New digs in Old Town

By Jessica Fryman

Cygnet Theatre artistic director Sean Murray says “Noises Off,” his company’s “absolutely crazy” season-opening production, may be the perfect antidote for audiences worried about the troubled economy.

“Noises Off,” written by English playwright Michael Frayn, is about a group of actors rehearsing “Nothing On,” a sex farce, in which the cast is faced with the worst-case scenarios backstage.

“It’s tremendous,” said Rosina Reynolds, who plays Dotty and Mrs. Clackett. “Right now, people need to laugh. Farces do very well in times of distress. It’s nice to go to the theater and just forget about everything else.”

The season opener also marks a new era at the Old Town Theatre as Cygnet makes the venue its permanent home. A capital campaign brought in more than $1 million for the transition and an upgraded sound and lights system, giving the sixth-year company a “top-of-the-line infrastructure,” said Murray, Cygnet’s co-founder and the director of “Noises Off.”

The venue has better equipment and almost 100 more seats than the 157-seat Rolando Theatre. Murray says audiences won’t notice much of a difference creatively.

“Our theater has been thought-provoking and interesting, and we hope to do the same thing (here),” Murray said. “We’re trying to figure out what the next stage of our company will be and trying to hold on to what we are while still shaping into what we’re becoming.”

Murray said he hopes to establish Cygnet Theatre as a “cultural destination in San Diego” throughout the 10-year lease at the Old Town stage.

The Old Town Theatre, once home to musicals of lengthy runs like “Forever Plaid” and “Forbidden Broadway,” will present about six plays a year, Murray said. This Cygnet season includes “Man From Nebraska,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Sweeney Todd.”

“It’s very exciting for this theater to turn over shows. It’s a great space. It’s a great location,” Reynolds, an associate artist in her fourth show with Cygnet, said. “It’s lovely to see this theater be reborn into a new style and new series of plays.”

The first in that series, “Noises Off,” is a well-known crowd pleaser and a bit more mainstream than most of Cygnet’s shows.

“There will always be audience members that know it and love it … but for those that don’t, it’s a look at what could go on backstage,” Reynolds said.

During the second act of “Noises Off,” the set is turned around, showing the audience the backstage of the “Nothing On” production. When that show starts, the cast acts mostly in mime on the backstage set.

“It’s pure comedy,” Murray said.

While “Noises Off” may be a distraction from economic woes, the company realizes the downturn every day. Cygnet originally planned to operate both the Rolando and Old Town theaters simultaneously, but decided to phase out the Rolando location in December as the economy turned sour.

“That was a very ambitious goal,” Murray said. “So now the challenge is to keep moving forward.”

Murray describes the next steps for Cygnet as a balancing act because people want to spend less and less money on the performing arts.

“You have to continue trying to be a rebel, continue trying to speak from your own voice, continue speaking from your heart, but you have to balance the business side, and now the stakes are higher,” he said. “I think we’re up to it.”

This story was originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune
on July 2, 2009.
Original story on The San Diego Union-Tribune website.