No matter how skilled the storyteller, it can sometimes be hard to tell a story. This task becomes immeasurably more difficult when the teller is expected to fully transform into the character both physically and mentally. To further complicate things, add the fact that your protagonist has a personality that is both legendary and larger than life. At Addison's WaterTower Theatre, local actress Diana Sheehan has been given quite the tall order. Full Gallop, opening at WaterTower Theatre Saturday night, chronicles the life of storied journalist and glamourous character, Diana Vreeland.
Vreeland, who served as editor of both Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, had a lavish and influential career in the fashion industry that spanned over five decades, culminating with her tenure as a special consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. In the play, Sheehan plays Vreeland as she faces a crucial moment in her career: being fired from Vogue in 1971. Mixmaster sat down with Sheehan to talk about transforming into Diana Vreeland, the surreality of playing a character with your own name, and the difficulty of performing a one-woman show.
Are there any specific things that you did to prepare that helped guide your transformation into Diana Vreeland?
It's very unusual to play someone who was a real person, first of all. Then, it was even more unusual to play someone who was so deliberate and well-edited as Diana Vreeland. Every single choice she made was important to her. There was a lot to do in terms of developing this character, but fortunately there is a lot of great material out there that helped me learn more about who she was. There are a lot of books on her, and there is a really great documentary about Diana Vreeland called The Eye Has To Travel.
There's a lot of footage of her in that film, so I was able to observe exactly how she was. How she moved, dressed, talked, and gestured. I also went to New York to visit The Costume Institute, which she founded. It was really fun, and I wanted to see this sort of opulence she talked about in regards to fashion and just her life in general. I also walked down Park Ave and found her apartment. I may have stalked down the doorman a little. I walked in her footsteps and reminded myself of her power.
Did you know much about her past and personality? How did you incorporate that into your portrayal? I knew of her, but I actually saw the original production of this play in 1996 when Mary Louise Wilson did it in New York. That was my first introduction to her, and I had no idea as to what kind of influence she was and this singular strength of personality. That was really my first introduction to her. Diana Vreeland is so... Diana Vreeland. She was so specific. The script is so interesting because some words are italicized to indicate their importance, so it was as if the text was guiding me through this character. There was so much superficial to observe about Diana, but then my job is to observe and understand where this comes from. She was so self-invented. She had all these influences and this great determination for a person of her time and her class. Women didn't have to do that, certainly not women with money.
Is it surreal sharing a name with your character, or does it make the part a little easier? I'm Di-ana, and she's Dee-anna. I learned very early in my research that she was born Diana in Paris, then became Dee-anna. That was part of her transformation into who she ultimately was. Maybe once this show is over I'll be Dee-anna Sheehan. We self-invent, all of us, not just actors. It's sort of the American way.
When Diana Vreeland lost her job at Vogue, she was reinventing herself. Have you ever had to do that? I have to say that Dee-anna Vreeland would say that she didn't reinvent herself, she just kept going. Have I had to reinvent myself? Sure. I moved to Dallas six years ago because my husband was recruited to a job here, and I didn't know a soul. I had to go out and make friends and find my own way. That was a point where I had to decide when to stop or keep going.
Can you talk a little about the development of character in a one-woman show as opposed to a larger cast? Is this type of show easier, or harder for actors? It's just different. Certainly there are a lot more words, and the audience becomes an incredibly integral partner in this. We're having an intimate chat in Diana Vreeland's apartment. The kind of listening you do isn't different, you're just working with an audience and not just actors yet. It's the same moment-by-moment work, so it's really no different. You can have a monologue that goes on for two paragraphs or a monologue that goes on for ninety pages. It's just me and the director in the room. I come in every day to show him the work, and it's kind of wonderful to have that kind of focus and attention from a director.
Is it intimidating to know that you've got to fill the whole stage with this character and your presence? There's always good days and bad days. It's not intimidating, but it is a lot of responsibility.
Full Gallop opens at 8 p.m. Saturday and runs through August 31. Tickets available at watertowertheatre.org.