Backstage Blog

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Cygnet Theatre

CygLogo_bug1. The Cygnet Theatre Name has a Cheeky Origin.

As most theatre buffs will tell you, the Globe Theatre in London has long-been considered one of the “most magnificent” theatres the city has every seen.  Shakespeare’s legendary theatre was built in the 16th century by carpenter Peter Smith and his workers, and most arts-lovers of the day felt that no other theatre would ever match its accomplishments or stature.  Nor did many dare try.  The Swan Theatre became the Globe’s one major rival, continually striving to reach new heights in theatrical achievements, despite its later eminence.  Artistic Director Sean Murray was inspired by this driven-and-able historical theatre, and has held in the highest regard Craig Noel, the founding director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.   As cygnet is the name for a baby swan, Sean liked the tongue-and-cheek title for his theatre.   Cygnet Theatre may have begun as a fledgling playhouse in a strip-mall, but we’ve got some big ambitions and some real cheek.

2. There’s a swan in every Cygnet set.

We at Cygnet love our namesake.  For this reason, every Cygnet set pays tribute with a swan hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) within the scenery.  The very first Cygnet show – Hedwig and the Angry Inch – included a giant paper mache swan head made entirely of paper plates which guarded the band’s drummer.  Copenhagen’s swan was displayed on the multiple chalk-boards. Set designer, Sean Fanning hand-drew a swan, along with notes, phone numbers and doodles on the Mauritius set’s bulletin board.  Escanaba in da’ Moonlight featured crates with a company logo swan stamped on their sides and A Little Night Music continued the tradition with a swan carved into Frederick’s elaborate bed.   Although they’re sometimes challenging to spot, the Cygnet swan will make its appearance in each and every season’s show.  Just another reason to enjoy a look around your next Cygnet set.

3. There’s a Ghost in the House.

Sure we’re theatre people and drawn to the dramatic, but we can’t deny the feeling that we’re not alone in here.  Our move to Old Town not only provided us some new digs, it seems that it came with a complimentary company member.  Nothing to worry about, of course.  The Old Town ghost – or Charlie, as he’s been named – seems to appreciate the entertainment.  We assume it’s why he’s stuck around and made his presence known to other theatre companies who made their home at the Old Town Theatre before us.  But he also seems to love a practical joke or two.  While we’ve become accustomed to his slamming doors and bumps in the night, we do wish he’d return the various props and costume pieces that have gone missing from our latest Cygnet productions.

The artist formerly known as Thom with Marci Anne Wuebben in A Little Night Music

The artist formerly known as Thom with Marci Anne Wuebben in A Little Night Music

4. Sean Murray isn’t His Real Name.

Artistic Director Sean Murray isn’t who he says he is.  His real name is Thomas Murray, but you tell that to Equity.   In order to get his Equity card, he had to choose a name that wasn’t already in their system, and his middle name seemed to be the next best choice.  Plus, Mama Murray was all for it.  When he asked her what she thought his Equity name ought to be, she told him that although he was a fifth generation “Thomas Murray”, if she’d had her druthers, his name would have been Sean anyway.  Of course, we love him as “Sean” as much as we’d love him as “Thom” but we DO wonder what else he’s not telling us.

5. Cygnet Theatre’s Wonderful Life Includes Some Real Radio Royalty.

Lovers of Cygnet Theatre’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, have come to recognize actor Jonathan Dunn-Rankin as cantankerous, old “Mr. Potter.”   But listen closely and you’ll hear the golden pipes of real radio royalty in his between-scene radio announcements.

Jonathan Dunn-Rankin in It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Jonathan Dunn-Rankin in It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

At only 17 years old, Jonathan began working in radio in 1940s Florida.  He grew up to become one of the recognized, big-voiced 40s radio announcers of the era.  That broadcast history eventually brought Jonathan to San Diego where he spent many years as KFMB’s principle television newscaster. Artistic Director Sean Murray remembers watching him on Channel 8 regularly, never realizing they would one day work together.  Now Jonathan has become part of Cygnet’s annual holiday tradition.  This will be his third year of bringing his life experience to the stage.  As the station chimes play and he opens the show into the radio mike, don’t be surprised if you feel as though you’ve slipped back in time.

Bed and Sofa Background

bed_sofa_still1Bed and Sofa began its life as the wonderfully scandalous 1926 silent film directed by Abram Room and starring three of the Soviet Union’s most popular actors. For most of the twentieth century, Room’s film received ritual mention in Soviet and Western film histories, but mostly as a footnote in the development of the new art of film.

In the 1970’s the movie began to be taken up by a newer generation of film historians, such as Molly Haskell, who began to see it as “one of the most extraordinary feminist films of that [the 1920’s] or any other time.” The film began to make the rounds of various film festivals and began to be recognized for its frank depiction of ‘real life’ and its startling naturalistic acting style. Early American film actors had found their way into new medium of film via the Broadway stage and the circus. The acting style that we often associate with the silent era is one of broad gestures and quirky movement. This was to be expected as that was how actors worked on the stages of their era without the help of microphones, electric stage lighting, and computerized scenery. They needed to be larger and more declamatory to be heard and seen from the balconies. But, film pioneers like D. W. Griffith and Abram Room were busy creating such novel conventions as the ‘closeup’ and the ‘cut away shot,’ and thereby inventing the need for an entirely new style of acting for the film.

And Bed and Sofa was certainly that. It was an experiment in how to tell a simple story on film with only one set, three actors and a hand held camera around the busy streets of Moscow. Room’s team spun a complex and shifting tale of a love triangle in a cramped apartment during a severe housing shortage in modern Moscow. The film was an indictment of the wave of utopian ‘free love’ that came in with the revolution and was being actively stamped out by the Stalinist regime of the 1920s.

When Volodya excitedly comes to the big city to begin work as a printer he is met with the rude shock that due to government regulations, he must have a permanent address in order to hold a job of any kind. And, there is this housing shortage plaguing Moscow. It’s a “Catch Twenty-Two” that is only broken when he happens upon his old friend Kolya in the street who offers him his sofa. When Kolya, his wife, Ludmilla and Volodya set up house in the tiny apartment, a string of shifting alliances, lovers and situations are set into motion.

1920s1Polly Pen and Laurence Klavan’s adaptation of movie is a mini-masterpiece. They obviously spent a great deal of love and devotion to making this story over for the stage. To begin with, the lyrics are adaptations of the title cards in the film. These phrases and musical motifs repeat over and over again. Each new time they are sung, they take on a new context as the story deepens. It’s simple and yet, it’s very complex and extremely specific. They have managed to create a faithful reproduction of the film that still holds its own as a piece of live theatre.

I’ve been a silent film fan for many years. When we produced this play in 2004, it was just our third production (of 37 now to date!). But it was so well received (by the few people who knew of our new company who actually saw it!), that it has remained one of the most often requested revivals we have. People who saw it ask to be able to see it again. Those who missed it have asked us for an opportunity to see what the fuss was about. We know this: It was due to Bed and Sofa that audiences began to discover what this new company was about and the kind of works we intended to create.

Revisiting it has been a great experience. Rather than a straight re-mount, this version of Bed and Sofa is entirely new. The new cast is different. The set is similar but different, and with the new capabilities of the Old Town Theatre, we are able to flesh this show out even further. It’s both bigger, and smaller. We’ve been enjoying this amazing opportunity to explore the silent film style of acting and story telling. We have been faithful to the original movie and watched it and studied it for inspiration. We admired the acting in the film and then took off and brought our own insights to the piece. We hope you enjoy the surprises in this highly unique mini-silent-movie-opera. It’s both big and small. Not another word.

Bed and Sofa First Run-Through

Today I went to see one of the first run-throughs of our next Old Town production, Bed and Sofa. It’s always fun to see a show for the first time, although this particular show was a bit more familiar to me than some of the others.

Bed and Sofa was first produced by Cygnet during our first season in May of 2004. At that time we had about 40 subscribers and a rather small following.  Nevertheless, it was very well received and garnered numerous awards from the local critics including a best Musical Production award from both the San Diego Critics Circle and San Diego Patte Awards.

Cygnet has produced over 35 plays and musicals in our short 6 year history but I have to say that if I were to pick a favorite, Bed and Sofa would definitely be it. The music is wonderful and the book and style of the show are just so clever.   It is no wonder that so many patrons have asked us to do a remount.

Now, onto the run-through.  I had seen the previous production about 5-6 times so I know the play very well.  This was one of the first run-throughs so I was expecting to see a lot of stumbles and a pretty rough take on the script.  The productions usually get there but sometimes at this point in the rehearsal process it can be a little scary.

The truth is, though, the actors are very far along.  The story is a compact 90 minutes with no intermission and once you get into it the whole thing just flies by.   Today was no exception, even without the costumes and the set and all of the pieces that make the production full, I got totally engrossed in it. I really wasn’t all that surprised that they are doing so well.  As we share our office with the rehearsal space all of us at the office have been hearing everything for weeks.

The cast consists of three actors that are all new to the Cygnet Stage.  Lance Arthur Smith, who plays Kolya, Colleen Kollar Smith who plays Ludmilla and Jordan Miller who plays Volodya.  They all have great voices and compliment each other well.  We’re very happy to have found such a wonderful cast for this production and help us bring back this wonderful piece of theatre.

At this point I feel very excited about where the production will be in a few weeks when we open.  Bed and Sofa is a truly unique theatrical experience and if you missed the first time I hope you’ll take this opportunity and see something really special in the theater.

Postage Stamp Style

Jessica JohnMy mother is an art teacher. She’s been teaching since I was 13 years old. She used to tell me that she was surprised to find she never ran out of new ideas for lessons.  She always thought the day would come when she’d need a lesson on Van Gogh or Matisse and…nothing… No ideas. Blank slate.  But that day never came. She said that was the beauty of art and creativity. It’s endless.

On costuming modern day shows… Sean Murray seems to think I have a pretty good eye for dressing people in current fashions and has honored me with the title of costume designer for three Cygnet shows – all taking place in present day. But the innate difficulty of costuming a show that doesn’t depend on a historical time period for colorful expressions of the day is that – if you do it well – it will very often go unnoticed. And let’s face it… no artist (ofJack Missett any sort) wants their work to go unrecognized.

To deal with this, I approach each show with a secret concept…something I’m pretty sure the audience won’t pick up on but satisfies me none-the-less. In Dying City I allowed the Iraq War to exist, not only as the background for the play, but on the stage within the costumes; the war between the characters playing themselves out in Peter and Craig’s all-American dress and Kelly’s subtly Middle Eastern-feeling fabrics, colors and jewelry. In Love Song, Beane requests “a rainbow” as a birthday gift, and upon his discovery of his new love Molly, the grays in the costumes dissipated into brilliant hues – even and especially in Joan and Harry’s apartment.

Manny FernandesSo when it came time to costume Mauritius, I began my musings for my special secret concept. I read the play. I read it four more times… Nothing. I went on-line and perused everything I could find about stamp-collecting, looking for the hook. Zippo. I thought about my mother. Where was that endless creativity?  Maybe there was an artistic limit.  Apparently my max for Cygnet was two shows.  The gig was up.

Finally…I admit it… I went on-line to look at the Broadway production photos. Then, other production photos. I felt uninspired. They were all the same. Dennis donned in a sleazy leather jacket. Jackie attired in the Sandy Campbell and Jessica John. Photo by Daren Scott.apparently requisite jeans and a hoodie. Mary bequeathed with the unflattering matronly threads of a spinster. Where was the whimsy? Worse… Why the stereo-types? This was a play submersed in cons and trickery, after all.

My inspiration came mid-conversation. Anytime I mentioned Mauritius to a friend, their response was the same. “Stamp collecting? Does anyone even do that anymore?” They imagined a production rife with antiquated lessons on the creation of the postal system. The delightful irony of the Quentin Tarentino-esque ride our audiences will take amused me. But then, there it was! These characters ARE submersed in a world of vintage collections. They are the world’s most obsessed tiny-art collectors. They LOVE the beauty of a bygone era. And they are suckers for the most intimate details.

John DeCarloI began my search for modern-day clothes with a vintage-feel. Aside from Jackie, who discovers the crazy under-belly trade as the play progresses, the other characters seemed to naturally slip into each vest, tie, spectator shoe and hat; their love for classical elegance expanding into their fashion and limited only by the size of their billfolds. And, as luck would have it, the gorgeous cast of actors embraced and enhanced each handkerchief and glove with a modern-day spin. Sandy Campbell can wear a hat and Jackie-O sunglasses like no-one’s business and Manny Fernandes seems born to wear tailored suits and luxurious watches. John DeCarlo’s natural charm and humor lends itself to the feather in his hat and I’m quite certain that Jack Misset wore a bow-tie in another life.

I love art. I love theatre. And I love my mom. As is often the case, she was right.

Mauritius; Scary, Funny and Suspenseful

Yesterday was our first preview for Mauritius. It’s always exciting for me when we open a new production but I especially get excited when the audience really get’s into a show. Last night was no exception. There was plenty of gasping and nervous laughter, just what you hope for with a suspenseful thriller.

All of us at Cygnet were pretty excited to assemble such a great cast.  Three of the principal characters in Mauritius worked together previously in our 2007 production of Communicating DoorsCommunicating Doors was such a fun production and these actors have a wonderful chemistry together.  Manny Fernandes once again plays the guy everyone is afraid of, and Sandy Campbell and Jessica John play the eccentric half sisters.  Rounding out the cast is John DeCarlo, last seen in Cygnet’s production of Bug and Jack Missett from Cygnet’s Curse of the Starving Class of a few years back.  The characters in Mauritius are pretty quirky and the actors have tapped into their characters perfectly.  I think the actors are going to have a lot of fun with this one.

The production is staged by Cygnet Associate Artistic Director, Fran Gercke.  Fran gets great support from the spot-on design team of Jessica John (yes, she’s also doing the costumes), Eric Lotze (lighting), Matt Lescault-Wood (sound), Bonnie Durben (props) and Sean Fanning (set).  I do love it when all of the components come together so nicely and click.  I just can’t wait for the theatre goers to come out and see  it for themselves.

Mauritius is a San Diego premiere and one of the newest plays by Theresa Rebeck, one of Broadway’s hottest playwrights.  We’re so excited to have been able to secure the rights to this one.   Mauritius runs at the Cygnet Rolando stage through May 10th.

Lights! Sound! Pancakes!

It’s Saturday morning and we are getting ready to begin technical rehearsals for Mauritius.  Technical rehearsals can be exhilarating, because you finally get to see all of the elements start coming together.  The lights and sound are added. The finishing touches are put on the costumes and the set.  And while the twenty or so hours can make for a grueling couple of days of “hurry up and wait,” it is always amazing to come out of it on the other side and see the huge leaps the production has taken towards being a final product.

At Cygnet, tech means it’s time for a couple of traditions.  The oldest being the magic of watching Eric Lotze work his wizardry on the light board.  Eric has been designing lights for Cygnet since the very beginning, and I’ve never seen any designer who can manipulate the lights as fast as he can.  With his eyes darting across the ceiling from one light to the next, his fingers fly across the light board’s buttons.  It always reminds me of those accountants in old movies with their sleeves rolled up, visor pulled down, a stogie firmly planted firmly in one corner of their mouth, their right hand a blur producing a steady and rapid clicking from the keys.  I swear I’m always waiting for his left hand to reach out and pull the lever.  There’s no doubt why he has won several awards.  His designs always add another level of dimension to the production.

Matt Lescault-Wood, is doing the sound design.  Matt has done several designs for Cygnet this season, including the fantastic collection of 80′s music that was on display during The History Boys, but this will be my first experience watching him work.  What I’ve heard of the sound design so far, it is going to be jazzy, hip and cool. It’s always great fun to hear a musical representation of your character and I’m looking forward to hearing what he has for my sadistic stamp collector.

The other tradition, which just began this season, is a pancake breakfast to kick off the technical rehearsals.  It’s really nice to have a few moments before we delve into the work for the designers, cast and crew to come together like a family and share a meal.  Plus feeding theatre folk is always a good idea.  Of course the success of this breakfast may rest on my culinary skills.  Somehow I was designated the flapjack flipper for this production.  Oh, the pressure.  I hope I don’t burn them.

Bed and Sofa: the latest stage

Andy Hull's model for the set of Bed and Sofa.

Andy Hull's model for the set of Bed and Sofa.

Andy Hull’s set model for Bed and Sofa.

Today we had our first formal design meeting for our upcoming Bed and Sofa. This is our first opportunity for all of the designers to get together and begin thinking about how all of our design choices are coming together. We want the ultimate product to have a cohesion, so that all of the various elements, each designed by different people, feel like they all belong to the same “world” that we are creating for the play.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the world of Bed and Sofa is that of the silent film. Since the original film was created in Moscow in 1926, we know that the look of the costumes, scenery and props will have a Soviet influence. Since we are trying to capture the feel of a silent film, we are setting the show in a world that is entirely seen in shades of grey, white and black.

Today, Andy Hull the set designer working with me on the show, presented his model of the set. We use this model as the first stage of the over all look. We can make changes on it still, but that time is now coming towards an end, as Nick Fouch, our technical director, now begins to turn the drawings and model into full size pieces made from real wood! Changes really begin to become difficult and expensive.

Here is a photo of Andy’s model. You can compare it to my first sketch. My idea for the set design came from the film. The apartment in the movie is a basement apartment and you can see the underside of the stairs jutting into the room. I liked the shape and tried to tie it in. In the musical the presence of Stalin is felt somehow as a looming Big Brother type. So we played with how to bring him into the design. I handed Andy this sketch and he has been working his magic on it. He cleaned it up and more importantly he added his wonderfully clever touches to it. The back masking flats, which will have collages of various images mentioned in the show, have the silhouette of the onion domes of St. Peters suggested in their shapes. Andy’s great.

We’ll keep you up on the progress.

Love Song actor shares hidden talent

The History Boys

We’ve always been blessed with using fantastic photographers at Cygnet.  Josh Zimmerman took beautiful setup shots for Yellowman and Love Song.  Chelsea Whitmore caught some great images during Desire Under the Elms.

Our favorite photographer, Randy Rovang, has been providing us with incredible production shots since our very first show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Randy served as our Resident Photographer for the last year or so, shooting all of our productions, documenting the remodeling of Old Town, and providing candid shots during our Opening Night festivities.  Unfortunately for us, Randy decided to retire from photography earlier this year so that he could focus on other things.  And while we’ll miss his images, we wish him the best.  He has been a huge asset to Cygnet.

Randy’s retirement meant that we had to find another photographer for our upcoming production of The History Boys. Sean Murray had been approached by somebody regarding taking photos, but unfortunately, he couldn’t remember who that somebody was.  I can’t really blame him since he was in the middle of rehearsals for The History Boys, trying to finalize casting for Bed and Sofa, and planning our next season.

Luckily, my wife remembers everything.  When I mentioned to her that I was looking for a photographer she said, “Why don’t you ask Daren Scott?”  My immediate response was, of course, “Daren’s a photographer?”  After she sThe History Boysteered me to Daren’s Facebook page so that I could review some of his work, I decided to ask Daren if he would like to shoot our upcoming show.

For those of you who don’t know Daren Scott, and I hope that’s a very small number, he has appeared on the Cygnet stage in Las Meninas, The Invention of Love, Biedermann and The Firebugs, and most recently as Harry in Love Song.

When Daren accepted my invitation to take some photos for The History Boys, he was excited and nervous.  He had never shot a theatre production before, and especially not one in the Old Town Theatre where the stage can be wide and the lighting a bit difficult.  The photos he took, however, turned out beautiful.  So much so, that I’ve already invited him to take pictures for our next production, Mauritius.  Hopefully we can make that scheduling work.  Here’s to hidden talents!

By the way, the name of that person that Sean Murray was trying to remember: Daren Scott.  I love my wife.

The History Boys

Creating a world for the imagination

The term “set design” is really such a boring phrase for, well, the set design.  Costume design is really the wardrobe of each individual character, lighting and sound designs are the atmospheres, props the personal objects of characters, and the set design is the environment.  The hard world of the play.  Tactile.


One of the challenges with Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius is that it floats between three different environments.  Not odd or uncommon or unusual in theatre.  But normally it always leads designers, directors, and everyone else involved to ask:  “Okay, how do we do this?”  So then you start brainstorming and come up with a few great ideas, a couple of good ones, and several that lead to kind of uncomfortable silence (those ideas, unfortunately, normally emanate from me!).  Mauritius has to move from a seedy, basement-level stamp shop to a street cafe to the parlor floor of a brown stone and back again.  Sean Fanning’s set allows the actors to enter from the world above down into the stamp shop – the world below.  And then this combatively comic world of philately simply, easily, and fluidly becomes a worn but still somehow elegant family home.  And I am considerable jealous of the cast that gets to play in this environment because there is a great attention to deliberate detail.

Act 2 Set for Mauritius

In the process of design, it’s always curious to me how you can run the risk of going too far.  You can add too much “reality”.  Sean Murray was wise to advise that you can go too far and open a kind of Pandora’s Box in which nothing is left to the imagination, everything is real, and what once was going to be a partnership between the suggested reality of the designer and imagination of the audience is no longer possible.  I think we’ve avoided that, I think Sean Fanning has avoided that.  Instead what he has created is very deliberate, very precise, very beautiful and still leaves much to the imagination….Now all we have to do is add the lights, the sound, the costumes, the props, learn our lines and not bump into anything!

Thoughts on The History Boys (as we go into previews)

It’s my day off. It’s raining outside. I feel cozy and happy and really excited for the week ahead– we’ve just finished teching The History Boys and I don’t think any of us could be happier with it.

Generally the whole rehearsal period seems now to have gone by so quickly… There was so much to learn and discover and figure out, and of course there still is, but as I look back on everything, I’ve been having so much fun I completely forgot how much work has gone into it. Through the French and the History of WWI and the songs and dances and subtext and blocking it really did all feel like playing… Playing with building blocks or clay and kinda just creating something along the way. I know that’s a very general way to describe a rehearsal process but it doesn’t always feel like that. This one did.

As for me, I love Posner. This isn’t a comment on my performance– there’s still so much to discover and figure out, and I’m incapable of observing myself like that even if I wanted to. No, I just love the words I’m given to say and the actions I’m given to do. Who else gets to sing Edith Piaf, quote Shakespeare, define words AND be utterly in love, all in the same play? And within moments of each other? And being in love in this play is incredibly easy. With this cast, you’re constantly surrounded with vitality and good energy, and you know you can’t fail because they’re all there to catch you, and you’re there to catch them. There really is a lot of love on that stage. Every time we run the show I feel us becoming more and more cohesive, and also more and more confident in our individuality. It’s awesome. This weekend especially we’ve gotten to a point where I find myself onstage so completely drawn in to what’s going on that I forget there’s any lines or acting involved. The actions and words just tumble out naturally. And I know the others would agree. This is an incredible ensemble Sean Murray has put together. I feel so lucky to be part of it.

Best of all, it’s FUN. This is a fun, fun, fun show to be in. Every moment is a treat. I don’t think there’s a single person in the ensemble who doesn’t enjoy every single moment they have on stage.

I think that, whatever happens, we have something very special in the works here.