageants and what became clear is how sharp and precise everything is – and while there is a focus on looks, there is an equal focus on the contestants “details.”

What will you never do on stage?

Nudity. I know 100% that I’m not willing to do it.

Do you have a role model?

Hugh Jackman. He has done so much with his career and has remained grounded and sincere each step along the way.

What inspired you to be an actor?

I noticed that once a year our high school did a show called Etcetera. We took top hits and put together a large scale show of singing and dancing with a band. I remember auditioning and being chosen to be a part of the show. Upon graduating high school I wanted to continue to sing- I joined two other friends in auditioning for a performing arts college in Toronto. We all got in and it started a crazy journey into this performing life that I now couldn’t imagine being without.

What is your favorite part of a show?

The live performance aspect. It’s the scariest and most thrilling thing.

What is your favorite part about working at Cygnet Theatre?

I love that we get to witness the passion that each member of the creative team has for their portion of the show.

Mock pageant question:

If you were given the opportunity to reach every single American girl, what message would you give?

Find who you truly are and let yourself be unique. Grow up knowing that life is a constant state of figuring out who you are- let that be okay. You don’t have to be perfect. Just be true to you and the rest will fall into place. Be a first rate person of yourself, rather than a second rate person of the messes that are already out there. 

Where the Beauty Began…

We had a chance to sit down with award-winning Set Designer Sean Fanning to find out what inspired him to create our fabulous and glamorous set for PAGEANT. A Resident Artist, this marks his twentieth production with Cygnet over the past 9 years.


The featured designer showing his ideas for the set of Dirty Blonde.

What are some of your favorite Cygnet shows/sets?

My first show with Cygnet was The Matchmaker, when I was a fresh-faced graduate student back in the 2006/2007 season. My most favorite collaborations include the re-imagining of the musicals Sweeney Todd, Cabaret, and Parade. Those three sets felt like characters of their own, but at the same time had an openness and changeability that allowed for so much interactive range. A personal favorite aesthetically was the Louse Nevelson inspired collage we did for The Norman Conquests during the 2010 season. The economy and focus of that design is something I still look back on fondly.

What do you like about working with Cygnet?

I love the sense of artistic freedom, which goes hand in hand with the challenges inherent in each production. The company’s collective vision is really about finding new ways to tell stories and for me this is also about taking risks as a designer. The thrust stage space of the Old Town Theatre presents a character and personality that cannot help but be reflected in the design approach, often in surprising and very invigorating ways.

How did you get into set design in the first place?

I’ve always loved art, loved drawing, and everything about architecture. And I had a real interest in seeing live theatre, which my mother really supported by making sure I got to see lots of it.  Interestingly, it was my profound hearing loss that would make me focus more on the set, because I often couldn’t hear or comprehend the actors, I would spend lots of time looking at and thinking about the environment. The sets that really supported the story and characters were the most successful ones. In high school, while attempting to be some kind of actor, I found myself assigned to the scenery crew, and I haven’t looked back since. I bought books, taught myself drafting and scene painting. I was determined to make a future out of it. More than anyone else, I owe my career to a person who saw that potential in me, my drama teacher, Jack DeRieux, from Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, CA.

Where did you find your inspiration for the Pageant set?

deluxebeautypageant4Initially, we knew we wanted to have a “stage within a stage,” some sort of portal within the Cygnet space with a stairway as the dominant visual. Early on in discussions with director James Vasquez, I was researching beauty pageants of the 1970’s and 1980’s – we were focused on a very rich era for both fashion and pageantry. The original goal was “cable access meets Lawrence Welk.” Much of what I found was downright tacky to modern eyes. Sill, there was a certain childlike innocence and playfulness that I really wanted to capture. It was when I stumbled upon an eBay listing for a late-70’s Dawn Deluxe Beauty Pageant toy set that I knew I had our inspiration.  It was just this iconic, plastic little princess-pink portal with a little runway. I took the shape and the proportion and blew it up to life size, and really amped up the color saturation and boldness so it felt right to the piece. Pageant_Model_Hi

What is unique, unusual, different, challenging or surprising about this set?

I think the most unique and surprising is the level of intimacy in this set. It feels very interactive, very “live.” James and I have focused on keeping the majority of the action out on the thrust stage. Very little of the action will be lost to audience seated along the sides. It has created some very dimensional opportunities for choreography, and I think it’s very exciting way to use the space.

How have you collaborated with other companies on this production? Is that helpful spirit the norm in San Diego?

We had some great help from the San Diego Opera’s scenic shop. We also had support from Joey Landwehr at J* Company, who let us use a set of silver curtains for our front swags. There definitely is a wonderful sense of community and support in San Diego when it comes to getting sets produced. In the past, we have also used the Old Globe and there is also a “loan-out” network amongst the smaller theatre companies, for props and scenic elements.

Final thoughts?

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of this design is the “rebranding” we did for Glamouresse, the fictional beauty product corporation that has sponsored the pageant. The fonts and brand colors can be seen in nearly every scenic design element and prop. I started Glamouresse Imagewith this very iconic “G” and the script logo with “swoop” soon followed. It was inspired by the Revlon advertising done in the late 70′s and 80′s, but given Revlon1.jpga certain saccharine color sense to offset any elegance. Bold pinks, metallic gold, with an aqua accent color. Props designer Michael McKeon followed suit with his marvelous designs for the various beauty wares that are hawked by the “spokesmodels” throughout the show. It was a very fun collaboration.

Embracing the edge with Esteban

Esteban was born in Berwyn and raised in Cicero, Illinois and is thrilled to be making his San Diego stage debut with Cygnet, in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. We asked him to share why he is excited to be in this production, and give us some insight into why it is important.

EstebanCruzEsteban Andres Cruz (Cousin Julio)

Esteban is a proud company member of Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles. Before LA, Mr. Cruz trodded the boards of many a stage in Chicago and the East coast. He is the 2009 recipient of the prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of another Guirgis character: Angel Cruz in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Other Favorite roles include Puck in Britten’s opera version of Midsummer at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Angel (in ‘A Train‘), Angel in RENT (David Cromer, dir.), which the New Yorker called “the most joyful and reckless” performance. In addition to acting, Esteban is a choreographer, singer, dancer, improviser, writer, director and teacher. Mr. Cruz would like to dedicate this performance to anyone struggling with the disease of addiction and their loved ones and to the memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What excites you most about the show?

I’m excited that Cygnet is changing the face of American theatre by producing this show!  If we define what is “American” and what is “theatre” it tends to exclude the stories of the people in this play, for whatever reason; be it language, ethnicity or that they just don’t fit the standard of these two categories.  I love Guirgis’s work and I feel like he is a quintessential voice of contemporary American drama.  I feel doubly blessed that I get to work here in this beautiful city and it feels like home (Chicago) to be immersed in such a thriving and germinal community of theatre artists.

What scares you?

I’m so scared of the fights. I hid every time they practiced during rehearsal. If I do end up catching it, I cry. It really scares me. I’m also scared about people’s reaction to cousin Julio and this society’s needs to define things (gender, sexual orientation, etc), things that in this post-modern day and age can’t adhere to strict binary definitions of identity. Before answering the question about defining one’s sexuality, be it a character or person… there’s a long discussion that needs to be had about defining those very terms with which you are labeling people and their alleged value.

What do you like about working with Cygnet Theatre?

The entire company is one that prides itself on their collaborative nature. This is so empowering as an artist. It is a fine experience to just be told what to do and you do it. However, the way that Robby (the director) works and all the way up to the Artistic Director; everyone has been so generous and willing and open and it is really a lovely experience working with everyone, on both sides of the Artistic / Administrative fence!

Your favorite curse word!

F**k.  It’s the most versatile! It can be a transitive verb, intransitive verb, adjective, part of an adverb, and adverb enhancing an adjective noun. For people who can’t get down with this word: I don’t give a f**kety f**k about those f**king f**kers!

Anything else you want to add?

Please come and see this show! At it’s core, it is a love story and a story of the triumph of the human spirit! I hope that San Diego is able to look past some of the colorful language in this show to see the that these people, these characters are dealing with real human issues that everyone can identify with and hopefully be moved by them. I hope this show helps people accept how even though other cultures might be different than your own, at the end of the day; we’re all human, we all hurt and we all want to be loved.

Uncensored with Sandra Ruiz

Sandra is a veteran of San Diego theatre, but The Motherf**ker with the Hat is Sandra’s debut at Cygnet Theatre. We sat down with her to find out what scares and excites her about this uncensored character and play.

SandraRuizSandra Ruiz (Veronica)

Born and raised in San Diego, Sandra Ruiz received a BA in Theatre and another in Human Development from UCSD. She has worked in the theatre as an actor, director, playwright, teaching artist and costume designer. Sandra was last seen on stage as Young Dedé and The American Woman in In the Time of the Butterflies at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Recently, she directed the West Coast premiere of Tricks at the 10th Ave. Theatre. A few of her favorite roles include Lupe & Others in Expecting Isabel (Moxie Theatre); Lady Akin in Earthquake Sun (SD Rep.); Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (UCSD); The Doctor in 4.48 Psychosis (Galbriath Hall Theatre); Amparo in Heroes and Saints and her own one woman show Nice Girls Don’t Dance (Centro Cultural de la Raza).

What excites you the most about this show?

Although its explosive and raw, this play truly is a love story.

What scares you?

What scares me is the way my brain corrects the language. There’s a rhythm and musicality to the way Veronica speaks and I keep correcting her speech. I want to honor the character and the language as written. :)

What excites you most about the show?

Cygnet Theatre is an amazing community of talented and supporting people. It has been an honor to work with ALL of Cygnet.

Favorite Curse word?

Mine is just too BAD… but oh so fun to say.

Getting raw with Steven Lone

The Motherf**ker with the Hat introduces audiences to people whose voices are rarely heard of on stage. Just like their characters, most of the cast is new to Cygnet Theatre. We sat down with the cast and asked them what excites them about working with this fairly new and raw material, working at Cygnet Theatre, and, of course, what’s their favorite curse word! First up: Craig Noel Award Nominee, Steven Lone

Steven LoneSteven Lone (Jackie)

Steven has been making waves in theatres across town, most recently in References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, The Listener (Moxie Theatre); and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety (2013 Craig Noel Award Nominee).

How did you get involved in theatre?

Originally from San Francisco, I started studying theatre and acting in 10th grade where my first play ever was playing Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I joined a theatre conservatory right out of high school, then came down to Southern California for college, where I attended UCSD for theatre. I decided to stick around, since I fell in love with the theatre community here. This is my first show at Cygnet, where I’ve always wanted to work. I admire Sean and the whole Cygnet brain trust for selecting such a daring play.

What excites you most about the show?

Going to see live theatre should be a shock to the senses. It should illicit emotion, whether positive or negative. This show in particular, I believe, achieves that, and I’m honored to be a part of the storytelling.

What scares you?

The content. The rawness. The language.

What you like about working with Cygnet Theatre?

From the first day, I felt so cared for and respected by the entire Cygnet family. They’ve built a reputation in this community for treating their artists extremely well, it’s what drew me to want to work with Cygnet for a long time now. I’m so happy that desire has come to fruition.

Your favorite curse word!

“F**k” and “Balls”.

Hanging Out with Whitney

Whitney is making her Cygnet Theatre debut with The Motherf**ker with the Hat. She returned to San Diego theatre community after several years in the San Francisco Bay Area as a talent agent. She says she’s happy to be back on stage where she belongs… and we’re happy too!

WhitneyThomasWhitney Brianna Thomas (Victoria)

What excites you most about the show?

I’m excited about the feeling of inviting people over to our home. The community that has been built is magnetic. It’s like when you know your mama makes the best cakes you’ve ever tasted and you just want to invite people over just to show how good those cakes are.

What scares you?

That the show is magnetizing. It’s ugly and filthy and honest. Honesty scares people…and scares me.

What you like about working with Cygnet Theatre?

Cygnet Theatre is a well-oiled creative machine. It sounds contradictory but it can happen. Cygnet is blessed with an exceptional Artistic Director who oversees with more patience than anyone I’ve ever seen. This process with Cygnet has been so friendly and open from day one. It’s an exceptional creative community to be a part of.

Your favorite curse word?

My true favorite can’t be printed so I’ll just use…“f**k”

Anything else?

This show is such a wonderful gift that has been given to us and I think we do a really good job at taking care of it and translating it to an audience. Come over and hang out in our hood for a little while. Come see the fucked up shit that goes down. I bet you’ll like it.

Behind the Scenes of the San Diego Premiere of The Motherf**ker with the Hat

Designer Forum for The Motherf**cker with the HatHave you ever wondered what it takes to bring a production to life? The journey from the very first read through of the script to opening night is a creative collaboration process like no other. Bringing a production to life takes a team of well-trained and committed artisans whose names rarely appear on the marquee. While once a year, they are recognized during award season, they mostly trail behind the scenes to ensure what happens on stage helps tell a story, express the director’s vision and create a lasting impression on the audience. The creation of a play is a fascinating journey that relies on the talent and creativity of a team of dedicated theatre artists. It’s a true hands-on endeavor. We had a chance to sit in on the recent Designer Forum for The Motherf**ker with the Hat and learned a lot about the process of making theater magic. These creative artists pulled back the proverbial curtain and gave us a peek inside. Here are some highlights.

Rob Lutfy (Director) “Theater is basically problem solving. I knew I wanted the entire play to have a strong caffeinated feel and I worked with the creative team to achieve that in many different ways. One was to keep the momentum, tone and energy going throughout the entire production starting with the curtain speech to turn your f**king phones off and including all the scene changes.”

Craig Wolf (Lighting Designer) “Stylistically, the job of lighting is to bridge the gap between the set and the cast. We specifically lit and energized the scene changes to capture that caffeinated quality Rob wanted.”

Matt Lescault-Wood (Sound Designer) “I call this a mix tape show. I wanted the music to reflect the characters and the neighborhood (New York’s Hell’s Kitchen). I found a lot of 60s Puerto Rican music, as well as Jazz/Hip-Hop/Fusion that captures the energy and lifestyle of these people.”

Shelly Williams (Costume Designer) “My first task is to create a scene timeline to get the progress of these characters lives straight. They are modern-day people and I wanted their costumes to be grounded in reality and reflect the passage of time with subtle changes. People will naturally carry over small elements of their wardrobe into the next day. Because the actors are involved in scene changes, there was not much time for total costume changes anyway. When shopping, I try to think what the character would buy when they go shopping and create a closet for each one. Each item is selected and fashioned after deep research on the character as well as input from the actor.”

Rob Lutfy “At some point in the creative process, you have to let go and it becomes the actor’s play. You provide a roadmap for them to follow and they you step away and let it breathe. Enjoy learning about the design process? Come to our next free Designer Forum, DATE. You’ll gain a new respect for the craft of making theatre and the craftspeople who make it their life’s work.”

Why this play?

MFer_blog_posterIn assembling a season of plays, we definitely try to select scripts that portray a diverse and wide range of issues and styles. This has always been the case. It’s true that we offer up plays that are family-friendly, but they also run alongside plays that are most assuredly for a mature or adult pallet. This is why we put labels and warnings on those plays, so that we don’t inadvertently or accidentally offend anyone who comes to one of these plays without proper knowledge of its content.

Our theatre’s mission is this:

Believing in the power of theatre to startle the soul, ignite debate and embrace the diversity of the community in which it serves, Cygnet Theatre Company is fearlessly committed to the dissection, examination and celebration of the human story through the medium of live theatre.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat certainly fits squarely within this mission, and I can explain my thinking in selecting it.

This play has and will “ignite debate,” it surely delves into the diversity of our community and is an excellent example of the examination and celebration of the human spirit.

Sean MurrayThere is a prevalence of profanity, violence, drug use in our society. I don’t even have to watch actual television shows for this: it’s in the commercials for them! And while it is true that profanity is a strong way to express a weak mind, in a way, ironically, I feel that presenting this play illuminates the kind of people who rely on this kind of language to express themselves. These characters are people who are, for the most part, trying to clean themselves up, trying to create better lives and fighting to leave behind those habits and addictions that keep them from achieving that. Once the language of these characters is not the issue, the play presents some of the most beautifully rendered characters I have come across in a contemporary play. There is a reason that this script is one of the most frequently produced plays at regional theatre across the country, including last season’s production at the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Orange County. By presenting this show we don’t feel we are contributing to the desensitization of America to the issues, but quite the contrary: this play shines a harsh spotlight on the problems in this country that we’d rather turn our backs from and not acknowledge.

The title of this play boldly announces what kind of language may be in this play, and that is good, but it doesn’t indicate how simple and honest the story under that title can be. Judging it from the title alone does the play and the playwright a disservice. These characters lack the ability to express their emotions. They depend on this kind of profanity to protect themselves from being emotionally hurt by each other and, although it’s pretty profane, under that language beats the frightened hearts of a couple who are deeply in love with each other, hope for a better future for themselves and are constantly trying to overcome the many addictions they have and the emotional scars that come along with them. In the end, this play is a celebration of a deeply strong love that fights to conquer those obstacles and gives the couple hope.

We will continue to offer plays that you will be happy to bring your family to and are happy that you do. We will also continue to present plays that are more stimulating of discussion, like this one, as part of who we are and what we do. (For the record, my mother has no problem with us doing this play!) Art is something that most definitely can entertain, but art also is a means into seeing the world from another’s perspective, witnessing how other humans get through lives that are different from our own, and ultimately celebrating what we have in common and not just our differences.

- Sean Murray, Artistic Director

Meet Rob Lutfy

RobLutfyWe had a chance to sit down with first-time Cygnet Theatre director Rob Lutfy just as rehearsals were getting underway for the bold and provocative production of  The Motherf**ker with the Hat. In the rehearsal room, filled with images from New York’s Hells Kitchen and information about AA, actors were just starting to wander in and run lines.

Rob is another in a long line of North Carolina School of the Arts graduates to be lured to San Diego by fellow grad Sean Murray. This up and coming director was the 2012-13 William R. Kenan, Jr. Directing Fellow at The John F. Kennedy Center and has worked on plays at The Kennedy Center, The O’Neill Theatre Center, Marin Theatre Company, Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Here is some of that conversation.

What attracted you to this work when Sean Murray reached out to you about directing?

I love the playwright. He writes with an honesty about people you don’t usually see on stage. He writes with a certain cadence and time signature that I find fascinating, it is clear when an actor is honoring that rhythm and when they are not. There is a boldness and an incredible muscularity to Guirgis’ writing. He speaks his heart with the most direct, uncensored eloquence.

The people of this play are not sedate people: these are people who are full of life, full of dreams, but are in search for the energy and know how to manifest that life, those dreams. These people do not take steps backwards. These people speak their minds, they are courageous and refuse to back down. They’re bold. Nothing is ever casual and no one is safe. I find that very exciting.

Like Guirgis, I have many loved ones in the 12 steps. This is a personal story for me.

What is the play really about?

At its core, the play is an examination of acceptance, loyalty and love. According to our playwright, “Hat” is “about growing up, accepting responsibility,” Mr. Guirgis says, “All my plays . . . are meditations about trying to put away my childish things.” It’s a love story about broken promises and the resilience of love. It’s also about co-dependency and the addictions that we all have.

The essence of the play is captured in the Serenity Prayer from the 12 Steps- “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

This play is about learning the wisdom to know the difference.

How are you handling the rough language, behavior and regional and cultural dialect?

I often look to my talented cast to help. We have cast an ensemble of actors that knows the dialect because these people are in their blood. They make my job easier. Actors love to speak the language that Guirgis writes. His truthfulness sets them free and in turn sets his audience free. These characters never make excuses for who they are, this play- like the day to day lives of these characters- is life and death. And funny as hell.

What is your favorite part of living and working in San Diego?

First and foremost, I love the creative team at Cygnet. Everyone is new to me and as a traveling freelance director, that is often the case. It has been great to collaborate with everyone on staff. And of course, I’m still searching for the best Mexican food. Tips are welcome.

What is your favorite curse word?

Sorry if you are reading this Mom, F**k. It’s the most versatile.

The Difference is in the Details

SpringAwakening_BookCover2As you may already know, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening is a musical adaptation of the stage play written by German playwright Frank Wedekind in 1891.  Even though most of the dialogue was pulled directly from the original script, it still took almost eight years, from its initial conception in 1999 to its Broadway premier in 2006, to get the musical version to where it is today.  And there are some key differences that go beyond the mere addition of songs to the originally straight dramatic text:

In the musical, the opening song “Mama Who Bore Me” is derived from a monologue Wendla delivers in Act 2 of the original text.
The entire scene during which Wendla questions her mother about the true nature of how children come to be doesn’t occur until about halfway through the original play.

SpringAwakening_BookCoverThere are many more distinct adult characters in the original text.
The musical cut multiple adult characters, and also designated that all adult roles were to be played by one male and one female actor.

There is no mention of sexual abuse in the original text.
Sexual abuse was something not talked about at the time it was written, and the vast majority of Spring Awakening was inspired by Wedekind’s own experience or those of his close friends.

The sex between Wendla and Melchior is non-consensual in the original text.
In Wedekind’s original play, Melchior rapes Wendla.  The musical version turns this into a consensual act, giving Wendla more control and making Melchior more sympathetic.

After Moritz’ suicide in the musical, his father is depicted falling down in grief at the end of “Left Behind”, whereas he rejects him saying “The boy was nothing to me,” in the original text.
The concept of parenting is vastly different today, and this seems to be a change acknowledging that fact.  While the play is set in the 1890s, the audience still lives in the early 21st century making it extremely difficult for contemporary audiences, particularly parents, to reconcile this shunning of a son after having lost him.

In the musical Wendla is taken to an abortionist by her mother in addition to the “French remedy” (code for abortion pill) she is prescribed in the original text.
This addition of seeing Wendla taken to an abortionist is done largely in the spirit of “showing instead of telling,” and provides more closure to her story.

The musical cuts out the part of the Masked Man who convinces Melchior not to kill himself in the original text.
By giving Melchior himself the power to stop himself, the musical version gives adolescents today the message that they have the power to take control of their own lives.

Moritz comes back and tries to convince Melchior to kill himself at the end of the original text.  However the musical is much clearer about making Melchior the protagonist throughout, so this change in Mortiz’ attitude helps clear Melchior’s conscious of having played a role in his friend’s suicide.

Wendla does not appear again after she dies in the original text.
But much like the Moritz’ appearance in the musical version, Wendla’s presence offers closure for Melchior, absolving him of any residual guilt he has placed on himself for her death.