Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘War and Peace’ Musical at Cygnet Theatre Would Make Tolstoy Dance.

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Photos by Maurice Hewitt


 A week before showtime, Costume Designer Shirley Pierson
posed with a handful of sketches outside the theater.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which just opened at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, is a far-out-of-the-ordinary event. It’s a pop-rock opera that is, as the detailed program informs us, “adapted from a scandalous 70-page slice of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’.” It gives new meaning to the overused word “immersive” and is a thousand times more amusing than Tolstoy; Cygnet’s program includes a link to Tolstoy’s relevant chapters if you want to check.

Written by playwright/composer/lyricist/actor/musician Dave Malloy, who played Pierre in the first off-Broadway production, the show became a huge hit on Broadway, where it was nominated for 12 Tony awards and won for best scenic and lighting design in 2017.

The look of the show is a major attraction, and costumes are a big part of that look. Happily, I got to interview Cygnet’s award-winning costume designer Shirley Pierson before the show opened and not only saw the sketches she originally did for the costumes, some of which you’ll see here, but also heard about her unusual path to becoming a costume designer, which I’m sharing here too. 

The Designer’s Sketches


Natasha: A lovely young woman, she’s engaged to Andrey,
who has gone off to war, and makes the dreadful mistake of falling for Anatole.

Andrey: Natasha’s fiancé, an honorable man
away fighting Napoleon’s army.

Anatole: A handsome scoundrel
who goes after Natasha.

Hélène: Anatole’s sister, no better than her brother.

Pierre: A wealthy man, kind but socially awkward,
unhappily married to 

On opening night, the finished costumes really came to life on the super-active performers, and there were three amazing costumes in the show’s opera-within-the-opera that left us wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Shirley said there were some surprises, and she was right. I won’t reveal the surprises; you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Shirley Pierson: A Designer’s Life 

Shirley did not take a direct path to costume designing, though she’s been sewing and working with textiles since she was five years old.

“I grew up on a farm in Nebraska and learned on my grandmother’s treadle machine,” she said. “I went to a one-room parochial schoolhouse till 8th grade, then went on to high school in our small town. There were only 49 in our graduating class, and there were only two possibilities for women then: teaching and nursing. So I chose nursing, and became a travelling nurse.”

She wound up in Los Angeles, in psychiatric nursing—a background she says serves her well in a fitting room with actors.

From nursing, she segued into clothing, at Robinson’s Department Store’s buying offices for junior clothing, in the days of Guess Jeans and glam rock. Then she went into manufacturing, buying textiles from all over the world.

“I liked the story every textile told, but I didn’t want the almighty dollar to be driving what I did,” she said. “So I started designing textiles and prints, mainly for children, and then got into costume design, and got involved in theater.”

Along the way, she met and married Eric Pierson, who had been working in Script Development and wanted to get a PhD in Media Studies. One of the best places to do that was at the University of Illinois, so they went there, and she began taking courses in theater and puppetry.

Back in California, he started teaching New Media, Film and TV at U.S.D. and she got her MFA in Theatrical Arts and Technical Design at SDSU. While still a student, she won her first award for costume design and was soon gathering more awards for her work. I remember the brilliantly weird costumes she did for Shockheaded Peter at Cygnet, which won her a Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Costume Design in 2017.

On her website she says she believes in “strong, purposeful lines and textures” and the power of costume design. “Costume supports story and…sparks creative imagination for the actor wearing it, the company members performing around it, and the audience member viewing it.”

She’s also an Associate Professor of Clothing and Textile Arts at San Diego College of Continuing Education, where she opened a Fiber Tech Lab. “I love being in the classroom, and letting people know what digital arts can do,” she said. “This is definitely a Renaissance period we’re in, and we need not to be intimidated by the changes but ready to immerse ourselves in the possibilities.”

And what about the show? 

It was a delight, full of audience involvement, great music, great voices, and besides all the fun, some emotional moments too. At the end, we joined the entire audience’s standing ovation.

If you’re ready to immerse yourself in a great theater-going experience, don’t miss this one, which runs through May 19.

 Here’s the “Family Tree” from the program, so you can meet the characters in advance.


Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Book, Lyrics and Music by Dave Malloy.
Adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Sean Murray
Music Direction by Patrick Marion
Choreography by Katie Banville
Costumes by Shirley Pierson

Cygnet Theater
Apr 10 - May 19, 2024

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has been writing about arts and lifestyles in San Diego County for over a dozen years. You can reach her at hew2@sbcglobal.net

Friday, April 12, 2024

Allied Craftsmen of San Diego: Hands On Design at Oceanside Museum of Art

 by Patricia Frischer

Cheryl Tall - Japanese guardian lion dog, a fierce protector from evil spirits

Guusje Sanders, the juror of this exhibition Allied Craftsmen of San Diego: Hands On Design at  Oceanside Museum of Art from March 30 to August 18, 2024  has chosen what she thinks if the best of the works submitted. She is a curator at Mingei International Museum, an institute that is based on craft. The display of the work is not solely based on a grouping of materials, but it also lends itself to certain themes. The order that I have presented them below thus jumps a bit back and forth.

We are long past the discussion on craft as art. It is a non-issue. These craft-persons  are members of the Allied Craftsman (founded in the mid-century) are all highly skilled artists who communicate through their given mediums.


I started with animals – a dog, a phoenix bird, a polar bear, a horse and a butterfly. I traveled to works that are using light, then those that are wood and containers for other things. Some textiles next, then two figurative works, telephone poles and a literal ceramic rug which led me to more patterns. Finally to works that are suspended and last work that typifies the reference to all sorts of found and upcycled objects. The most prominent but not the only theme was the environment, a easy band wagon on which to jump. 

The display was well thought out and the signage informative with artists statements about their creations. There were old friends and new discoveries,  plus these additional artworks by artists not illustrated here: Beston BarnettSandra Berlin-KrollDavid BrowneLevi CasiasEllen Fager, Erik Gronborg, Joanne HayakawaAshley KimYC KimLisa Maher, Ross Stockwell. 

Irène de Watteville - a dreadful kitchen fire inspired this phoenix rises from the ashes with an array of vegetables adorning its survival.

Jeff Irwin - Polar bear as ice flow rug becomes a strong case for climate change.

Mimi Levinson - Using a peach pits to embellish this primitive ceramic horse. 

Norma Pizarro (detail) - tiny leaves make up these butterflies
as they emerge from  or return to a mirror crack in the multiverse

Norma Pizarro

Cheryl Nickel - Medical glass test tubes are illuminated
 with the motion of your body

William Leslie with Alessandra Colfi - Paper and bent wood take wing.

William Leslie with Alessandra Colfi (detail)

Paul Henry - Modern meets regency
with a special little drawer for an M&M

Adam John Manley -Rescued wood if finely balanced

Warren Bakley - It takes less than the usual 24 minutes to go from distraction to connecting the dots in this ceramic work

Gail Schneider - The epitome of the title hands on design
or are there bodies trying to get out. 

Kathleen Mitchell - subtle carved indentions enhance these profound shapes

Viviana Lombrozo - no not ceramic, but hand painted quilted cloth
and not a vessel but a twist of fabric. 

Charlotte Bird - An unfold cloth book hangs from a towel rack

Kathy Nida - A proper rant again the waste in the world,
even at the expense and to the glory of the arts

David Cuzick - The most compelling of the works in this exhibition, with the tiny hands feet and legs
and the bulbous body. Is is floating up or falling down? We share his distress. 

David Fobes - Cross concentric circles make this paint by numbers soar into another realm. 

Terri Hughes-Oelrich - An ode to the power in our lives. Will we miss it when it all goes wireless?

Mary Cale Wilson - Terracotta carpet - nope, this is not a magic flying one, but with its earthenware fridge and raised motifs, it is much more than just a rug. 

Jason Lane - Hand made module forms create a strong pattern of interlocking shapes

Judith Christensen - Coffee filter lined up to educate us about so many scientific subjects.
We should also be this dedicated to further our knowledge of the world. 

Judith Christensen (detail)

Polly Jacobs Giacchina - Tiny loops of wire holding rocks and raffia weaving
somehow evoke peace and contemplation. 

Linda Litteral - Childhood memories on house with no windows hiding who know what. 

Kerianne Quick - A smell and a look extended on telescoping wands
help us avoid contact during the COVID year. 

Allied Craftsmen of San Diego: Hands On Design at  Oceanside Museum of Art
March 30 to August 18, 2024

March 30 to August 18, 2024

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Adventures in WOW Land

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt 
Photos by Maurice Hewitt unless otherwise noted.

Bandaloop’s thrilling performers turned a tall wall into their dance floor.

My husband Maurice and I have been going to WOW festivals since the very first one in 2013. WOW  stands for WITHOUT WALLS, and La Jolla Playhouse’s idea of presenting an array of immersive artful and mostly outdoor experiences every two years became so popular that it turned into an annual event. We were at the Rady Shell in 2023 and were eager to return to the UC San Diego campus where WOW began for this year’s four-day fest April 4-7.

All performances are now free, though some required pre-registration. They were staged in three different “hubs”, circumventing on-campus construction, and the two hubs we found most inviting—Epstein Family Amphitheater (outside and inside the Design & Innovation Building) and Revelle Plaza—were a 20-minute walk apart. Happily, we love walking, and managed to avoid the rain that started as a heavy drizzle late Thursday afternoon and continued on and off Friday but ended before our planned showtimes.

What we could not avoid was the wintry temperatures. Dressing for a ski trip was helpful, though taking notes and photos with gloves on at night wasn’t easy. Here are some of the things we enjoyed, weather or not.


If you saw the recent LJ Playhouse premiere of the musical “Redwood” in which Idina Menzel not only showed off her stellar pipes but also her impressive tree-climbing skills you may know that she was trained by this Oakland-based company, who not only taught her to climb an actual redwood tree but also the wall of a rather tall building.

Here, at the top of the D&I Building, a colorful duo of Bandaloopers started out with some cool moves, which were followed by a sextet on another side of the roof, then a riveting solo down the first side and finally an all-out performance by the six dancing acrobats who seemed to fly up, down, and out toward their rapt audience. They call it “perspective-bending dance.” It certainly was. 

Inside the building, I had a chance to step into the Fish Phone Booth Playtest, a prototype of a piece by Ash Eliza Smith and Robert Twomey whose final version will ultimately be installed in the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Inside the booth, I became the “pilot” in a closed-eye descent into the depths of the ocean, where I heard and responded to the sounds of fish and whales. No visuals yet, but inner vision is encouraged, so it was a meditative experience, which left me interested in following the booth’s progress over the next year and ready to head back outdoors.


Outside, the weather had grown colder, but a crowd was assembled for more acrobatic dance at ground level: a skillful duo from Acro Physical Theatre in Taiwan portraying an evolving relationship. Some of their moves were unusual—she actually stood on his head—but like many relationships, it went on too long. If they’d cut their 45-minute performance in half, it would have been twice as brilliant.

Three views of Duo

Still watching the dancers, but trying to keep up our body heat, we stepped up to the Bird Rock Coffee Roasters stand where Aaron, the manager, made us a special half-sweet version of Spiced Mocha. It was warming enough for us to stay for a second Bandaloop performance before walking over to Revelle Plaza for Spectrum, Society of Wonder, a puppet pageant by San Diego’s master puppet-makers Bridget Rountree and Iain Gunn, aka Animal Cracker Conspiracy.

Spectrum was a gorgeous spectacle of giant and stilt puppets, accompanied by a San Diego Symphony string quartet. Viewers were invited to create star lanterns beforehand so they could be part of the show. It was seriously cold that evening but we were glad to be there.


Star-makers (Photo: Lonnie Hewitt) 

Star-makers closeup (Photo: Lonnie Hewitt) 

                                         Two Scenes from the Puppet Performance

On Saturday, we had  a long-awaited opportunity to re-visit one of our favorite Stuart Collection pieces, Fallen Star, which had been closed to visitors for some time. Created in 2012 by internationally acclaimed Korean artist Do Ho Suh, this tilted house atop seven-story Jacobs Hall offers an experience of a changed reality that you won’t soon forget. If you’ve never been inside it, now is your chance, since it’s open Wednesdays and Thursdays, and you can sign up for a time slot in advance.

                                     Two views of Fallen Star

Street Level 

Inside, looking down ( Photo: Lonnie Hewitt)

From there, we went back to the Design & Innovation Building for Folding Futures, where we were taken on a tour by crew members of a company called Origami Air. They use Virtual and Extended Reality to create adventures that encourage imaginative consideration of possible futures. Our group of ten was introduced to various characters who led us into an elevator up to a room where we were outfitted with headsets that gave us entry into a world 40 years from today. It was a fun trip, but impossible to photograph, and I look forward to seeing what else OA’s folding futures may unfold. 

We had several other VR experiences in the D&I Building, though I soon discovered that my stylish glasses did not work very well with the headsets. So I had the choice of not being able to access all the immersive visuals or taking off my glasses and settling for a blurry-eyed view.  

I chose the first option in the virtual fashion realm of Samantha Olsen and Melissa Phan whose Augmented Threads installation explores the future of fashion in the digital age. Both just received BA degrees in a new major at UCSD: ICAM (Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts Major) and kindly emailed me some of the images I missed. Here’s one that even looks great in 2-D.      

The show room of designer Elsa Schiaparelli. 
(Courtesy of Augmented Threads design team)

I left my glasses off for Pigments of Imagination, and though I couldn’t interact with objects I didn’t see clearly, I appreciated the colorful scenery and had a good time dancing around to the music. It turns out that Pigment’s co-creator, Tim Gmeiner, who kept me from bumping into things, was a performing music artist for 20 years and is now pursuing a PhD in Computer Music at UCSD. This is his first VR piece, in collaboration with Eito Murakami, an ICAM degree recipient currently enroute to a Master’s at Stanford.

We end these Adventures in WOW Land by returning to Animal Cracker Conspiracy’s Guiding Bear. Think of him pointing the way to next year’s WOW Festival. 

(Photo: Lonnie Hewitt)

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has been writing about arts and lifestyles in San Diego County for over a dozen years. You can reach her at hew2@sbcglobal.net

Friday, April 5, 2024

ART Matters: Art Work is Real Work

by Patricia Frischer

In San Diego we are still trying to make sure that everyone knows that the arts are essential. Changing the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalitions long-winded name to San Diego ART Matters (SDAM) is a re-branding exercise which strongly makes this point. 

On April 5, some of the great and good in the arts community gathered to celebrate April Arts and Culture Month with the theme Art Work is Real Work. 

Hosted by SDAM, this was also a chance for them to launch their new streamlined strategic plan: Funding and Resources, Creative Workforce, Arts Education, and Coalition Building. Felicia Shaw, the CEO, gave us a brief history demonstrating how activating the arts community can make a political difference. 

Felicia Shaw (Image: Ken Jacque Photography)

Ms. Shaw has managed to build the board to 20 and increased paid staff to a total of 4.   It is a grant from the Prebys Foundation that provided the resources for this growth. They now have offices at UCSD Park and Market building  which also has 4 floors including a Guggenheim concert hall, Media Arts theater, and meeting rooms galore.  The stunning central staircase was utilized  on the day for an electric dance performance.

San Diego Dance Theater (Image: Ken Jacque Photography)

The keynote speaker for this event was Julie Baker, the passionate CEO of the non-profits California Arts Advocate (C4) and Californians for the Arts (C3). We were thrilled to learn that 5 out of the 12 board members are from San Diego. Even better, she told us that involvement once a month in the arts can increase life expectancy by 10 years! One of her current pushes is to get the Arts as Prescription program researched by Dr. Tasha Golden brought to San Diego. 

The bad news is that  although the arts create 8% of the GNP, we rank even behind Florida in our per capita allocation at only $.67. The California Arts Council budget is down below it highest level now and is only $26 million annually. The City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture does better than that distributing $28 million annually.  

We were lucky to get updates from Jim Gilliam, Chair, San Diego County Arts and Culture Commission and from Jonathon Glus, ED of the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. 

The County Commission which celebrates its first year of existence is announcing its strategic plan on April 25 at the Soap Factory on Commercial Street at 9 am.  Here is a hint: Knowledge, Visibility, Engagement, Communication, Capacity. 

The Arts and Culture plan for the City of San Diego will be asking for public input this summer and hopefully will earn approval from the City council late in 2024 or early 2025. 

The one city and two county strategic plans need lots more work to get them populated with firm ideas and action items. But like Julie Baker said, "We have lots of words, lots of paper."  What we need is $1 per capita spent on the arts. We need spaces for our arts organization and we need affordable housing for artists. We need real financial investment in the arts. We do have an enthusiastic team of art professionals giving their all to make this happen. 

Powerful 3 Js: Jim Gilliam, Julie Baker and Jonathon Glus