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Reporter’s Notebook: Cygnet announces season overhaul as pandemic grows

Cygnet Theatre's leadership team of Bill Schmidt, Rob Lutfy and Sean Murray (right) at the Old Town company.
Cygnet Theatre’s leadership team of Bill Schmidt, left, associate artistic director Rob Lutfy and artistic director Sean Murray at their theater in Old Town San Diego.
(Courtesy of Cygnet Theatre)

A roundup of recent San Diego theater news

Since the pandemic began, many of San Diego’s theaters have been bustling with activity by announcing season updates, producing virtual productions on Zoom, film and digital audio and staying in the public eye with a heavy presence on social media.

But not Cygnet Theatre. The 17-year-old company based in Old Town San Diego has kept a relatively low profile since March. Then last week Cygnet announced it is canceling all productions until December at the earliest, when artistic director Sean Murray said he’d like to produce a virtual or socially distanced production of the company’s annual “A Christmas Carol” holiday show.

Murray said the reason he and managing director Bill Schmidt have held off in making public announcements is they didn’t want to make any promises they couldn’t keep. And the reason Cygnet didn’t join other theaters in producing a stream of online theatrical content was strategic.

All but five of the company 25 full- and part-time employees were furloughed early in the pandemic, including Murray and his entire production team. Creating web content takes paid staff and Murray said the decision was made early on that the company should preserve its resources for when they can function again as a live theater.

“We’re not planning Zoom plays. I’m out in the field watching those, and I’m not convinced. Some people like them, most people don’t. There’s a very minimal audience willing to watch them,” he said. “I’m about the live theater experience, and I don’t see them as the same thing. I feel like it’s more television than live theater, and that’s not what I do. “

Cygnet was in previews for the splashy musical “La Cage aux Folles” in mid-March when the pandemic hit. For many weeks afterward, the cast met to rehearse on Zoom, in the event the show could open in July. But Murray said it’s now clear the show won’t happen in 2020. Since the “La Cage” sets and costumes are built, he’s still planning to present the musical as the next big show Cygnet produces, but that may not be until next summer.

In the meantime, Murray said he and Schmidt have assessed how to produce socially distanced theater in the 240-seat Old Town space. The results are sobering. The most they can sell is 25 percent of the house, or 60 tickets per show. And backstage, additional dressing rooms may need to be built to meet social distancing rules.

No show could be profitable with that small an audience, Murray said, but in order to keep production expenses as low as possible, he’s now looking at scripts written for casts of just one to four actors. That means the large-cast plays and musicals originally planned for Season 18 must be almost entirely scrubbed.

That season was to have included a remount of the musical “Cabaret,” which Cygnet staged to critical acclaim in 2011; a repertory production of two William Inge classics, “Bus Stop” and “Picnic”; Murray’s own adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with music by Billy Thompson; the world premiere of Kate Hamill’s “The Prostitute Play”; and the Terrence McNally-Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens musical “A Man of No Importance.”

At some point, Murray said he will announce the six plays that will make up the new Season18, but not too soon and not with any dates attached.

“Bill and I would rather be cautious about making any firm plans than to have our subscribers go through another cancellation,” Murray said. “And I don’t want to name the plays because if we can’t get the rights to them then that would just be one more disappointment for people.”

On the plus side, Murray said Cygnet’s board of directors, donors and subscribers have been very supportive and generous. Most people who held tickets to “La Cage” and future shows donated the money back to the theater as a gift. Murray said that even if he and Schmidt can work out all the financial and artistic variables, there’s still the big question mark of when actors and audience members will feel comfortable returning.

“What’s true today may not be true tomorrow, so planning is very difficult,” he said. “We’re just trying to stay ahead of it and not get too ambitious.”

Old Globe, Diversionary plan Pride event

The Old Globe, Diversionary Theatre and San Diego Pride are collaborating on a program of livestreamed performances of short plays by LGBTQ+ artists that will be presented on July 19 as part of the San Diego Virtual Pride Festival.

The CoLAB PRIDE Celebration will feature playwrights Shairi Engle, Jaime Estapa, Katherine Harroff and Miki Vale, along with additional material created by Teen-Versionary and Stonewall Salon, two of Diversionary’s arts education programs for teens and the older generation. The plays will be performed by professional actors and participants in Diversionary’s summer acting program.

The performances will be livestreamed from 2 to 4:30 p.m. July 19 on the theater’s social media channels.

Pam Kragen writes about theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com


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