Diana Sheehan is an award-winning actress and singer who relocated to Dallas five years ago and found herself following a successful New York career with a shining start in Texas, including winning "Best of the Loop" two years in a row at Watertower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, among a variety of notable awards and performances in Dallas. Loop provides her and tens of other artists a chance to explore new material with enthusiastic crowds, as it has for 13 years.
This year, Sheehan's Searching for Gertrude Lawrence is a cabaret exploring mysterious stories surrounding the most famous Broadway star in the world from the 1920's to 1950's. You can catch the show Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p. m. We caught up with Diana Sheehan about her enduring obsession with Gertrude Lawrence, her travels following the elusive memory of a Broadway star, and how it all plays out on the Watertower stage.
How has Dallas treated you compared to what you were doing in NY?
I didn't expect to be very busy, but I've been extremely busy since I've moved to Dallas. It's a wonderful regional theater community.
Watertower's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival has been called one of the most important fringe festivals in the country. Can you speak to that?
It's a really wonderful opportunity for performers and writers to have their work done. It's a wonderful place to take risks and to try out new material or material that might not be produced in a more conventional setting.
Congratulations on winning Best of the Loop in two years in a row.
Thanks. Yes, this is my third year at Loop, and each year has been different and exciting. It's nice to know that people are appreciating your work, and it's very encouraging. It's encouraged me to write and produce and create work outside of just pressing work to do as an actor for hire.
Tell me about Gertrude Lawrence? Have you ever performed her work before?
Can I ask you a question? Have you heard of Gertrude Lawrence?
No, not until I started researching you. Why?
Well this is sort of my point, Gertrude Lawrence was a huge Broadway star, an English actress, and one of the most famous women in the world from the middle of the 1920's to the early 1950's. And now most people you ask have never heard of her. A lot of that is because she didn't do a lot of film work. Really her career was on the stage. So she was truly a creature of the theater.
It's fascinating. You have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what the big deal was all about, because the recordings of her don't really do her justice. She was really of the moment, live, on stage. So that's what I'm trying to capture in this cabaret, to take us on a journey exploring the music that was written for her, looking at all the famous reports surrounding her, and trying to understand what it is about her that made her such a great star.
She represents the nature of theater. It's ephemeral. It's here and then it's gone. That's a lot of my interest in Gertrude Lawrence. People that know of her, it's usually because of The King and I, which was written for her. She was the original. But there's many, many more reasons why you should know about Gertrude Lawrence, and that's what I explore in the show.
Is this the first time that you've dug into her work and performed it?
This is a show, interestingly, that I've been meaning to do since 1996. I started writing the show many years ago, and it kind of kept going back in my drawer as I would get other jobs or other opportunities would come along. Out of the Loop Festival really has given me an opportunity to dig into some projects I've had on the back burner for a while and given me a great opportunity to bring them forward, let people have a taste of this material. Some of the music and the show will be very familiar to people, and much of it will be completely obscure to them. But that's okay, that's sort of the fun of it.
Do you do that kind of research on most of the people that you follow?
I've done more research on Gertrude Lawrence than anyone I've ever written a show about. Her career and the mystery of how she disappeared from our consciousness has become a sort of personal quest of mine, which is why I call the show Searching for Gertrude Lawrence.
I have visited her grave, I have performed in some theaters where she worked, shared the same dressing room that she had. I've gone back to the Imperial Theater in New York and sort of felt her presence there. I performed at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts which is where she spent her summers. I also spent a lot of time in the archives at Lincoln Center going through the archival material they have, which is extensive and really interesting. It's been a bit of an obsession of mine for many years now, so I'm very grateful to Watertower for giving me this opportunity to finally express my obsession.
Fascinating. All this digging into the past gives me goose bumps.
Thank you! Well, you always think when you have an obsession with something a little off the beaten track, sometimes you get paralyzed with the fear that who's gonna care about this except me? You just sort of hope that your own enthusiasm will carry the material. And it's wonderful material. And she literally had all the greatest writers in the American Musical Theater writing for her, so the music is just wonderful. And that's really where the focus of the evening is, on the music. There are 22 songs in the show. Everyone from The Gerschwins to Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Noel Coward, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. There's quite an array of composers.
Tell me about the process of shopping for costumes for the show?
I work with a costumer named John Ahrens. Without giving too much away, what we found for the first dress is an early career look, so it's kind of vintage 1920's beaded dress. Then the second act we're going for her later career, sort of late 1940's early 50's ball gown, which actually the basic dress we found, of all places, on the sale rack at Terry Costa, slightly damaged and severely marked down. And John is working his magic on it, turning it into a really spectacular ball gown.
Clothes are really important in the show because she was considered in her day one of the best dressed women in the world. People like Hattie Carnegie designed her costumes, so her fabulousness is really expressed through her clothing, and she was really a fashion icon. So we've had fun doing that.
When you talk about Gertrude Lawrence as this creature of the theater, that reminds me of you. What is it that you love so much about the stage? What I love about the performance and cabaret in particular is that it happens in the moment. And cabaret in particular is so direct--the audience plays such a part in every performance. It's always different. The energy shifts, even if it's slightly, it shifts, and it's different, and it's new. That's what I find exciting about live performance is that communication with the audience, that give and take.
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After all this research and travel, have you thought about writing a book or using the material in a big way? Funny you ask that because we're presenting this at Out of the Loop as a cabaret piece, which is basically is part concert, part storytelling, part stand-up comedy. It's one person at a microphone telling stories and singing songs, kind of like "come into my living room and let me tell you about what I know." But I always considered this piece to have the potential to be a play with multiple characters. And that would be the next place that I would want to go with this material, because there is so much material, so many different ways to tell her story. I decided that instead of being paralyzed, overwhelmed with the task of writing a full-on play and getting that produced, that I would start presenting the material this way, which seemed doable to me. Part of my goal is to do these performances at Out of the Loop festival and then see what we learn over the week of performances, where it grows from there. So the next stop with this material may be a play.
So Out of The Loop really is a good place to take risks.
Out of the Loop makes it so easy for artists to get their work produced, which is wonderful. I would consider bringing the material back in a different form, depending on how it goes. This might be enough. It's going to be very interesting to talk to people who see the show and see how they feel about it, to gauge their interest in the music and the material and Gertrude Lawrence as a character. Hopefully they'll want to know more.
Sometimes you feel like you can't get it all in one evening. In cabaret you're always kind of balancing--you don't want to be doing a lecture, you don't want to be doing a book report. You want to be fun and engaging and entertaining. So those are some of the things that I hope, that it will be fun and entertaining, and alive. That's what she was, that was her spirit. It's about trying to find her essence in the evening.