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In 1994, Sean Murray and Bill Schmidt first met, introduced by a mutual friend. This dynamic couple would eventually found Cygnet Theatre, first in Rolando in 2003, then in Old Town in 2008. In the years before launching the much buzzed-about Cygnet, Murray polished his craft on the stage, delivering some superb performances. Schmidt continued his career in business and entrepreneurship.
Hollywood is always touting their power couples, so I thought it was time to put the spotlight on our successful theater duos in San Diego.
The power couple of San Diego’s theater scene, with Murray playing the role of artistic director and Schmidt as executive director, gave me some answers in a recent interview.
When and how did the idea percolate for you to operate a theater together?
BILL: After Sean left the North Coast Repertory Theatre (where he had been artistic director) he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do next. I also wanted to try something outside of my software job. I’ve always been entrepreneurial by nature, and thought that starting a business with Sean would be fun. It just grew from there.
What obstacles did you face, and do you still face?
SEAN: One of the biggest challenges for us has been adapting to exponential growth especially during the recent recession. Unlike some more established organizations we don’t have deep pockets so when a production comes in under budget it can have a real impact. Personally I would say that the biggest challenge is trying to find a work/life balance.
Do you think that it helps or hinders you to be partners in life as well as in your company?
BILL: Being life partners is beneficial because we both have a very high respect and understanding for what the other does. There are also almost always big conflicts between the two leaders at the top of an arts organization and having Sean and I at the top together is one of Cygnet’s greatest strengths. It can be very stressful on our personal lives and you definitely need to have a strong relationship to be able to work this way.
What are the benefits/downsides of your partnership?
SEAN: I think we are both very stubborn and highly opinionated but also very supportive of each other. Whatever we go through with Cygnet, we go through together, so that is definitely a benefit.
What are your individual roles and responsibilities?
BILL: I manage the business side of running the theater and Sean runs the artistic side. There are some areas where we overlap but we pretty much stick to what we each do best. I’d never direct and Sean wouldn’t be caught dead in an Excel spreadsheet.
Does Sean make all the artistic choices?
BILL: Sean has the final say but he is very open to feedback and recommendations. We both have a very strong belief that artistic choices by committee don’t work. We have the same set of values and goals for the theater.
How do you relax?
SEAN: By spending quiet time on our ranch in the mountains. It’s quiet and as far away from the stresses of the theater as we can get.
What would you be doing if you weren’t running Cygnet?
BILL: If we could figure out how to do it financially, I think we would be living a fulltime sustainable lifestyle on the ranch.
What does Cygnet look like five, 10 years from now, and are you in the picture?
SEAN: Right now we’re looking at just stabilizing our new home in Old Town. I think we will still be around in 10 years but I wouldn’t want to predict after that. One goal that we share is that we do want Cygnet to be around when we are gone.
What advice would you give to others considering a partnership like yours?
Both: It is so much easier to give advice than to take it. It is a tremendous amount of work and education and it is easily the hardest thing we have ever done. Make sure it is what you want because it is not easy. Make sure both partners are totally committed because it will cause great stress to your relationship. That being said, it is definitely rewarding and everyone should follow his or her dreams. I would say that having a sense of humor is really important. I would also say that you do need to find balance and time away. You also need friends you can talk to who understand and are supportive.
Jenni Prisk has been going to theater for nearly 30 years in San Diego County and writing about it for seven. She’s an international motivational speaker, communications coach and trainer.