Backstage Blog

Meet Braxton Molinaro

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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’

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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

The Set Design of Cabaret: Part 1

Cabaret as an Alcoholic Beverage

Last year, Sean Murray asked me to work with him on Sweeney Todd.  It was our seventh production together.  Working with Sean and co-director James Vasquez was

possibly the most freeing experience that can be asked of a designer for a musical theatre setting: we threw out all preconceived notions of the staging, we started from scratch and found our own voices in the piece.

And I discovered that doing a musical on a thrust stage means that, despite the amount of decorative flourishes I may apply to a setting, my eye always becomes inexorably riveted to the performer.  Out there on that thrust surrounded on three sides by a rapt audience, and commanding a story.  In one breathless moment, I can forget about everything I’ve been hired or trained to do as a designer, as I sit back and watch energy flow. Continue reading

Inside the 4-Color Way

We asked playwright Lance Arthur Smith a couple of questions regarding his new play Truth, Justice and the 4-Color Way, which will be presented as a staged reading as part of Cygnet’s Playwrights in Process Series.

Cygnet: What was the inspiration for Truth, Justice and the 4-Color Way?

Lance Arthur Smith: I originally conceived of this piece in early 2008 after learning my wife Colleen was pregnant. The 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearings have been on my radar for years due to my love of comic books. But with my daughter Scotland on the way, I felt compelled to explore parental themes in a play, and the backdrop of this 1950s comic book “war” felt like the right way to do it.

It focuses on an oft-overlooked event in our country’s history as well as on the major personalities surrounding it. The parallels to today’s video game industry, and the Hollywood machine, strike me as I figure out where I stand as a father.

Cygnet: What it means to have your play workshopped at Cygnet.

Lance Arthur Smith: Cygnet’s “Playwrights in Process” fosters playwrights in a program that, sadly, exists in very few places. Many theatre companies say they make a commitment to new work, but Cygnet commits itself fully to cultivating new work through a series of readings and interactions.

Fran championed this piece, and to have his backing and support has been a refreshing experience. Both he and Sean have been actively involved throughout several rewrites, and we’ve had meetings outside of rehearsal halls, through email, and over dropped phone calls (thanks to my unreliable carrier).

Joining a playwright the caliber of Stephen Metcalfe (whose Tragedy of the Commons was refined during “Playwrights in Process”), is a joy and I’m looking forward to continuing the theatrical conversation of 4-Color Way with a live audience.

Cygnet Announces 9th Season!

(Updated Jan 25th)
We are excited to announce our 2011/2012 line-up. Cygnet’s ninth season will offer productions ranging from Shakespeare to Williams; and for Cygnet’s musical-lovers, two uniquely thrilling productions!

Cygnet’s season begins with LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, a rock musical based on the 1960s camp film, The Little Shop of Horrors, which follows the story of a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood. Cygnet’s production, featuring the amazing Audrey II puppets designed by Monkeyboys Designs, will be a B-movie, campy horror-fest staged in black and white film-noir style! This quirky dark comedy – with music composed by Alan Menken and written by Howard Ashman – received a long off-Broadway run, a subsequent Broadway production and was turned into a 1986 film of the same name. The LITTLE SHOP music features rock-n-roll, doo-wop and early Motown sounds with several well-known tunes including “Skid Row (Downtown)” and “Suddenly Seymour.” Cygnet Resident Artist David McBean (It’s A Wonderful Life, Fully Committed) will feed the horror and the hilarity as the human-hungry plant, Audrey II. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS will run July 28th through September 11th, 2011.

In early October, Cygnet Theatre will present it’s first Shakespearean main-stage production, RICHARD III. This play, which depicts the rise to power and subsequent short rein of Richard III, is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Regarded as an “antihero” of the medieval age, the deformed Richard III was known for being both frighteningly vicious and eerily funny. Shakespeare’s fascinating depiction of his murderous path to the English crown is one of his most beloved and oft performed plays. RICHARD III runs October 13th through November 13th, 2011.

The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry. Each year, Cygnet audiences delight in this new-found wintertime tradition as Tom Andrew performs his San Diego Critics Circle Award-winning role of George Bailey, whose life alters for good upon meeting Clarence the Angel. Once again the 1940′s radio actors of “WCYG Theatre of the Air” will recreate the classic story in a “live” radio broadcast filled with music, sound effects and the beloved characters from the film. It’s A Wonderful Life returns to the Cygnet stage from November 30th through December 31st, 2011.

The new year offers starts off with a bang with the Southern California Premiere of A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE by Martin McDonagh.  The title is just the starting point to McDonagh’s black comedy, his first American-set play. Take a man searching for his missing hand, two con artists out to make a few hundred bucks, and an overly curious hotel clerk, and the rest is up for grabs. Strong, adult language. A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE will  run January 19th through February 19th, 2012.

In the Spring, Cygnet Theatre will present PARADE, with book by Alfred Uhrey and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. The musical dramatizes the 1913 true story of the trial of Jewish factory superintendent, Leo Frank, accused of the murder of a thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, in Atlanta Georgia. The play, which won Tony Awards for best book and best score and six Drama Desk Awards, is both hauntingly beautiful and bitingly frank in its depiction of love in the midst of adversity and growing racial tensions. The show was Brown’s first Broadway production and his award-winning melodies drew from a variety of influences including pop-rock, folk, rhythm and blues and gospel. PARADE will run March 8th through April 22nd, 2012.

Cygnet Theatre will close its season with Tennessee William’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. The Pulitzer Prize winning drama is considered a landmark play. It has also been at the top of Artistic Director Sean Murray’s lists of dream projects for Cygnet Theatre since his award-winning production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2005. The story deals with the culture clash of two iconic characters, Blanche DuBois, a fading relic of the Old South, and Stanley Kowalski, a rising member of the industrial working class. The production received multiple runs on Broadway, was adapted into a film, an opera, a ballet and was even produced for television. The steamy drama comes to Cygnet Theatre May 17th through June 24th, 2012.

Current Subscribers can contact the box office starting Wednesday to renew.  New Subscriptions for the 2011-2012 will be available soon.

We think this is going to be an exciting season, and certainly hope you will join us.

Meet Stephen Metcalfe

In January 2011, Cygnet Theatre will have the honor of producing its very first World Premiere – The Tragedy of the Commons, by celebrity playwright Stephen Metcalfe.

Stephen Metcalfe, a nationally renowned stage writer, is possibly most recognized for such Hollywood blockbusters as Pretty Woman (with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) and Mr. Holland’s Opus (with Richard Dreyfuss).

CT: Did you start out writing for film?

SM: I started out as a playwright. Between 1978 and 1985 I wrote five full length plays and perhaps half a dozen one act plays. Even though all the work was produced, I was in no way, shape or form making a living from it. At one point I thought it might be a relief to go into advertising.

CT: What are some of the differences between writing for film versus the stage?

SM: I discovered early on how difficult plot can be. In the theatre, plot is an excuse for people to talk. In a movie, it’s a reason for them to blow things up. Here’s another difference. If a play is a house, others can decorate, but they can’t tear down the walls. It’s yours, you own it.  If a screenplay is a house, people can tear it down to the foundation, dig a deep hole and throw away the key. They own it. (This doesn’t mean that sometimes you don’t get the credit – or blame – for what they did.)

In the theatre no one is asking you to be a playwright – in fact, if pressed, they’d probably tell you to go into advertising – but if you write a play, they’ll read it.  In film, no one reads anything. But if they hear you’ve done something that’s pretty good, they’ll pay you to do something else.

CT: What impact did your success with Pretty Woman have on your career as a writer?

SM: For better or for worse, in 1991 I wrote the production draft of the screenplay for Pretty Woman. And so for the next ten years the phone rang pretty much on a weekly basis with someone – who, as mentioned, had usually never read my work – asking me to re-write a romantic comedy. The problem was I didn’t consider myself a writer of romantic comedies. But as I was trying to do silly things like pay a mortgage and raise a family, as often as not I’d take the job. But in between re-writing romantic comedies I continued to write my own screenplays on spec. This, to some extent, took the place of my writing for the theatre. It felt the same. My own screenplays I hoped/felt were character and dialogue driven and were emotionally grounded; they felt to me as if they were about real things. Of course, they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting made.

CT: What prompted you to begin writing for the stage again?

SM: In 2005 I had a growing realization that though I’ve made a living as writer, the best work I’ve done is probably sitting on shelves in LA somewhere. Did I mention that a dramatist writes for actors and an audience? The writing is not the end unto itself, seeing it done is. And so, with this in mind, the desire to see work done, I find myself writing plays again. I have no fantasies I’ll make a living doing it but that’s okay. I’m also going into advertising.

How I Conquered Norman…
(One Woman’s Journey into an Oversized T-Shirt.)

I’ll admit it…When it comes to fashion; I’m a girly-girl.   Almost everyone who knows me has ultimately asked me if I OWN a shoe without a heel.  Skirts and sundresses are my summer uniform and a day without earrings is a day spent tugging naked earlobes.   So my brown “i conquered norman” t-shirt was something of an anomaly to me on the morning of Cygnet’s THE NORMAN CONQUESTS All-Day Opening Extravaganza. Three full-length plays taken-in with a theatre full of audience members I’d known or met through the years and nary a piece of clothing in my closet to match that ringspun cotton crew-neck.

Noon-time found me anxiously awaiting the first CONQUEST of the day…Round and Round the Garden. I admire every one of those gorgeous actors, (not to mention both of the gifted directors and all of the amazing designers and crew) and I am an Alan Ayckbourn fanatic.  There was so much talent ready to bring the story of the “quirky assistant librarian” and his “oddball in-laws” to life.  I tapped my foot nervously – my foot, donned in a suede knee-high boot picked to match my jeans, jewel-encrusted belt and a thin-belted, rich red sweater…  (My Norman t-shirt peeked out in protest.)   Well, at least our new Cygnet logo was visible.  It matched my sweater perfectly.  And I WAS wearing the t-shirt…my show-support evident, if anyone was inclined to check. Continue reading