A Tale of Two Seans
Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray and Scenic Designer Sean Fanning talk shop about their unique working relationship and their upcoming three show collaboration
By Donnie Matsuda
For the first time in Cygnet Theatre’s history, Artistic Director (and frequent director) Sean Murray and Scenic Designer Sean Fanning will be working together on three consecutive shows. Starting with Parade (which opens this weekend and is the largest show ever staged at Cygnet’s Old Town Theatre) and continuing with Dirty Blonde this Spring and Man of La Mancha this Summer, this dynamic duo will be incredibly busy melding their creative talents to bring each production’s distinct artistic vision to scenic life.
While Murray is in charge of his actors and Fanning is in charge of setting the scene for those actors, it is perhaps no surprise that these two work so seamlessly together, as their years of collaborating have resulted in a perfectly balanced relationship with Murray being the more free-spirited dreamer and Fanning being the more detail-oriented doer. Always pushing each other out of their “comfort zones,” this talented twosome has collaborated on some stunningly evocative designs and has mastered the art of telling edgy, highly stylized stories incredibly well.
Amid the buzz of Parade rehearsals, these two dedicated and down-to-earth theatre artists found time to sit down and answer my questions about their long-standing working relationship, their favorite artistic collaborations, and the stylistic challenges of designing Cygnet’s next three shows.
How did the two of you first meet? Can you remember the very first show you worked together on?
Fanning: I was in my second year as a design MFA at San Diego State University and I had not yet had a chance to really get involved in the San Diego theatre scene, other than university productions. Sean [Murray] had reached out to the SDSU Design Department to try and find a designer who could help him deliver the vision he had for Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. At this time, the company was still operating at the Rolando Theatre, and on a vastly smaller scale than today.
Our first meetings were unlike any other meetings I’d had to date. I realized I was dealing with someone who was a set designer in his own right (at first, intimidating) but who still invited me to truly collaborate and explore without rigid boundaries. The set we created for The Matchmaker was really fun and simple. It was a series of Victorian picture frame portals and cupid adorned curtains, with 4 olio (roll) drops at back. Each drop was a colorful perspective image of a Victorian room from the play. We didn’t really have time to do much painting for the show, so we opted to have all the scenery printed and wallpapered to flats. I think it was the first time I had ever done printed scenery. I can remember now, how Sean [Murray] kept pushing for that richness of color and saturation - taking me out of the “safe” realm and into stylization.
Scenes from "The Matchmaker" directed by Sean Murray with set design by Sean Fanning. Photo courtesy of Sean Fanning Scenic Designs.
Murray: I was planning a production of The Matchmaker in our small space in Rolando and knew that to make the script fit into that theatre it would have to be staged in a non-traditional, theatrical way. I was looking at staging the show as old-fashioned olio acts with drop curtains and a toy-theatre feel and knew that this kind of look was something that I thought might be designed by someone with great paint and illustration skills. I approached Ralph Funicello at SDSU and he recommended Sean Fanning for the project. We met and I shared my thoughts and ideas about the show with Sean [Fanning] and let him run with them. He returned with some very fun overly large cherubs fawning over the proscenium arch and four Victorian roll drops in an illustrated gold frame. It was simple, playful and I loved the look it gave the show. The design then gave me new insights and ideas about how to fit the play into that space. So, it was reciprocal, my ideas inspiring his ideas which inspire new ideas etc.
Any sense of how many shows you have done together?
Fanning: Parade would mark our 12th collaboration together over a 6 year span.
Thinking back to the shows you two have collaborated on, which one are you most proud of and why?
Fanning: That’s a hard one for me, we have done so many shows together that I’ve been proud of for different reasons. I was really proud of the way we used the space during Sweeney Todd & Cabaret - it totally reinvented our approach to designing in the Old Town Theatre. Little Shop of Horrors was a big undertaking because we were dealing with quite a few moving targets. I think a personal favorite has been The Norman Conquests, simply because we moved towards a more contemporary, abstract approach rather than anything representational. It felt very right for that play.
Murray: Cabaret was a set that created an environment that both told the audience immediately upon entering the theatre what this show was going to be, without telling them more than we wanted to them to know about where it was going. This is important to me, that the setting or environment not be so detailed and nuanced that it tells the story on its own. For me, it is best that a setting creates the environment and the world of the play, but that there is something incomplete about it, something asking for more. That “more” is the actors. The set shouldn't tell the story - it should help the actors tell the story.
So, some of my favorite sets with Sean [Fanning] have been those that are evocative, such as Sweeney Todd and Cabaret. My impulse is to go too simple and Sean [Fanning’s] might be to go with more detail and stuff and we find a way to pull each other out of our comfort zones to the place where it really ought to be - in the middle. An empty space with just the perfect amount of atmosphere and detail!
About your current collaboration on Parade: The musical is based on an incredibly complex and nuanced piece of history (the trial and lynching of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank who was accused of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee) and touches on so many larger-than-life social issues including racism, classism, and religion.
Sean Murray, how did you go about doing your research for this show?
Murray: I read numerous books on the actual history of Leo Frank. I went to see productions of Parade in LA and London to experience how the show plays live for an audience. I do a lot of dreaming on how the show should move, how a particular show tells its story, and then I try to get out of the way and let it!
And Sean Fanning, Parade is rather cinematic in how it moves from scene to scene and involves a number of different locales. How do you translate that to the intimate confines of the Old Town Theatre?
Fanning: I should mention that the original design for the show had a gigantic back wall made of planks, with doors and windows in it. Upstage of that wall was a very impressionistic painting. During our process, we realized that the confinement of the wall was actually getting in the way of the filmic sort of storytelling - it was a true hindrance to the openness and movement that Sean [Murray] wanted.
The solution became “designing with an eraser.” We cut the gigantic wall, and left the painted background behind it. The stage felt doubly large and the staircases and landings seemed to take on a life of their own. The cinematic transitions became the duty of the lighting, of the placement of simple furniture pieces, and of Sean [Murray’s] ingenuity. The approach is one that I’d be happy to return to again and again. The impressionistic image on the back plaster wall of the set was inspired by the first ten minutes of the show, and the final ten minutes of the show, and intended to work for all the locations. I wanted its gesture to capture, in one stark image, romanticism, idealism, faded age, and ultimately, the darkness seething underneath the story.
What are you most excited about with regards to Dirty Blonde – from a director and a design perspective?
Fanning: I think Dirty Blonde is exciting because it presents a stylistic challenge we haven’t dealt with together yet. Rather than make the set large and expansive, Sean [Murray] and I are working together to reclaim the intimacy of the space. Additionally, we’re trying to find ways to capture the personalities of both Jo (the protagonist) and Mae West, the icon she so idolizes. So the set can’t really be a period piece about Mae West, it has to be a neutral sort of thing that encompasses both of them. The transitions are also extremely quick and filmic, so we’re looking for a powerful graphic way to indicate the change of locale without too much stuff.
Murray: Dirty Blonde is a tricky one because the set has to be many things, many locations, move like a film and accommodate two stories, not just one. The challenge we're finding is creating a cohesive look for the show that can do all of those things. It can't be a set that tells only Mae West's story or Jo's story - it has to be a specific but neutral enough environment to tell them both. Our impulses have been towards a look that screams Mae West, but I'm feeling that less is best. We want to let the actors do the work.
And last but not least, your third collaboration this year, Man of La Mancha.
Sean Murray, this is a work you are very familiar with having played the title role opposite Sandy Campbell in 2001 and again during Cygnet’s staged reading this past fall. How do you plan to make this staging new, fresh, and exciting?
Murray: This musical is all about storytelling and letting the audience create the locations and use their imaginations. It's one of the themes of the play. I want to, again, get out of the way of the audience and not provide them with a super realistic detail driven Spanish prison with drawbridge etc. We've seen that. I am wanting to work with a bare bones prison, almost like it's set in the bottom of a giant well. Smooth walls and a large bare floor. I would like to help the audience transport themselves from the prison environment into the world of Don Quixote and the Inn without that realistic prison in their way, so I’m looking at a Spanish prison environment that is both neutral and specific. Is there a theme emerging here?
Sean Fanning, you have never designed Man of La Mancha before, is that correct? What are you most looking forward to in your design of the show?
Fanning: You are correct, I have never designed this production before. It excites me because I can come to it with sort of a “clean slate.” I am very familiar with the history of the piece, especially with the sort of set design that seems to be constantly used, re-used, and hinted at in many productions. Sean [Murray] and I have only had some early discussions about it, but what I’m looking forward to most is his unique take on the environment - that it should not be the same, romanticized Spanish Inquisition dungeon that we’ve seen over and over again. We’re looking to do something that has a somewhat stylistic, contemporary edge to it, a dimensional environment that only enhances the storytelling without whacking the audience over the head.
How would you two describe your working relationship?
Fanning: We’re friends who keep chatting on Facebook about new ideas. I think we feed off of each other’s enthusiasm and inspiration about a project so working together never seems to get old. I can’t remember the last time we actually sat down in a conference room and met - we just don’t work like that. Usually, we go out to a restaurant and talk excitedly with our mouths full about the next show. There is a very strong unspoken bond between us.
Sean [Murray] puts a lot of trust in me to follow through on our discussions in my own way. And I usually provide him with models of all the sets very much in advance of the rehearsal period because I know he loves to play with the models and get ideas about how he’s going to stage the show. We both operate very independently, but it’s surprising when we both reach the same conclusion about something, at the same time, before we’ve even spoken about it.
Murray: I love throwing abstracts and lots of imagery at Sean [Fanning] and delight in seeing what he brings back. He's very fast and clever, and sometimes, for both of us, we need to pay attention to our first impulses because we will explore and try variations, but we come back to our first impulse a lot. I enjoy pushing him out of his comfort zone to see what he comes up with. Sean [Fanning] is a dear friend as well as a collaborator, and I just enjoy being around him. And when we get together to shoot the stuff about the sets, it's great fun. I feed his enthusiasm and it feeds mine.
Sean Murray, what do you like most about Sean Fanning’s work?
Murray: He is passionate about the entire project and that passion is contagious. He is very detail driven, but so open to re-thinking and adapting. His research is so exhaustive and the imagery he comes up with always seems to be exactly what I was seeing in my mind.
Sean Fanning, what do you like most about Sean Murray’s work?
Fanning: He’s an incredibly perceptive director, and very visual. I think he’s got great taste, and knowing this gives me a lot of security when we’ve agreed to a certain visual approach.
On some shows, he gives me a very rich visual concept that excites me as a designer, and on other shows, he wants to simplify, simplify, simplify. Sean [Murray] can reach in and find the heart of the story, without relying on anything but the actors and the words. To work with him as a set designer involves finding ways to help his innovativeness, and sometimes, to get out of the way!
Thanks Sean (and Sean!) for taking time to do this interview - we're all looking forward to your upcoming collaborations. For more information about Sean Murray and Cygnet Theatre, visit: http://www.cygnettheatre.com/. And for more information about Sean Fanning and his scenic designs, visit: http://seanfanningdesigns.com/.