When theater icon Peter Brook declared that live performance transcends physical limitations, he wasn't anywhere near the scruffy strip mall at 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego's Rolando neighborhood. The tawdry pawnshop across the way doesn't necessarily inspire artistic insight. Neither does the saga of the baby rat that wreaked havoc in a suite near the mall's far end, home of the city's newest professional theater company; the little pervert had defaced a refurbished armrest (since repaired) before its humane dispatch to the canyons three weeks ago.
The rescue was just in time, as some serious hard work was well under way. Crushing dins from a power saw grinding against skeletal metal stanchions and waist-high Sheetrock heralded the inevitable: Cygnet Theatre Company will open its doors Friday, July 18.
It will be something a little more in sync with what Brook had in mind.
“The experience in this theater's going to be a different one and a more comfortable one,” Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray says. “It's going to be a state-of-the-art theater,” albeit with a dressing room the size of the rat's left ear.
“The actors are going to have to get to know each other,” Murray concedes.
They'll be doing that on the heels of a contemporary's departure. Actor's Asylum, which vacated the building in early May, had mounted shows by its flagship company Actor's Asylum Productions and hosted other area groups, such as Beacon Theatre and Hormonally inCorrect. Whereas Asylum had a capacity of 49, with outdated light and sound systems, Cygnet will seat 140 and boast brand-new gadgetry.
Murray reports that refurbishment costs could run $60,000. The company is saving money by default in a couple areas, he adds-the theater's design and seats were donated by an area architect and a La Jolla movie house. The company also donated all the manual labor.
All that's missing is the niche, mayhap.
“In San Diego,” Murray explains, “you've got three or four larger theaters... and they all have their own specialties. Our theater mission is to sort of fit into the middle of [that]... the smaller, intense, interesting theater work. That's what I think is missing-a small- to middle-professional theater with anywhere between one and 10 actors. It revolves around an off-Broadway mentality-small, interesting plays” that spark thought and awareness of diversity.
But those mantras presumably drive the city's 60 or so other venues, and one spokesperson's seen a few go belly-up despite best intentions. Alan Ziter, executive director of the San Diego Performing Arts League, says survival all comes down to inventory-judicious reflection on the target audience.
“I think that there's a market for people who are willing to go out and be entertained,” Ziter says. “It's just, how creative are the people who are running the theaters in reaching beyond the traditional, perceived core niche of theatergoers? And when you're opening with a show like Hedwig And the Angry Inch, and the rock style that it is, I think already you're opening your door to an audience that may not be the traditional theater–goer [at] the Globe or the La Jolla Playhouse.”
The neo-glam Hedwig, directed by Murray and set to open July 18, is a musical about Hansel Schmidt, a German-born girly-boy and wannabe musician who suffers a botched sex-change (ergo, the “angry inch” part). Broke and alone in Kansas, the reinvented Hedwig weathers the piracy of her songs and rocks on through a nationwide tour, regaling audiences with the story of her life.
The glare of the footlights, however, is only as deep as the pockets that pay for it.
Pat Launer, a veteran San Diego theater critic (KPBS, Union-Tribune), attests to the consequences of fiscal ignorance, though she's quick to acknowledge Murray's sensitivity to the task.
“A lot of people start a theater,” Launer says, “and they're so into the artistic side, and they don't have the skills or the time to do the management part. But Sean has a managing director [Bill Schmidt], who's got the business end. They've got it covered from both sides. And I don't think saturation's a problem. The [Rolando] area is an untapped area. It's [out of the way] for some people, but...”
Murray, 42, lives in San Diego, has been acting since age 16 and was trained in North Carolina. He was artistic director at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach for four and a half years before the Cygnet opportunity materialized last winter.
Ideally, the only rats in the place on July 18 will be consigned to Hedwig's memory as she recounts her tribulations. And stormy though her tale may be, it faces disconcerting enshrinement against the mall's nondescript exterior.
Then again, Brook might concur: strip malls are like thrift stores-repositories for remarkable fare in remote and unlikely locales.