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Director Insight: Jennifer L. Nelson

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Director Insight: Jennifer L. Nelson

Our August Wilson plays, Seven Guitars & King Hedley II, began rehearsal in this month.  Director Jennifer L. Nelson answered a few questions about August Wilson’s work and why these two plays performed in rep are so unique.  Performances begin September 28th, 2016!

Jennifer L. Nelson   Photo by Fern Seiden.
Jennifer L. Nelson
Photo by Fern Seiden

What draws you to August Wilson’s work and is there any specific way you will approach these plays? How do you feel these two works intersect and relate to each other?  Wilson exploded onto the scene bringing a fresh theatrical lens through which to view the portrayal os the African American experience. Particularly his portrayals of African American men provided a fresh 360 degree perspective on the inner lives of characters we may only have seen in lesser light. He gave us not only their humor and frustration but also the yearning, caring, humor and poetic pathos we might have only seen under lesser light—if at all. Because of the range of his characters, his plays expanded the range of audiences–particularly drawing more African Americans to the theatre, a feat which in itself was worthy of major note.

The two plays in the Cygnet rep are joined through a unique view of two generations of the same family. Although all but one of his plays take place in the same neighborhood, none of the others incorporate characters who have appeared in another play (though some are mentioned but not seen). It’s an exciting challenge to think of how to mine the context for familial continuity.

How do you feel about directing a Rep? What are the challenges & opportunities? I’ve not done a Rep like this before but the challenge is attractive and daunting. Somewhere I picked up this saying: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” I feel secure enough in my work up to now to look forward to stepping into a new-ish way of working. One reassuring factor is that Wilson’s métier provides enough structure and shape to provide a solid base.

What did you look for in actors?  I particularly looked for actors with enough readily available experience and versatility to be adept at changing roles. Much of my early career experience was in performing and teaching improvisational theatre so I will bring some of that into the rehearsal process to help everyone become comfortable with the process. The cast is not only talented and delightful to work with and I am confident they will be a joy for audiences to see!

Learn more about SEVEN GUITARS & KING HEDLEY II here. Then book your tickets!

Hedley Guitars image


Season 14 Announced!

From classic musicals to shocking contemporary works, Season 2016-17 promises to be a true “Cygnet” Season

Every season must reflect the mission of the company and for the past 13 years, Artistic Director Sean Murray has crafted uniquely Cygnet seasons that reflect the commitment to “startle the soul, embrace diversity and ignite debate.” This year is no exception. The seven productions in Season 14 range from the traditional to the avant- garde and include two musical theatre classics, a two-show repertory by a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, the return of a holiday favorite and two contemporary works sure to shock and amaze.

“I’m really proud of the diversity and quality of this season,” says Murray. “Leave it to us to go from a stripper, to an ex-con, to one naughty little boy in just one season. That’s exciting. That’s Cygnet!”

SEASON XIV: 2016-2017
List of Plays

July 14th – Sept 4th
Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Directed by Sean Murray
Choreography by David Brannen
Music Direction by Terry O’Donnell

Indomitable stage mother Rose chases vicarious success and stardom as she pushes her daughters through the vaudeville circuit. When Dainty June flees the act to elope, Rose vows to make introverted Louise into a star. Boasting one show-stopping song after another—like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Let Me Entertain You”—this classic musical was inspired by the memoirs of the legendary burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. Featuring Linda Libby as Mama Rose, Allison Spratt Pearce as Louise, Katie Whalley-Banville as Dainty June, and Manny Fernandes as Herbie.

“The quintessential American musical” – Hollywood Reporter

Gypsy cast members: Manny Fernandes, Allison Spratt-Pearce, Linda Libby, Katie Whalley-Banville
Gypsy cast members: Manny Fernandes, Allison Spratt-Pearce, Linda Libby, Katie Whalley-Banville

Sept 28th – Nov 6th
By August Wilson
San Diego Premiere

In the backyard of a Pittsburgh tenement in 1948, friends gather to mourn for a blues guitarist and singer who died just as his career was on the verge of taking off. The action that follows is a flashback to the busy week leading up to Floyd’s sudden and unnatural death. Seven Guitars is part bawdy comedy, part dark elegy and part mystery. This lyrical play is the sixth in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle which charts the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century and is performed in rep with King Hedley II.

“Rich, music-drenched drama” – New York Times

Sep. 29th
– Nov. 6th
By August Wilson
San Diego Premiere

King Hedley II shares the story of King –a man recently released from prison, attempting to rebuild his 
life amid changing times and a backdrop of the crime and drug struggles in the community he exists in. King dreams of a life 
of stability and self-reliance beyond incarceration, gangs and broken family. The play dares to ask what it takes to transcend 
the limitations of life and personal circumstance, and if pure will is enough to change a man’s destiny. King Hedley II is the eighth play in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle that, decade by decade, examines African American life in the United States during the twentieth century.

“Mesmerizing…. Full of powerful images that convey the darkly comic dialogue between hope and hopelessness in African American life.” – N.Y. Daily News

Nov 22nd – Dec 24th
Adaptation & Lyrics by Sean Murray
Original Score by Billy Thompson
Directed by Sean Murray
Musical Direction by Patrick Marion

Cygnet Theatre invites you to start your own family tradition with one of ours. This season welcomes the return of the holiday classic adapted from Charles Dickens’ timeless tale of hope and redemption. This re-imagined, fully staged production features original new music, creative stagecraft and puppetry, and live sound effects. Step into a Victorian Christmas card for a unique storytelling experience that is sure to delight the entire family!

“Critics Pick” in 2014 – San Diego Union Tribune

A Christmas Carol (2015)
A Christmas Carol (2015)

Jan 12th – Feb 12th
By Joshua Harmon
Directed by Rob Lutfy
San Diego Premiere

The night after their grandfather’s funeral, three cousins engage in a verbal battle royale over a family heirloom. In one corner is the unstoppable and self-assured force of “Super Jew” Daphna. In the other, the immovable and entitled object of her secular cousin Liam. And in the middle is Liam’s brother Jonah, trying to stay out of the fray. Bad Jews is a savage comedy about family, faith, and legacy.

“The funniest play of the year.”-The Washington Post
“Delectably savage humor” – The New York Times

March 9th – April 30th
San Diego Premiere
Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Music by Cy Coleman
Directed by Sean Murray

Its nonstop laughs aboard the Twentieth Century, a luxury train traveling from Chicago to New York City. Luck, love and mischief collide when the bankrupt theater producer Oscar Jaffee embarks on a madcap mission to cajole glamorous Hollywood starlet Lily Garland into playing the lead in his new, non-existent epic drama. But is the train ride long enough to reignite the spark between these former lovers, create a play from scratch, and find the money to get it all the way to Broadway? Featuring Eileen Bowman as Lily Garland and Melinda Gilb as Letitia Primrose.

“Old-fashioned musical comedy magic”– USA Today
“The show is a nonstop delight.” – The New York Post

On the Twentieth Century cast members: Melinda Gilb & Eileen Bowmann
On the Twentieth Century cast members: Melinda Gilb & Eileen Bowmann

May 18th – June 18th
West Coast Regional Premiere
Music by Adrian Huge, Martyn Jacques, Adrian Stout
Lyrics by Martyn Jacques
Book by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffen
Based on Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann
Directed by Rob Lutfy

Fall into the world of Victorian Steam-punk nightmares as a manic music-box spins stories of naughty children and misguided parents. Silly and sinister, Shockheaded Peter dares us to ask what’s beneath the floorboards. Don’t miss the most damning tale ever told on stage!

“A vile and repulsive story told by reprehensible characters in a thoroughly degenerate fashion – Absolute Bliss” – David Bowie
“A wryly seedy cabaret-punk musical” -Variety

 Come join us for this wild ride! Tickets and new subscriptions will be available for purchase on March 1st.  

The Drama-WHAT?

My name is Taylor, and I am a theatre junkie.  The only thing I find more enjoyable than writing an analysis of some theatre history topic or performance theory concept, is doing the countless hours of research beforehand.  I plan on being a student for the rest of my life while constantly searching for jobs that will pay me to sit and compile massive heaps of research related to absurdly specific topics.  You can only imagine my enthusiasm when I was finally enlightened to the fact that there is actually a specific role in a theatre’s production team responsible for these very duties: the dramaturg.

A drama-what?  (Don’t worry, I had the same reaction the first time I heard the word as well, and it took some serious focus to teach my brain to consistently pronounce it properly.)  If you look up dramaturgy on Wikipedia or the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) website optimized by the best seo company online, you will learn that a dramaturg is a sort of historian/researcher who helps all those involved with a production, from the creative ensemble to the audience, understand the greater context in which a performance occurs.  Therefore, you might say one of my jobs as dramaturg for Cygnet’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is to figure out how best to explain why we’re producing it in the first place.

When I asked Cygnet Theatre’s Artistic Director Sean Murray this very question, he responded with, “Gem is about owning one’s destiny, accepting responsibility for the world in which they find themselves, facing one’s self on a deep level to forgive in order to move on, and connecting with one’s past as a means of building the present towards the future that provides.”  My knee-jerk-reaction to this sounded something like, “Great, thanks!” as I silently wondered how this abstract idea was an answer to WHY we’re producing it.

Then I came across this great article inspired by remarks from Howard Shalwitz, the Artistic Director at Wolly Mammoth Theatre Company.  The article shares Shalwitz’s reasons as to why exactly theatre makes us better, and upon reaching reason number seven, something clicked in my head.  As he puts it, theatre “influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior.”  In retrospect, as I sit here typing this I can’t help but think, “well DUH, Taylor.  Sean couldn’t have been clearer.”

Despite the specificity of the play- its setting in Philadelphia, 1904 and the circumstances of the characters just after the emancipation proclamation- it maintains a universal theme that everyone can relate to.  Like Citizen Barlow and Solly Two Kings and countless other African Americans who changed their names to reflect their ownership of their new-found freedom, we are in charge of our own destiny.  By listening to different sides of the story, we empathize with the struggles of our fellow human beings (whatever their views may be), and are forced to reflect on our own behaviors and beliefs.  Thus, it’s not just the characters in Gem who are owning their own destinies; it’s the audience members, too. And that, my friends, is why I’m a theatre junkie/dramaturg.

Taylor Wycoff
Dramaturg, Gem of the Ocean

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.