Backstage Blog

Behind-the-Scenes of A Christmas Carol

For every production at Cygnet Theatre, we hold special Designer Forums that take our patrons behind-the-scenes with the creative team.  Listen to the director of each show talk about how they prepare for a show, and get a glimpse into the process of set design, costumes, sound, & lighting.  Check out our latest forum for A Christmas Carol.

Want to attend the next one?  Make sure you’re on our e-blast list to get invitations and reminders.

Director’s Insight: 

Creating the Characters: Costumes & Wigs

The Stage: Set Design

Creative Puppetry

The Magic of Mixing Live & Recorded Sound Effects

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

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.

Happiness, Defined.

Greg Watanabe & Jo Anne Glover in Maple and Vine. Photo by Daren Scott

Greg Watanabe & Jo Anne Glover in Maple and Vine. Photo by Daren Scott

One of the joys of being a dramaturg is the simple task of discussing the core of whatever script you happen to be working on with anyone and everyone who is willing to engage you in conversation.  A few weeks ago I had the privilege of talking with our teaching artist for Maple and Vine, Tim West, while he presented his lesson plans to me as part of our Engaging the Stage workshop series.  As a fellow passionate history buff and seasoned theatre artist, he and I delighted in geeking out over the many social issues threaded throughout the script.

In many ways, Maple and Vine is a dramaturg’s dream.  It is rich in historical content, touching on everything from the most popular car model in 1955 to gender roles and social attitudes towards various minority groups.  I got to look up the most popular ring tone in 2011, what Sanka was (or is, given that it is still currently sold in stores), and when spray paint was invented.  I had to research the history of the LGBT rights movement and post-WWII attitudes towards Japanese-Americans.  I learned that the year Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama was the same year the McDonalds Corporation was founded, two dogs slurped a spaghetti noodle and ended up smooching, and the happiest place on earth opened for business.

Now as much as I enjoyed this work, deep down I knew… that’s not what this play is about.  Not REALLY.  It’s all essential information for making sense of the world in which this story takes place, sure.  And one of the key functions of a dramaturg is ensuring the accuracy and dependability of the world in which the characters exist.  But is the play about glamorizing the role of the 1950’s housewife over the 21st century powerhouse corporate woman?  Is it about the wrongful treatment of Japanese-Americans during and after WWII, or the struggles of being a homosexual man during a time when loving someone of the same sex was widely considered a psychological disease?  No.  At least not in my opinion.

What is happiness and how do you define it?  What would you sacrifice for happiness?  What does it mean to live life authentically?  These are the questions at the heart of Jordan Harrison’s thought-provoking play.  Maple and Vine strategically presents the downfalls of 21st century living right alongside the positives of life in 1955, forcing us to question whether or not we really are happier in this age of progressiveness and convenience.  And as our director, Igor Goldin, states in his program notes, “Everyone will have their own opinion which will be informed by their own histories, but with every answer will come a contradiction… As in life, nothing is black and white.  Life is messy and untidy.  There are no easy answers, nor does Mr. Harrison try to create any.  He just presents the hypothetical and leaves the rest for us to debate.”

So won’t you join us on Sunday, February 9th after the 7:00pm performance of Maple and Vine for what is sure to be an engaging talkback on the matter of happiness?  We are pleased to welcome back Dr. Edith Frampton, professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.  Joining her in leading the talk will be SDSU colleague Dr. Peter Herman. You can purchase tickets here.  See you there!

Bringing back the 50s with director Igor Goldin

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, last month we were able to Skype with Maple and Vine director Igor Goldin from his New York apartment where he was working on a new musical. He provided some very interesting insights about the process of bringing the new comedy to the Cygnet Theatre stage. Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison, runs January 16 through February 16.

CT: This is your first time directing at Cygnet Theatre. How did you get connected?


Igor Goldin and Sean Murray

I was in San Diego directing for Diversionary Theatre and had a chance to see several productions and fell in love with Cygnet. I saw Cabaret and It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play and loved the creativity and specificity in which they were performed and directed.  I also had seen a Caryl Churchill play produced years ago at the Rolando Stage, A Number, and was extremely impressed with the texture and gray areas in the piece and how it didn’t spoon feed the audience, but trusted them to come up with their own answers. Sean [Murray] and I went to North Carolina School of the Arts together. He saw my production of Yank! and thought of me when they put Maple and Vine on the season. We had both wanted to work with each other for some time so I’m thrilled that it worked out with Maple and Vine.

CT: Maple and Vine is about a modern day couple who choose to leave the big city and move to a gated community where the residents live like it’s 1955. How will you present these opposing settings?

Set Model by Sean Fanning

Set Model by Sean Fanning

I’ve been skyping with set director Sean Fanning and we are both excited about the addition of a turntable to the Cygnet stage. The structure of the play is very episodic with short scenes involving quick scenic, costume and lighting changes.  The turntable provides an opportunity to shift eras and locations quickly and keep the show fluid. It’s a dark comedy that deals with important social issues and I’m certain audiences will debate them after the show, but during the performance, it’s important to keep things moving, with each scene flowing seamlessly into the next.

CT: What about the look and feel? How are you working with designers to create both eras?

We are limited by the resources and economy of a nonprofit theater, but that is a challenge I rather enjoy. I’d much rather solve problems creatively within constraints than have a bloated budget and throw everything at the audience. We’ll be working with simple iconic set pieces that are clearly grounded in the era they represent. In fact, the concept of limited resources is one that resonates within the play because going back to the 50s means we don’t have everything at our fingertips as we do today


Preliminary costume design by Jeanne Reith

I’m also working with costume designer Jeanne Reith to capture the quality and specificity of each era. The 1950’s Ozzie and Harriet/Leave it to Beaver look has a warm and cozy feel, while the urban sleek style of today’s New York has a totally different feel. We’ll also be working with a variety of rigging solutions for quick changes. The lighting and scenery will define the 2 eras with a sleek, angular, urban starkness for 2011 to a saturated, warmer and softer look for 1955.

CT: The comedy looks at attitudes about gender, race and sexuality. What is it “really” about for you?

It’s a light but penetrating comedy that explores what happens when we are stripped of the liberties of this world and forced to live within the narrow social structure of 1955. In the 50s there is a veneer of contentment that cloaks what’s lurking underneath. It’s about what we are hoping to reclaim within ourselves by living in a world with less freedom and equality, what we are willing to walk away from and what we lose and gain through the process. It about what it means to live your life authentically.

CT: What would you miss most if you had to return to the 1950?

My freedom as a gay man.

CT: What would you miss the least?

The constant bombardment of information and the false sense of connectivity and accessibility that we get with our hand held devices and social media.