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.

It’s Not an Age Thing…

Jessica John and her mom

Jessica John and her mom

The opening night of Hedwig and the Angry Inch left me with a quandary. Admittedly a “mama’s girl”, I take my mother to see everything. She’s an artist and an intellectual and some of my best conversations take place after accompanying her to a particularly fascinating foreign film or live performance. But this was Hedwig and the Angry Inch after all. And for everything broad-minded and cultured she is, my mother is as equally and as gracefully a 70-year old Catholic woman of the 1950’s. And again… Hedwig.

I’d never seen Hedwig. I’d heard great things. I’m a theatre person. Four of my closest friends are gay. I have spent good chunks of my life dedicated to furthering my belief in being nonjudgmental. Why hadn’t I seen the first production? Or the movie? I had heard the music was fantastic. I had heard segments of Hedwig songs sung at the Cygnet Gala. Beautiful, funny, moving vocals out of the mouths of Manny Fernandes and Tom Zohar. I looked up past reviews for a description to give my mother. I looked at the postcard. A large, wigged angry-looking woman in shredded tights and weeping blue eye shadow seemed to be screaming at me…screaming at my 70-year old mother.

I called my mom. She wasn’t home so I left a message that sounded something like this. “Hi Mom. I’ve been meaning to ask if you’d like to join me for the opening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s tomorrow. Sorry I didn’t mention it sooner. Um… It’s a little racy… It’s about a transsexual whose surgery goes…uh awry, I think? But… It takes place in Berlin right before the wall comes down and I understand it’s really kind of symbolic for people who feel like outcasts and need to feel whole. It’s about love and finding your other half and finding yourself… I think… I won’t be offended if you don’t want to come… But I’d love for you to come. I wouldn’t ask Dad. But I thought you might want to see it with me? Call me back. I love you.”

Flash forward to opening night and I’m sitting in a sold-out theatre next to my 70-year old mother. The audience is buzzing and decidedly diverse. Women and men, straight and gay, reviewers and friends, theatre denizens and their unprepared dates. The band looks rough-and-tumble. The instruments they throttle threaten ear-splitting potential. Suddenly the double-doors swing open and in comes Hedwig in all her wigged glory. The show is off on its breath-less, silvery, hilarious and emotional journey. We were mesmerized.

I wouldn’t dare ruin the show by trying to retell it here. I will only describe the moment of the night that summed it all up for me. With Hedwig’s tale told and her final strains of music winding down, she asks the audience to put their hands in the air. Her song was one for anyone who had ever felt alone, had ever hoped for love, had ever sought completeness. Around me every single audience member put their hand in the air. I looked over at my mom; both of our hands were extended high and waving with the crowd of others.

Thank you, Hedwig.

Hedwig past and present

Mathew Tyler as HedwigWow does time fly.  I can’t believe it is already June and Summer is almost here.  What is even more amazing is that we are about to start our 7th Season.  When Sean and I started Cygnet, I never realized that it would put my life on the fast track and the years would start to fly by.   It’s been so much work and fun.  Nevertheless, I don’t think I would change a thing that we did.  The mistakes we made were as valuable as the great successes we had.

The first production we did was Hedwig and the Angry Inch.   It seemed like the perfect first production for us, it was obnoxious and loud with great music and would make a statement but also, we hoped, attract the kind of cult audience that The Rocky Horror Show enjoyed.  It seemed to work, we received a lot of attention and the production was very well received.  We were on our way.

It seems like yesterday when we built the Rolando space and put on that first production.  Now this Saturday we will be opening our last production at the Rolando space.  The last production will once again be Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  It seemed like the right choice for us.  It’s really a fun show, a little twisted, and music is just wonderful.

I think  Sean would agree that this a bittersweet time for us.  We put so much of ourselves into the Rolando theatre and will definitely miss that great space but in life the time comes when you need to move on.  Hedwig was a great start for us and I can’t think of a better swan song for the Rolando space.

Announcing our 2009/2010 Season

Bill and I are really excited to be able to finally announce the slate of plays selected for our 2009/2010 Season.  It takes a very long time to assemble a good variety of stories that we think fit our mission and that you might want to see and we think we might just have done it! Our seventh season is a line up of productions celebrating an eclectic series about strong individuals in extreme situations. With the exception of a revival musical which will play at Rolando, the entire season will be presented at our new home, the recently renovated Old Town Theatre. Therefore, we are saying a sad goodbye to the Rolando Theatre we have called home since 2003.

Our ‘swan song’ at the Rolando Theatre will brings the return of the show that started it all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with book and lyrics by John Cameron Mitchell and music by Stephen Trask.  Hedwig announced our beginnings as a company and after 40 shows, she’s bringing us full circle in our Rolando space! The story of a wannabe rock headliner and her search for identity, love and her “other half” will be directed by James Vasquez and feature Jenn Grinels as Yitzhak.  Filled with comedy, camp and serious rock and roll, Hedwig will touch your heart and ears!

The 09/10 season officially begins with the wildly funny Noises Off, by Michael Frayn (Copenhagen).  I am already working on the casting for this Tony-Award winning play about a motley and disorganized theatre company attempting, against all odds, to rehearse and perform their own production of a slamming-door farce called Nothing On.

In September, we will present the San Diego Premiere of Man from Nebraska by Tony-Award and Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Bug).  It’s the tale of an ordinary middle-aged man on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery.  The production will be helmed by Associate Artistic Director Francis Gercke (Mauritius, Curse of the Starving Class).

For the holidays we bring the return of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry.  Our audiences demanded that this show return and we listened!  As one subscriber noted: “There are several Scrooge’s in San Diego, but only one George Bailey!”  Tom Andrew returns with his award-winning performance as George Bailey, and the brilliant Scott Paulson will once again reign over Bedford Falls with his old-fashioned Foley sound effects ‘orchestra’.  This year the cast of the fictitious “WCYG Theatre of the Air” will take over the Old Town stage as they recreate the classic story in a “live” 1940’s radio broadcast filled with music and the beloved characters from the film.  In it’s fourth year, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is quickly becoming a San Diego tradition.

2010 will kick off with The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (Fences). We are bringing back several of the artists that made our production of Fences so amazing and powerful. The Piano Lesson will be directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (San Diego Critic’s Circle Award Best Director for Fences) and star Mark Christopher Lawrence from NBC’s “Chuck” and our very own Fences, Monique Gaffney (San Diego Critic’s Circle Award Lead Actor, Yellowman) and Antonio TJ Johnson (San Diego Critic’s Circle Award Lead Actor, Fences). August Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson, his fifth play in the “Pittsburgh Cycle”.  The story of a brother and sister in a war over the fate of a family heirloom, a unique, one-of-a-kind piano carved with the images of the history of their family.  It’s a spiritual, funny, moving and beautiful story of family, ambition, and tradition. 

The Piano Lesson will be followed in the spring by a musical.  I’m still working on rights and availability, but I do have my sights set on a couple of different shows, and any way you slice it, either of them will surely delight fans of musical theatre.

We wrap up the season with the classic comedy of style, Private Lives by Noël Coward.  Still considered one of the most flippant and witty plays ever written. I plan on being in this production, playing Elyot Chase and look forward to diving into the elegant Coward world of moonlit balconies over bone-dry martinis. Private Lives will be directed by James Vasquez, who choreographed A Little Night Music.

It will be a fun and interesting year, that’s for sure. I’m really looking forward to it.

Moving forward…

We have announced that Cygnet Theatre will be producing a revival of our very first production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Rolando Theatre this spring. When we first put hammer to drywall and carved out the Rolando Theatre from the Actor’s Asylum in 2003, Hedwig was our leading lady. Well, lady of sorts. There we were in our brand new space with the paint fumes still in the lobby having just put the finishing touches on the walls and trim as the doors opened for our premiere show, a glam rock and roll musical about the heart break and joy of the lead singer of the Angry Inch, Fraulein Hedwig.

Basically, no one had heard of us, how could they have? We had not done ANYTHING yet! We were tucked in a corner of the Aztec Village Mall in Rolando, near SDSU. Who would FIND us? But the power of Hedwig brought people to us and set us off on our Cygnet-y journey. The show ran for twelve weeks! Hed-Heads flocked to the theatre and we loved them for it.

We’ve expanded a little since that summer of 2003! And we find ourselves wanting to grow into the kind of theatre that can support two spaces filled with challenging, entertaining and memorable productions. We have moved into our new home at the Old Town Theatre and have begun producing theater in that space and loving the larger range of opportunities for us and for our patron’s enjoyment there. We are finishing up this current season with overlapping productions of The History Boys, MauritiusBed and Sofa and, now we are adding Miss Hedwig and her Angry Inch. Performances for Hedwig and the Angry Inch are June 4 through August 9, 2009.

What we couldn’t have prepared for in all of our dreaming and planning was this dark looming cloud over the economy. It is just not a wise time to be thinking about growing.  We have made the difficult decision to make Hedwig will be the final Cygnet production in the Rolando Theatre. We won’t be renewing our lease on the Rolando Theatre when it expires.

The Rolando Theatre has proven to be a wonderful venue for intimate and exciting theatre and we are so proud of what was created there. And so happy to have brought theatre to the Rolando community and its neighbors, so it makes us sad to end our tenancy in the space.

To continue to produce seasons at both the Old Town Theatre and the Rolando Theatre, we had anticipated increasing the staff to facilitate the new direction we wanted to go in. But, this is a challenging economic environment that we, and arts organizations across the city and nation, are currently facing and we want to survive it by making choices that simplify and reduce our costs before it is a problem, not when it becomes a problem. So, we have decided that, for the time being, the most prudent and financially responsible option would be to concentrate our resources at our new larger venue in Old Town and put off our goal to grow until things settle down a bit.

We have spent so much time creating an exciting theatre space in Rolando, that it’s very important to us that the theatre be passed onto another company that will fulfill the theatre’s potential. The Rolando theatre and neighborhood has been very good to us, and we want to be sure that good theatre is continues to be created there. We have been talking with an arts organization about that opportunity. We’ll post you on the progress!