Backstage Blog

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

Straight from the horse’s mouth

One of the questions we often get about The Norman Conquests is regarding the order in which the plays should be seen.  Up until this point, we have said that part of the beauty of the trilogy is that it doesn’t really matter what order you see them in.  All three plays stand on completely on their own, and since they are all set during the same weekend, the order they are viewed in doesn’t matter.

I have recently, however, discovered an article from Alan Ayckbourn himself, in which he explains in his own words the order in which you should see them for best viewing pleasure. The article was taken from The Ayckbourn Guides which were compiled by Simon Murgatroyd.

Enjoy!

Alan Ayckbourn Explains…

If you are in the process of reading this Programme, the chances are that you are already about to see, are in the midst of seeing, or have already seen, at least one of the plays that form The Norman Conquests. In which case, this advice is not for you. Do not read on.

For those who have seen none of the plays but may be wishing to do so, it is hoped that the following notes may prove useful.

The first thing to remember is, understandably, don’t see Table Manners first. This will give you a wrong time sequence and will only confuse you when you come to see, say, Living Together which, incidentally, you are strongly advised not to see second. Ideally, Round and Round the Garden should not be seen before you have seen Table Manners – but do not, on the other hand, fall into that old trap of seeing Round and Round the Garden after Living Together as this again will confuse the sequences of dramatic events. Do not see Living Together first as this will severely curtail a lot of the pleasure you gain from seeing Table Manners for the first time which latter play, for maximum enjoyment you should try and save till the end.

In short, do try and see all three plays first, or, if you really can’t manage this, last. This way you will avoid any disappointment. Like most things in this world, there is a logical progression i.e. Parts 1, 3 and finally, of course, 2.

I certainly hope this helped to clear things up.  If not, contact the box office, and they will be more than happy to assist you in scheduling all three plays first (or last, if that is your preference).

Sweeney Todd Music Rehearsals

We celebrated the opening of Sweeney Todd last night.  The performers were all outstanding, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.  Afterwards we enjoyed a wonderful post show party hosted by gracious folks at Casa Guadalajara.

Over the past couple of weeks I have caught glimpses of the show in rehearsals, and watched as the entire collection of artists, one of the largest we’ve ever assembled at Cygnet, have come together to create an exciting evening of theatre.  During that time I managed to also capture some video of the rehearsals, including the first time the cast and band rehearsed together, and the first rehearsals on the completed stage.  Please enjoy this peek behind the scenes.

Come to the Cabaret – Cygnet’s Gala

What is it about leading a fundraiser’s auction that makes it so appealing?

Interacting with Sean and Bill, Veronica and Manny, Jason and Jessica (a theatre’s dream team) off stage, behind the scenes, sharing a common vision of providing this little theatre with the means to produce big, relevant and important works is so satisfying.

It’s my raison d’etre. In addition, it’s provided me a grand occasion to meet people in my broader San Diego community with whom I normally would not cross paths.

Wow! What I am experiencing through this fundraising process has far exceeded any expectation.

Like everyone these days, I’m a busy person with way too much on her plate. Besides being haunted by a daunting calendar, auction canvassing is time spent on activities that don’t directly increase my bottom line. Never mind that! More importantly, it compromises family time, which is primo to me. But being on this auction committee and having the opportunity to support something for which I passionately believe is just plain irresistible! I’m a sucker for a good time. That’s why I do it. Continue reading