Backstage Blog

My First Tangerine

We asked cast members of A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play to share some of their favorite holiday memories with us.  This first one comes from our “radio host,” Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, who is appearing as Freddie Filmore in our annual Holiday Radio Play for the 7th consecutive season. Enjoy.


“When I was six year old and my brothers were seven and nine we were staying with our paternal grandparents on Long Island while our mother and father were establishing a new life for us in Florida. It was 1936 and the Great Depression was still in full swing. On Christmas morning we three boys found at the bottom of our Christmas stocking hung on the mantel what seemed to our eyes a gigantic tangerine. It was so sweet, so succulent, so easily peeled, so enchanting. For more than 75 years I have been trying to approximate that singular experience of my first tangerine. And clementines come pretty darn close! A few days later our grandmother took us into Manhattan and put us on a train for Miami and we celebrated New Year’s Day in our new home.”
– Jonathan Dunn-Rankin

What the Dickens?

charlesdickensThis holiday season, Cygnet Theatre is excited to bring back our live radio version of A Christmas Carol. We’ve been doing a bit of research on famed British writer Charles Dickens, author of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities and of course, A Christmas Carol and what we found was pretty interesting.


Tom Stephenson as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Photo by Daren Scott.

Despite being one of the very first-ever literary superstars, most people don’t know many details of  his life.  For example, you may be aware that Dickens grew up poor, but did you know that he was mostly self taught?  After his father was jailed for having “bad debts,” Dickens was forced to leave school and start work in a blacking factory (a boot polish factory).  What about the fact that he knew shorthand?  Indeed, his first business card, which he got made at some point between 17 & 19, had his occupation listed as “Short Hand Writer.”


The cast of A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play.
Photo by Daren Scott

Dickens also suffered, at least in childhood, from epilepsy.  Having described three of his characters as having epileptic seizures, or ‘The Falling Sickness’ (Edward Leeford in Oliver Twist, a headmaster in Our Mutual Friend, and Guster in Bleak House), modern doctors find his descriptions of the disease remarkably accurate for a period when little was known about it.  He probably had OCD as well, and reportedly had a habit of rearranging furniture whenever he stayed in a hotel room having to sleep with his head pointing north, and would inspect his children’s bedrooms every morning, leaving behind notes when he was not satisfied with their tidiness.  And those notes were more often than not addressed to “Chickenstalker,” “Skittles,” “Plorn,” or one of the other many nicknames he had for each of his 10 children.

To learn more about this intriguing author, join us on December 8th after the 7:00pm performance of A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play for a talkback with Dickensian expert Dr. Edith Frampton, professor of Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.  Hope to see you there!

More Split Personalities with Maggie Carney

Maggie Carney in The Importance of Being Earnest (left) and Travesties (right)

Maggie Carney in The Importance of Being Earnest (left) and Travesties (right). Photos courtesy of Ken Jacques.

This week we sit down with another actor to talk about her roles in The Importance of Being Earnest and Travesties.

Who are you playing in both shows?  What are their similarities, and what are their differences?
I play Miss Prism in Earnest. Prism is Cecily’s governess and companion… she also harbors a deep dark secret.  In Travesties I play Nadya, a Russian revolutionary and the wife of Lenin. Nadya came from an upper-class but impoverished home, Prism is middle working class. Nadya and Prism are approximately the same age. Prism has a streak of Socialism and an interest in “causes” compared to the committed Marxism of Nadya, though they are both very passionate about their beliefs on all subjects.  They are approximately the same age.  Nadya is taller and slimmer than Prism and less fussy. Prism has accessories and tchotchkes that Nadya would never have. And finally, Nadya speaks with a slight Russian accent and Prism is British through and through. These are just some of the similarities and differences.

What is the funnest part(s) of playing multiply characters in Rep?
I love playing multiple characters in any situation, and in rep it’s even more fun. I get to play with the same creative team in 2 different plays!  We know each other very well, after rehearsing since the end of July. The real challenge will be remembering what show I’m doing on a given night.  I’ve done rep before and there’s nothing like getting dressed for Lady Percy in Henry 4, Part One and realizing at 15 minutes to the top of show I should be in Calphurnia for Julius Caesar! I’ve never gotten undressed and dressed faster in my life.

What are some of the challenges you are facing?
As a supporting actor in both shows, my greatest challenge is to keep my energy level up for my entrances. I must be fully present when I hit the stage to meet the energy level of my scene partners and increase the level with my presence and new information. I fill my down time backstage with crossword puzzles, crocheting and chatting with the other actors who are offstage. And Facebook, too!

If you are able to see both shows, I would highly recommend seeing Earnest first…there are so many echoes in Travesties it is fun to find them after seeing Earnest. Of course, these are stand-alone plays, so however it fits with your schedule, come and see us!

Split Personalities with Jordan Miller

Cygnet’s current production is not one, but two plays, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and Travesties by Tom Stoppard, performed in rep by the same company of actors.  We sat down with Jordan Miller to learn a little about performing in these two classic comedies.


Jordan Miller in The Importance of Being Earnest (left) and Travesties (right). Photos courtesy of Ken Jacques.

Who are you playing in both shows?  What are their similarities, and what are their differences?  
I’m playing “Algernon” in The Importance of Being Earnest, and “Henry Carr” in Travesties. The character of “Henry Carr” is inspired from the real life Henry Carr who fought in WWI and who played “Algernon” in a production of Earnest that was produced by James Joyce. The duality of the role in the play is taken from this real-life experience and forms the basis for the nods to The Importance of Being Earnest by Tom Stoppard.  Both characters exemplify the “dandy” and boast very elevated and witty language, but “Algernon” is everything “Carr” wishes he was! While “Algernon” is always debonair and relaxed, “Carr” is self important and haughty, “Algernon” always wins in the end, and “Carr” is always left holding the bag. “Algernon’s” opinions and platitudes are always lighthearted but true, and “Carr’s” are always deeply passionate but often one-sided and flawed.

What is the funnest part(s) of playing multiply characters in Rep?  
I don’t know if “funny” is how I would describe it but something that has been a delightful frustration for everyone is when the dialogue from one show creeps into the other, especially when the lines are so similar!  And what is a great reveal in one show is played upon in the other, often with the substitution of a single word, and when in the moment you forget which show and line it is, it can make for some panic moments inside your head and for your scene partners!

What are some of the challenges you are facing?
With “Algernon” the biggest challenge (as Sean warned!) is constantly eating all the cucumber sandwiches and muffins and still speaking your lines eloquently!  The text of both plays is a huge part of what makes them so wonderful; however, the language in both, once it finally gets into your memory, has a tendency to run away with you because it is so musically structured, and while it may be fun for the actor to rip through the dialogue it can become far too fast and clipped to be comfortably followed. With “Henry Carr,” he is more demanding because in addition to his substantial and complex “Old Carr” stream of consciousness memory monologues (Stoppard’s nod to “Ulysses”), he has several heated and impassioned scenes which can, like the dialogue, engulf you in the emotion and suddenly the scene becomes too heated and real and loses its comedic elements.  Both characters are delightful to play, and tackling both at once has been an artistically rewarding challenge!

Are their any Rules of Etiquette from the era of Earnest that you wish were still around today?
I think basic rules of etiquette and manners are things which could stand to be reinforced today!  Oh, and modern fashion could take some lessons as well.

Behind the Scenes with George Yé


George Ye

Katie Harroff sat down with director George Yé to talk about the his experience working on Shakespeare’s R&J.

What is your history with Cygnet Theatre? 

I’ve been working with Cygnet ever since 2004, I think, way back when Sean and Bill opened the space in Rolando.  I designed sound for a number of shows, directed a production of Copenhagen in 2006, and other staged readings.  In 2005, I produced and directed an independent project in the Cygnet Theatre space called   . . .and then he met a woodcutter.  Around that time I was asked to join Cygnet as an Associate Artistic Director.  It was an honor I could not pass up.  I continued to design, and work on various productions, and helped develop the sound system for the Old Town Theatre.  Some years back we produced Escanaba in da Moonlight; for which I won a Craig Noel Award for sound design.  I’m deeply committed to the continued growth and development of the company and humbled and overjoyed to participate artistically as well on R&J.

What drew you to R&J

I love working on Shakespeare. Though I don’t get to do it very often, I actually have some intensive training.  Working on this production afforded me the chance get my feet wet with some classic text while at the same time working in a contemporary way.  It tells a coming-of-age story fueled with teenage angst, hormones, sensations of first love, and lust.   It’s gritty.  I like how Calarco’s interpretation of the original text and the students’ story align perfectly and call on the audience to experience the play through a new optic making it seem quite fresh.  I was attracted to the potential the play has to challenge and reveal assumptions people have about gender, identity, and also how we can and should interpret and stage classic texts in 2013.  I also was very excited to work with some of the great designers who usually work with Cygnet.

What was the hardest part about staging this piece? 

The end.  The actors and myself deliberated on the ending a number of times.  I suspect years from now, I’ll be sitting in a café with a friend and will yell out of nowhere, “Ah!  That’s it!  That’s what we should have done for the ending!”  I waited till very late to set the ending of the play.  I knew it was a sacred moment for the cast, and I didn’t want to shut down the creative process too early, yet at the same time, everyone was looking for the right way to end the play.  I had to wait and see a few run-throughs with the cast fully committed to each moment before I could start to feel comfortable with a plausible ending.

Why should people come see this show?

It celebrates the medium of theatre on so many levels.  The play calls on the audience to use their imagination.  Peter Herman the costume designer found us a sturdy bolt of red silk that weaves it’s way through all the action of the play.  This elegant prop transforms into many items that help tell the story; vial of poison, rapiers for fight scenes; a knife, a turban, and many more.  It really has turned out to be the fifth performer on stage.  It’s miraculous to see how the actors use it.  It’s a great play for the thrust space in the Old Town Theatre, and it addresses contemporary issues of censorship, oppression of youth, filial love and friendship, the power of first love.  It’s something not to be missed.

Meet Braxton Molinaro


Braxton Molinaro as John Wilkes Booth

Katie Harroff sat down with Braxton Molinaro, who is currently playing John Wilkes Booth in ASSASSINS at Cygnet Theatre. Braxton went to school in North Carolina and currently lives in New York.

Hi Braxton, Welcome to San Diego!  How are you enjoying working with Cygnet Theatre?  How did you become connected to us? 

Oh man, Cygnet Theatre is an absolutely stellar company.  They are as pro as it gets.  I believe the designers, the cast, and all of the work that has gone into Assassins is inspiring.  The actors are remarkably talented!  Sean does such a great job casting unique people who bring a lot to the table.  You can’t overlook the weather out here too.  It’s pretty ideal to get notes in the sun.  I get to smell flowers and see palm trees.  San Diego has become an amazing retreat.

As far as how I became connected to the company- I was in a production of Oklahoma directed by Terrance Mann at my now alumni school: The North Carolina School for the Arts, where Sean Murray had also attended.  In the production I played Judd.  Sean came out to NC to see the show and we became friends.  When the season was announced at Cygnet I saw that they were doing Assassins so I reached out to Sean and asked if I could send him a tape and he said sure.  I was fortunate to get an offer!

Who are you playing, and what is your character like? 

I’m playing the infamous John Wilkes Booth- the very first presidential assassin.  Obviously he is deeply flawed, but he loves presentation.  Booth was the bastard son of a famous acting family.  He had a good career as an actor- sometimes 9 different pieces of material in a week.   He had a plethora of opportunities to get on the stage, and probably what would be considered a very admirable performance career to most people.  Comparatively, however, to other members of his family he was not successful.  This made him very desperate when he came into adulthood.  He wanted to live up to the fame his father had succeeded in achieving.  As far as motives to killing Abraham Lincoln- Booth had strong ties to the south, and had slaves.  He believed it was an important part of being an American.

As an actor, I’ve had to find empathy for a man that is truly full of hate.  While very challenging, finding the theatricality in that has been fun.  Booth has this daring, unapologetic outward buffoonism to him.

Why should people come see this production of Assassins?

I’m biased because I’m so happy to be here.  But I can’t say enough about the importance of this piece.  I believe Assassins is such an important play to be performed right now.  It will inspire theatre goers to have a conversation- which is what theatre is about.  This play gives us the opportunity as a society to look at the people that are causing a lot of turmoil in our country.  The message of Assassins is to listen.  The Assassins aren’t being heard and they think killing is the only way to make that happen.  I think that scary sentiment is shared with a lot of people that live in this country today, and we need to take a look at this.  We need to become aware of the possibilities of the things we don’t want to address.

I think a musical-format in expressing this idea is brilliant trickery that allows audiences to see this message while being wildly entertained.

Assassins runs through April 28th!

Playing a ‘pretty crazy guy’


Geno Carr as Charles Guiteau.
Photo by Rich Soublet II.

We recently sat down with Geno Carr, who is appearing in ASSASSINS at Cygnet Theatre, to get his impressions of the musical, his character and Stephen Sondheim…

Who are you playing and what is your character like?

I’m playing Charles Guiteau who assassinated President James Garfield.  In this piece Sondhiem wanted to explore who are these people, these “Assassins” and why they did what they did.  What drove them to this magnitude?  What motivates a person to assassinate one of the most powerful people in the world?  It’s been a great challenge to find empathy for this character, and try to make people feel something for this horrible person.

Charles had a very interesting life; he was a pretty crazy guy.  He believed that after he delivered a speech he had written in favor of Garfield during Garfield’s campaign for presidency, that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory. This wasn’t true; however Charles believed that he was entitled to things, like becoming the Ambassador of France, but obviously this didn’t happen.  And then Charles went crazy.  However, I can’t play him crazy- that’s not something an actor should do. It’s our responsibility to understand the mentality of our characters. I’ve been working on his eccentricities and finding out what makes him tick, which is a lot of fun as an actor.

What do you enjoy about Sondhiem what’s special about Assassins to you?

I was fortunate to perform in Cygnet’s production of Sweeney Todd two years ago, but also when I was in college, I directed Into the Woods - which was incredibly cool and really fueled my deep appreciation for him.  Somehow Sondheim is able to take subject matter that no one would ever imagine being a musical, and allow audiences to become invested.

His music is brilliantly difficult- it’s not something you might hum walking out of the theatre, but it’s so smart.  He writes his music to inspire the characters and the story.  Assassins is a musical about America- and so much ‘American’ music pops up throughout it.  John Phillip Souza, a 70’s pop ballad- he draws from American music throughout history, and turns it into a Sondhiem masterpiece.  Like the song ‘Another National Anthem’.  It’s indeed this rousing anthem, but with a twist.   There is this group of people in this country that have a different idea of what it means to be American.  Sondhiem takes something familiar, like a ballad or an anthem, and twists the knife- adding layers and all these intricate elements that tell a story.

It’s fun to sing, and fun to act- it’s music that’s ‘performable’.  His characters have thematic melodies that track throughout his productions. Sondheim does this throughout his work- he provides layers to a character, and that gives an actor and an audience a clear definition to the voice of these people.

Why do you think people shouldn’t miss this production?

I love working at Cygnet. Sean and his team take the work very seriously.  Sean approaches musicals as though they are plays with music. I think in some crowds, musicals get a bad rap that it’s not as fulfilling as say, a Checkov play- but Sean picks musical that are for actors.  Coming to a Cygnet musical means you’re not going to something fluffy.  You’re going to leave wanting to talk about it, you’re going to think of something differently- it will have an effect on you.

Sometimes theatre should be passive, but Assassins will make you think.

I think it will be a huge conversation starter.  This is a fascinating, interesting, fun night of theatre.  You will laugh, you’ll be shocked, and you may cry.  Assassins is one quality evening of theatre.

Cygnet’s Eleventh Season

CygLogo_10thAnn_4cHere we are, halfway through our tenth anniversary season, and we are already getting fired up about our next season. Artistic Director Sean Murray and Executive Director Bill Schmidt have assembled a package of plays and musicals for the 2013-2014 season that we feel just may be our most exciting yet. Cygnet’s eleventh season will feature seven productions including two plays performed in a rotating repertory, two musicals, two San Diego premieres and a holiday revival. “The scripts that we have assembled all went through the ‘is-this-exciting?’ filter!” says Murray. “We feel that we have put together a line-up that continues to serve our eclectic, artistic-whiplash tastes here at Cygnet. All of the stories in next season’s list concern relationships, love and the challenges of making personal connections.”

Ok we admit it.  We love Stephen Sondheim. A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and the upcoming Assassins.  Not to mention the concert readings we have done of A Little Night Music, Assassins (twice) and Passion.  To launch our next season we present Company, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth. The Tony Award-winning musical is an exploration of marriage and commitment.

In the fall, we offer up a creative treat for theatre-philes: two very different comedies, linked together through a playful twist, playing opposite each other in a rotating repertory: Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy, the delicious The Importance of Being Earnest and Tom Stoppard’s wilde [sic!] take on it, Travesties. Earnest, a comedy of mistaken identities and surprising twists, is a mash up of Downton Abbey style and Oscar Wilde’s wit. Paired with the vaudeville-style of ideas, wit, revolution, politics and history that is Travesties, both plays will be performed on alternating nights throughout the run.

It wouldn’t be the holidays at Cygnet without a 1940’s style live radio program.  This seven-year tradition continues with the return of the WCYG Playhouse of the Air production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, adapted by Sean Murray with an original score by Billy Thompson.

2014 kicks off with Southern California premiere! We have snagged the rights for Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine, a sensation last season Off-Broadway at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. This comedy focuses on a couple who have become allergic to their 21st century lives and decide to move into a closed-community of 1950s re-enactors who forsake their cellphones and sushi for poodle-skirts, milkmen and Tupperware parties. They are soon surprised by what their new neighbors––and themselves––are willing to sacrifice for happiness.

Cygnet loves to mount exciting musicals, and in the first local professional production, we bring Spring Awakening to the Old Town stage. The youth-inspired rock musical is an eight-time Tony Award-winner with an electrifying score by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater. The show is an intoxicating story of youth, sexuality and self-discovery that is sure to awaken passion in the heart. Contains mature themes, sexual situations and strong language.

And then there is the last show… without a doubt, the most provocative we have ever announced, possibly the most hilarious, and definitely one that we jumping up and down with excitement about.  Our eleventh season will conclude with the San Diego premiere of The Motherf**ker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Little Flower of East Orange). The “high-octane verbal cage match about love, fidelity and misplaced haberdashery,” is set smack in the center of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. A Broadway hit that is exhilarating, hilarious and totally irreverent, this comedy is also, surprisingly, an examination of acceptance, loyalty and above all, love. This play contains drugs, violence, sexual situations and, in case you haven’t figured it out, a lot of strong f**king language.

Current Subscribers can renew their subscriptions now by contacting the box office at 619-337-1525 or returning the renewal forms that are being sent out.  Sales for New Subscribers will begin March 1st.

It’s going to be an exciting season, thought provoking season, one that we can’t wait to share with you.

Sounds like an invasion

I can’t get too comfy and cozy in anticipation of the winter holidays or settle in to doing the sound effects for Cygnet’s new live radio play, A Christmas Carol.  Not yet.  Not until after I help space aliens blow up New Jersey.

When I was hired to bring the soundscape of War of the Worlds to the stage, I had to ask myself some very odd questions: What does a hillside sound like when it’s set ablaze by a heat-ray?  And, by the way, what does a heat-ray sound like?

We’re basing our staged-reading of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel off of a 1938 radio adaptation created and directed by Orson Welles before he rocketed to international fame with Citizen Kane.  Most of you probably know the story of how the program’s fake news bulletin format freaked everybody out because they all thought it was real.  That wasn’t an accident.  Welles’ idea was to give everyone a good Halloween scare, and the only way to do that was to go for absolute realism.  He had his company of actors to listen to the firsthand newscast of the Hindenburg disaster (only one year old) for inspiration.  Oh, the humanity!

Ora Nichols, the first and only woman working in her field, was tasked to match the level of realism in her sound effects that the actors were bringing to their vocal performances.  She completely lived up to the challenge and the product is a gloomy, creepy, legendary piece of radio history.  I recommend listening to it on YouTube.

Whatever it takes!

Nichols’ design was a major inspiration for my sound design, which you are all invited to come check out on Monday and Tuesday of this week (see showtimes for details).  I borrowed a couple techniques directly from her, like putting a kitchen timer in a tin bucket to create the echo of a ticking clock inside a vast astronomical observatory.  I even went to Lowe’s to see if I could re-create her technique of unscrewing a glass jar inside of a toilet bowl for the reverberation of a Martian cylinder being opened by aliens from the inside.  Here’s a candid picture taken by a friend I bumped into at the store!

However, most of what I’ve created for Cygnet’s reading is a departure from Nichols’ original soundscape.  I wanted to give audiences the sound of the gigantic tripods moving about like the destructive war-machines they were described as in the the book.  I wanted to hear the Earth being crushed underfoot (Lowe’s and Toy ‘R Us both came in handy for this particular effect).  Also, I wanted audiences to hear what the aliens would sound like emerging from their metal cylinders–sloshing a wet rag inside a mug of water was helpful to that end.

There are a number of other strange little tricks I have up my sleeve to treat you with (involving a warbling metal shingle and something called a standoff column base), and I can guarantee that should you come you won’t be disappointed.  And, hopefully, you won’t be able to get to sleep either.  After all, it is almost Halloween.

The Set Design of Cabaret: Part 2

You Just Can’t Cheat!

What can I say about executing a set at the Theatre in Old Town? It’s not your everyday scene shop. As I pull up to the parking lot next to the theatre, I find myself peering over the rustic fence at the lumber racks, sawhorses, and various bits of flats from old productions. This is the shop, where the thermostat seems to vary as much as San Diego weather, and the paint takes eons to dry on a damp day, or dries too quickly in the hot sun. And the rain is a constant threat that can set us back days at a time!

The talented team of carpenters under Technical Director Andy Scrimger use the yard behind the theatre to pre-build our scenery in parts. It’s a tricky planning process, due to a few approaches we use on our sets, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Andy began working with Cygnet in 2009, and has consistently been one to balance the needs of the budget with the demands of quality. Any technical director would tell you this is not an easy task. These days, we work together to implement strategies towards putting up a set by being very frugal, and as a byproduct (and a constant goal) using green, sustainable methods of creating scenery. Continue reading