Backstage Blog

Behind the Scenes of TRUE WEST

We asked director Sean Murray how he and his team created some of the theater magic audiences and critics have been raving about on the set of True West by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Sam Shepard.

Q. The set really gets trashed after True West. Tell us about some of the props and how long it takes to put back together.

TrueWest-495Sean: Kudos go to our awesome stage crew. Jen Kozumplik and Trevor Frank take about an hour to clean it up and it’s especially daunting when we have a second show the same day.

While we’re on props, people have been asking why we chose Miller Lite.  Miller Lite did a reissue of their 1981 label for a retro marketing effort. We are using this period label and are recreating the paper carriers. Assistant Scenic Designer Chad Dellinger created the look of the packaging of the carrier from photos of vintage boxes and we glue the print outs onto regular carriers.


And of course, the toasters. I believe it’s about sixteen. And we destroy about a typewriter a week.                                                                                Q. We love the moody projections in True West. Tell us about your inspiration and process for creating those backdrops.

Sean: The images in True West are of various shots of LA. They all have tall rows of palm trees in the foregrounds. I began to see these tall trunks as suggestive of some kind of barrier that separated the brothers from the mountains and foothills in the distance. The desert and the foothills are a looming presence in the show, a place where man is more in touch with his more primal self, where the answers to unformed questions lie.


The characters in True West have a desire to reconnect with the desert that reflects their need to reconnect with what is true and authentic in themselves. There is also the opportunity to reconnect with the Old Man out there, their father, even if it’s only symbolic. The slides all try to convey a disorienting view of the suburban world that is LA and how disconnected it all is to the nature that surrounds it. Mountains obscured by smog, freeways that seem endless, rivers paved over by concrete, these are all the elements of a broken world of false promises and cracked dreams. People scurry about in these environments endlessly pursuing success and purpose, and in Shepard’s world, they are as disconnected as the ‘city coyotes’ that howl and prowl in the neighborhoods killing pets.


See True West in rep with Fool for Love at Cygnet Theatre.  Now showing through November 2nd.  Purchase tickets at




In October We “Fall for Kids”


Veronica Murphy, Director of Development

Director of Development, Veronica Murphy, talks about our educational focus for the month of October: Fall for Kids, and how you can help. 

Last Fall, through the generosity of Kamaya Jane and Diane Zeps in honor of their Mother Elaine Lipinsky, Cygnet launched a pilot educational program, Engage the Stage, that has proved so successful we are expanding it this year. We are providing opportunities for underserved students to experience live theatre, many for the first time. Programs include:

  • Free Student Matinees & post-show discussions
  • In-Class Theatre Workshops
  • Field Trips with performances, workshops & theatre tours
  • Performances of abridged Shakespeare and other classic literature
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Citrus Valley High School Tour

Developed and coordinated by Cygnet’s Director of Education & Outreach, Taylor Wycoff, these programs meet state and district education standards while allowing students to explore the world of live theatre.

“I had the great privilege to take my English students to see “Gem of the Ocean” WOW! It was a life-changing experience for them. Over 80% of my students experienced live theatre for the first time that day. This would not have been possible without the generous gift of free tickets.”  

-Teacher, Southwest High School

“It was really good, and the actors did an amazing job. This was the first play I’ve seen, and I’m determined to come back and watch another play.”  

-Student, Preuss School

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Behind-the-Scenes Tour

Make your donation today!

If you would like more information about engaging students you know, please contact

If you would like to make a contribution to provide student tickets or otherwise support this important work, please contact We have a $15,000 matching gift opportunity for this program that will double the impact of your donation.



Sitting down with the Director

Artistic Director Sean Murray shares his thoughts on our upcoming Sam Shepard shows – Fool for Love & True West

Cygnet is continuing it’s tradition of plays performed in rotating repertory.  What’s different about this rep? 

This season we are focusing exclusively on the work of a single playwright. Each play stands on its own and you don’t need to see one to appreciate the other. However, when you are able to experience these two different plays side-by-side, one begins to recognize common themes between them.  Both plays explore a crisis of identity and betrayal. Characters in both shows experience an existential soul searching and a feeling that their lives are inauthentic. They also are pretty funny people as they grapple with essential issues such as disconnection, empty searching and a deep sense of betrayal.

Sean Murray directs Fool for Love

Sean Murray directs Fool for Love

When did you first become aware of Sam Shepard’s work?

I first became aware of Shepard’s work in the early 80s when I worked as an actor for the San Diego Repertory Theatre. At an early age, I was cast as Crow, the punk-rock-pirate from The Tooth of Crime. I worked there when they presented the San Diego premieres of True West and Fool for Love, again in the early 80s. Additionally, while I was in school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, I played Weston in Curse of the Starving Class, a show I later produced at Cygnet Theatre.

What are the challenges you face when staging True West?

Biting keys FFL

The set of True West

On a purely technical level, the script has the two brothers literally destroy the suburban kitchen that is the set. We have fifteen toasters, that all have to make real toast, a typewriter that is literally pounded into pulp by a golf club wielding character, the contents of kitchen cabinets thrown across the floor, a wall-phone that become a weapon after it is torn from the wall! The actual aftermath of all of this chaos has to be carefully considered.

The acting challenges are also vast. Each character goes on an existential journey from the quiet, tension-filled first scene to the all out chaotic war of the final scene. Pacing this progression is important. Finding the way into the levels of envy, threat and betrayal that these characters must portray is a frightening and exciting process for the actors.

May Eddie FFL

May and Eddie – Fool for Love

Fool for Love is both arduous and physically challenging. What’s your take on this play?

The biggest challenge we’ve experienced in getting into the depths of Fool for Love has been in determining what is true and what isn’t. The characters accuse each other of lying throughout the play. There is a layering in this play that conceals the actual truth that they are running from. Like Austin in True West, May is attempting to recreate herself anew. She is trying to escape what she was and forge a new self. The sudden reappearance of Eddie, like the reappearance of Lee in True West, forces a confrontation between one who wants to hold the other to who they have been, and the other who is trying to break with their past. As we explore what is actually happening between these characters, and we continue to raise their stakes in the play, that informs the level and veracity of the physical actions.

Can you share some of your thoughts about deciding to take on these plays? 

These two particular plays are rooted in a sort of realism. I say “sort of” because on the surface they take place in a kitchen or a motel. There are real props, etc. The character dialogue sounds like a realistic conversation on the surface. However, there is a very strong poetic quality to the language and imagery. Finding actors who can develop these characters to the marrow and handle the heightened poetic language is not always easy. In addition, when you are trying to cast actors who have to also be ‘right’ for not just one role but two different roles, this adds a new challenge.

Don’t miss Fool for Love and True West Sept. 24 – Nov.2.  

Buy your tickets now!

7 Things to Know: Fool for Love & True West

As part of our goal to help you understand the thought-provoking work of American playwright and icon Sam Shepard, we’ve put together 7 things you should know about Fool for Love and True West.  If you don’t already, follow us on Facebook for daily “fun facts” about Sam Shepard, the plays, as well as behind-the-scenes info and pictures. 

3 things worth knowing about Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love:
-First performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco on February 8th 1983 with Kathy Baker as May and Ed Harris as Eddie.
-It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984.
-The play was turned into a movie in 1985, for which Sam Shepard also wrote the screenplay and starred as Eddie opposite Kim Basinger as May.

4 things worth knowing about Sam Shepard’s True West:
-First performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco on July 10, 1980.
-It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983.
-It was nominated in 2000 for the Tony Award for Best Play.
-The play was turned into a made-for-TV-movie in 2002, which starred Bruce Willis and Chad Smith.

7 things Sam Shep image

Kathy Baker/Ed Harris in Fool For Love (1984) – Bruce Willis/Chad Smith in True West (2002)

“Shep Rep” Survival Guide

Here at Cygnet Theatre, we affectionately call our next two shows, Fool for Love & True West, by Sam Shepard the “ShepRep”. Our dramaturg, Taylor Wycoff, is here to help you prepare for your upcoming visit to our theatre with a bit of insight into what exactly this whole ShepRep thing is…

What does “in repertory” mean?

When a theatre company says that they are producing two or more production “in repertory” it simply means that they are presenting several plays from their repertoire, usually in alternation or rotation. This can take on a variety of forms – for us it means we are presenting two related plays that alternate every night.



“The themes of family and the American Dream are universal, but few writers attack them so dramatically and brilliantly as Shepard.”

- Sean Murray, Artistic Director


What is the benefit of doing two shows in rep?

The idea behind the repertory part of our season is to give the audience the opportunity to see two related shows back-to-back, enhancing the experience of the plays and understanding of the themes. Last year we gave you two very different shows that shared some of the same characters, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and the subsequently inspired Travesties by Tom Stoppard. This year we are excited to again share two very different shows that this time share the same playwright, Sam Shepard

Why these plays?

Sam Shepard is often cited as one of the greatest American playwrights, along with likes of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill. His plays tend to explore themes of love, loss and dysfunctional family life and are often set in gritty small towns and the open spaces of the American West. Other than that, Shepard’s plays are difficult to categorize except for the fact that they blend unanticipated humor and beauty with brutal honesty and painful relationships. In selecting these two plays, Cygnet’s Artist Director, Sean Murray, wanted to give the audience two very distinct lenses through which to view Sam Shepard and his work. That being said and despite one show being about two brothers and the other about two lovers, having the opportunity to see both productions in such proximity will help you find those connections, providing for a much more involved and exciting theatre experience!


Lovable & Lighthearted…Miss West Coast

Moving from from East to West, our next Pageant the Musical feature shines the spotlight on Luke Harvey Jacobs, who plays Miss West Coast, the Miss Glamouresse contestant who represents our region!

What makes your character a winner?

Karma Quinn is a winner because she is the quintessence of a wholesome, All-American girl. She is incapable of devising an ulterior motive, so the audience naturally wants to like and trust her.

How did you prepare for this show?

I’ve always been fascinated by the pageant world, so in preparation, I boned up on my Miss America YouTube research, binge-watched pageant film classics like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Smile, and shaved my chest.

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

The new knowledge is unending! My favorite pageant technique I’ve learned is to blink every time you change your focus when looking into the house. Little specifics like these are meant to convey a naturalness that is so calculated! It’s fascinating!

 What will you never do on stage?

Forget my lines. (Purely a self-fulfilling prophecy)

 Do you have a role model?

My role models are people who don’t take themselves too seriously and execute their day-to-day goings-on with grace, humor, passion, and compassion.

What inspired you to be an actor?

It was a total ineptitude at sports when I was very young. My parents didn’t know what else to do with me and a neighbor suggested theatre. I’ve been hooked since day one.

What is your favorite part of a show?

Honestly, I love every moment of being in a show. For better or for worse, great production or “meh” production… From first read through to closing show, I love it all.

What is your favorite part about working at Cygnet Theatre?

I feel incredibly supported at Cygnet. The caliber of artists they’ve hired for this production is astounding. I know I go to work every day surrounded by talent from top to bottom, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

 Anything else to add?

PLEASE enjoy the show and ignore the five o’clock shadows.

Mock pageant question:

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

I would remind each girl in the American United States that before you reach for the stars, make sure to stretch your body thoroughly. Seventy-five percent of athletic injuries occur due to not warming up enough, and the other 30% occur from not warming up at all!



Spicy and Sassy…Miss Industrial Northeast

Up next for the  Pageant the Musical contestant feature is Max Cadillac who portrays the vivacious Miss Industrial Northeast, Cosuela Manuela Rafaella Lopez. 

What makes your character a winner?

Consuela is bright and bouncy with a big personality and even bigger smile. She’s “living la vida loca” and loco for her loving family and friends!Miss INE

How did you prepare for this show?

Besides twirling and dancing around my living room since birth, I’ve been researching and talking to pageant friends, as well as watching pageant movies like Miss Congeniality and Drop Dead Gorgeous.

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

I learned how hard it is to wear and change jewelry and accessories so often and so quickly.

What will you never do on stage?

I will probably never play the king in The King and I, but one can dream.

Do you have a role model?

My role models for this show are Sofia Vergara, Cindy Crawford, and Bianca Del Rio.

What inspired you to be an actor?

My biggest inspiration came from seeing my first show on Broadway when I was 5.

What is your favorite part of a show?

This whole show is my favorite, but I must say strutting down the runway in a bathing suit really makes my night!

What is your favorite part about working at Cygnet Theatre?

Cygnet is such a fun and intimate theatre space, I love getting to really engage with our audience.


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.