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.

Revisiting “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”

Veronica Murphy and Tom Andrew

Veronica Murphy and Tom Andrew. Photo by Randy Rovang

Our theatre is presenting a 1940′s radio version of the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. We all know the movie. I remember the first time I saw the movie. In the olden days, before you could buy the video or dvd or see a movie on television, one of the ways to see an old classic was to catch it at a movie theatre that showed revivals. In San Diego when I was a kid, this theatre was the Ken Cinema in Kensington.

I was a freshman at San Diego State University at the time, and my best friend, Russell and I decided to go see It’s A Wonderful Life at Christmas time. Neither of us had actually heard of it before, believe it or not. This was well before the Wonderful Life TV blitz when you could not turn on the TV without seeing it on every channel. So, for me and Russell, this was a new movie.

Here’s what I remember: being so totally swept up in the film and all of those beautiful citizens of Bedford Falls that I actually forgot I was at a theatre watching a movie. The people around me disappeared. Russell disappeared. My popcorn disappeared. We had no idea that there was going to be an angel or the redemption of the average man. The existential journey of George Bailey took me totally by surprise. By the time the friends came pouring in at the end of the movie, I was as wrecked as I had ever been. Total tears. No, not tears. Sobs. Aching, side holding sobbing. The theatre’s house lights came up and I was jolted back to my own reality: I was not there in the Bailey living room celebrating life and family, but sitting in one of the Ken’s then-famously uncomfortable seats, sobbing and gulping and blinking tears out my dazed eyes. Okay, I was eighteen. I hadn’t had a lot of experiences yet. It’s kind of sweet in retrospect.

I turned around realizing where I was, and Russell, who was sitting next to me was far worse than me! Whereas I had started to come back to earth, he was inconsolable. He couldn’t get up. He was crying to hard, that we had to wait until the theatre emptied before we could leave. Only now, we are laughing through our crying because we begin to realize that it was, after all, just a movie, you know?

I STILL cry at that movie. The tears seem to come at different things as I get older and life’s journey becomes more clear, if it ever actually does become clear. I’ll let you know when I get closer towards the curtain call.

In the meantime, the story stirs up thoughts about life choices, career paths, how the smallest connection can be a turning point without your even knowing it. It raises questions about whether we’re all following a predestined path, or wandering alone blindly forward. Are all of those small turning points lined up for us in advance, or do we alter the predestined path every time we make a choice between two things? Are there infinite predetermined life paths, each completely valid? Or ultimately one life journey with all of our “choices” already made for us?

As long as we recognize the value of each person in our life and their contribution to shaping what we are, we also have to recognize our power over other people’s lives and how our contacts, no matter how small, can change their lives too. All of this is karmic, isn’t it? It’s A Wonderful Life celebrates how interconnected we are all, and that we are truly not alone in this world. We are surrounded by what we create, we ARE what we create, so create something you can be proud of!

I didn’t mean to get so… blah blah blah with this. I was going to write about working on the story as a play and working with wonderful actors to get all of these feelings to happen live on stage. But it brings out the romantic in me.

I love to watch the actors take the journey every time they do it. I never tire of the show. It starts as such a sweet show with its soda fountains, snow sledding, and dreamers. The darker questions in the story seems to come up from behind us while we’re not looking and without realizing it we are suddenly addressing the horrifying notion of non-existence: To be a complete void. No mother. No family. No identity. Nothing.

Tom Andrew, who has played George since our first production, takes this journey with his whole body and soul every night! I admire him so much for the depth of emotion that he shares in telling George Bailey’s story. And all of the other actors in the company, Jonathan Dun-Rankin, Veronica Murphy, Tim West, David McBean, Melissa Fernandes and Amanda Sitton bring each and every one of these rich characters to life as if they were a company of thirty. With the live sound effects provided by Scott Paulson and musical direction and accompaniment by Amy Dalton, this show has become very special to us and to our audience.

It’s A Wonderful Life is such a beautiful story to touch base with every year. It’s a great reminder for us to keep in mind that every tiny choice we make or contact we have with another human has giant consequences for us all. We are all interconnected. It is a wonderful life.

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.