Alexandra Bonifield here, Onstageblog.com’s N. Texas/Oklahoma contributor, regional theatre journalist, critic and advocate. This is my inaugural post in a series I call Thespian Trend-setters: profiles of some of the region’s leading performance artists and creative personalities. “Getting to Know You”, Onstageblog.com’s readers, will be fun. Hope you enjoy “getting to know us” as well. @Abonifield
Diana Sheehan’s blue eyes sparkle with inner warmth, reflecting her confidence, generosity and adventurous spirit. “You sure know how to make a girl feel at home, Dallas,” she exclaims, reflecting on the nearly seven years she has lived here. “How grateful I am for all of the wonderful actors, directors, designers, stage managers, dressers, ushers and volunteers I have gotten to know in this region.” Sheehan wasn’t sure what she’d find in the way of performing possibilities in the Dallas/ Fort Worth area when her husband’s work moved their family here from New York in 2008. She shakes her head slowly. “I moved here with a “New York is the center of the theatre universe” attitude. I had no opinion about the Dallas theatre community or even any idea that there was a Dallas theatre community!” Since arriving, she has found the region bustling with performance opportunities. It has embraced her with open arms. She has received a DFW Critics Forum Award, a Column Award and several "Best of Loop" designations for her three solo cabaret performances at WaterTower Theatre’s nationally respected Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. In addition to appearing at Water Tower Theatre, she has performed at Lyric Stage, Dallas Theatre Center, Uptown Players, Casa Manana and Amphibian Stage. Theatre here has kept her very busy, along with her daily duties as mom to two outgoing teen-agers. Freelance theatre journalist, critic and advocate Alexandra Bonifield caught up to Sheehan and gleaned some insights into this dynamic artist’s experiences.
“I first saw Diana Sheehan when she auditioned for our production of “As Thousands Cheer” in 2009. As soon as she finished her audition selection, I knew we had to cast her. She is terrific.” Steven Jones, Founding Producer, Lyric Stage, Irving TX www.lyricstage.org
What was the first show you performed in here, and how was it received?
I was first cast in an Irving Berlin revue, As Thousands Cheer, at Lyric Stage in Irving. It was well received and we won the DFW Critics Forum Award for Best Ensemble Cast.
How did you first contact WaterTower Theatre? What was your first show there? Who directed it and who did you perform with?
I first came to WaterTower to audition for the musical Violet. I was not cast. However, my headshot must have turned up on Producing Artistic Director Terry Martin’s desk somehow. I got a call from WaterTower six months later when they were casting Grey Gardens, the musical based on the 1975 documentary of that title about the lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie") by Albert and David Maysles. They cast me in the main female role, playing two characters. That was my first time to work with Terry Martin as a director. The cast was phenomenal, including: Pam Dougherty, Gary Floyd, Bruce Elliott, Matt Moore, and Kim Whalen. Musical direction was by James McQuillen, who I have collaborated with on many musical projects since then. Grey Gardens was an incredibly challenging show, one of the most challenging roles for any woman in musical theatre. But I was surrounded by excellence, so that made it pure joy.
Since then you have performed at WaterTower Theatre numerous times. What shows?Black Pearl Sings; Shooting Star; Putting It Together; Full Gallop; Out of the Loop Fringe Festivals 2012, 2013, 2014.
In 2014 you gave a remarkable performance in Full Gallop, a one-woman virtuoso portrait of fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland. How was that experience?
Full Gallop was the most fun I have ever had on stage. It was one of the most difficult roles I’ve ever tackled. Mrs. Vreeland’s exuberance for life, for going at it “full gallop”, was infectious--both for me and for the audience. It required the most discipline of anything I’ve done: 90 pages of monologue is a lot of words to live with. In order to learn and maintain the show, I had to live in semi-isolation: no radio, no TV, no Facebook... there just wasn’t room on my internal hard drive for anything but the words of the play. Additional joy: a one-on-one collaboration with Terry Martin. John Ahrens costume was pitch perfect. Do you know he made sure the soles of my shoes were blackened every night because we read somewhere that Diana Vreeland’s maid did that for her every day? God is in those details.
What brings you back to WaterTower time and again? Does working at Water Tower help you grow as an artist?
Terry Martin brings me back to WaterTower. He always finds new challenges for me. He never casts me in the same kind of role. You can’t help but grow being given new challenges and opportunities in a supportive, creative, collaborative environment.
What is Terry Martin like to work with as a director?
Terry is a very collaborative, insightful, thoughtful director. He creates an environment deeply respectful of the assembled artists. And then he lets them do their job. He is not ego driven; it is always about the clarity of the story telling -- the truth of the moment, specificity. He expects everyone to bring their best to the table, doesn’t always talk a lot. I remember when I first started working with him, I wondered why he wasn’t directing me more. Then I realized he was letting me find my way. When I got lost or had questions, he redirected. He’s wise in not imposing too much on actors. That’s why his best work is so wonderfully organic and true. He lets us come to it, lets us have our process. Of course, Terry’s an actor first, so he really understands how we work.
You recently assisted Terry Martin in directing the sold out farce Sexy Laundry starring Wendy Welch and Bob Hess. What did that entail? Is directing an area of production you hope to expand into?
Assistant directing for Terry is very dynamic. He gave me free rein to participate, share ideas, give notes, disagree. I guess I was surprised and yet not surprised by how easily I slipped into the director role. As an actor, I think I’ve always been someone who sees the bigger picture of a play. Being opinionated and confident in my tastes has never been a problem for me!
“Working with Diana is pure joy--open, generous, focused, intense, smart, trained, truthful spontaneous -- some of the words that come immediately to mind when I think of her.” Bob Hess, professional stage and screen actor
What's up for you next at WaterTower?
I’ll be playing Kate Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, opening April 17, opposite my favorite director and superb professional actor, Terry Martin! That’s a “first” I look forward to.
In reflection, you don’t miss New York all that much?
My time in Dallas has really been a surprisingly rewarding “second act” for me as an actor. I am so grateful for all of the support I’ve gotten from WaterTower audiences and from my fellow WOW members (I’m an honorary member). As a professional touring actor, you’re at one theatre for the duration of a show, then fly off to the next city and a new venue. It’s really something to share a body of work with an audience who knows you over time. I can’t tell you how much I value that in Dallas, my home.
My arts blog criticalrant.com review of Sheehan’s cabaret Nobody’s Hart:
Diana Sheehan's critically acclaimed CD, Nobody's Hart: the Lyrics of Lorenz Hart: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/dianasheehan
For more information: www.watertowertheatre.org
Photos by Mark Oristano unless otherwise indicated