Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 2005
In this crazy climate of anti-intellectualism and artistic torpor, why would anyone in his right mind want to start a new theater company? “We were either naïve or fearless,” admits Sean Murray, artistic director of the two year-old Cygnet Theatre. “If you can make it in hard economic times, you’ve really made it.”
When he left North Coast Repertory Theatre (where he served as artistic director from 1994 –1999), Murray wanted to launch a joint venture with his partner, Bill Schmidt (who serves as business director of Cygnet). They took over the Actors Asylum on El Cajon Boulevard, near SDSU, and practically rebuilt it with their own hands. “I felt there was a niche we could fill,” Murray explains. “A subscription-style theater to offer Off Broadway-style entertainment. People really enjoy being close to the actors and getting an intimate theater experience.”
Murray’s dramatic taste is admittedly eclectic; “I like things that are interesting, thought-provoking, personal or political. I like a really good story.”
Since it opened, Cygnet Theatre and its artistic director have accumulated critical and audience accolades. In January, the multi-talented Murray received a Patté Award for the direction and design of his entire six-play season . His jaw-dropping production of the chamber musical, Bed and Sofa, won Craig Noel Awards for direction, performance and revival.
In just two years, the company’s subscription base has reached 600. The annual budget has grown to $400,000 and the theater is operating in the black. Murray continues to fulfill his goal of compensating all contributing artists, including actors, designers and technicians. He also hires union (Actors Equity) performers.
Cygnet is closing its second season with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning Tennessee Williams classic about family, greed, ‘mendacity’ and unfulfilled expectations. ”I’ve wanted to do it for years,” says Murray. “It’s a really powerful play, with an unrelenting, train-wreck quality and many rich, slow revelations. If you’ve only seen the [1958 Elizabeth Taylor/Paul Newman] movie, you haven’t seen Cat. It’s a very different beast onstage.”
The exceptional local cast features Jessica John, Francis Gercke, Sandra Ellis-Troy, Jim Chovick, Melissa Fernandes, Paul Bourque, Michael Thomas Tower and Tom Stephenson, a Lamb’s Players regular who’s become a Cygnet resident artist.
Murray’s upcoming season, a mixture of premieres, contemporary work and American classics, is decidedly political. “Because I feel that what’s going on in the country is intense and historical,” says Murray. “The work isn’t overtly right- or left-leaning, but it will stimulate debate.”
The season opener is The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard, an acclaimed drama about English poet/scholar A.E. Housman, author of “A Shropshire Lad.” Like Stoppard’s other plays, it’s dense and idea-laden. “I think people are hungry for the intellectual challenge and puzzle of Stoppard plays,” says Murray.
Next up is Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, in Cygnet’s first co-production, with North County’s highly regarded New Village Arts, whose co-founder/artistic director??, Francis Gercke, will direct. This dark, wry and tragic play considers the elusive American Dream.
For “pure wicked fun,” Murray chose The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s biting 1939 exposé of one Southern family’s ruthlessness and rapacity. Acclaimed local actor/director Rosina Reynolds directs. Then, a reprise of Dennis Scott’s hilarious performance in The Santaland Diaries, an adaptation of David Sedaris’ outrageous experiences as a Macy’s elf, first heard on NPR.
The remaining productions include Herr Biedermann and the Firebugs, a provocative 1958 comedy by Swiss dramatist Max Frisch that confronts issues of complacency and indifference. And perhaps the most overtly political of the presentations: Atwater: Fixin’ to Die, by Robert Myers, a one-man portrait of the cynicism and passion of Lee Atwater, the late GOP chairman, self-styled master of negative campaigning. “The play uses his words,” says Murray, “but takes no stand or position. It all depends on what you think and believe.”
Last year, Murray directed all six of his theater’s productions; in the upcoming season, he’ll only direct four, but he’ll still create all the scenic designs. He’s happy to share the directing responsibilities. “The whole point of doing this theater,” he explains, “is opening it up to the community. In order for it to last long-term, it can’t be all about one person.” And yet, it’s Murray who draws designers, actors and audiences to his attractive, 148-seat space. He attributes his varied tastes and skills to A.D.D., but it looks more like wide-ranging, far-reaching talent.
He worked as a graphic designer, and earned his BFA in acting from the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he also studied film and discovered his directing dexterity. “I seem to have a knack for pulling performances out of actors without judging or pushing,” he admits. “I see it as coaching, helping them to be brave and follow their impulses. I like to strip everything down to the essence. To focus on the storytelling.”
Right now, his focus is on telling the story of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
“When you get a dream cast like this, coupled with a brilliant script,” he says wistfully, “you remember why you do theater.”
[Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through July 10. 619-337-1525; cygnetheatre.org
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.