Out of the Loop's Star Diana Sheehan on the Festival, Living in Texas and Gertrude Lawrence
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.