Crafting Theatre, Part 2: Research
The next stage in preparing a touring show based upon an actual historic figure is research.
Proper research for a new show is key, for two reasons: First off, it’s a big responsibility, presenting the story of someone’s life. Especially the story of someone whose life has already ended. For many audience members, their first (and possibly only) frame of reference for Deanna Durbin will be my touring show, and I want to do her justice.
The second reason is that there’s always at least one person who attends my shows who is either a fan and/or a self-proclaimed expert of the original subject. They generally come up to talk to me after I perform, and I need to be able to carry on an educated conversation with someone who has had a lot more time to learn about the topic … so not only was the research necessary, but I also needed to see if Deanna’s life was interesting enough for me to, essentially, wager ¾ of my year’s earnings on other people sharing that opinion. I also needed to ascertain if the rivalry between Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland was an actual fact, and if it was well-documented enough for the topic of a show.
Leaning more about Judy Garland was easy – I spent a month singing in New York in December, doing an Off-Broadway run of my children’s show, Opera Mouse. And when there’s research to be done, there’s no better city than New York. At the New York Performing Arts Library (one of my favourite places in the world), there were piles of books about Judy Garland. I skimmed a couple and read a couple more, and by the end of the first week, I was regretting that the show wasn’t wholly about Judy (I had to keep reminding myself that her story has been told many times, and that even though I could do it well, this show wasn’t only going to be about her).
Learning about Deanna, though, was more of a challenge. I started online: There wasn’t much written about her online during her lifetime (according to Google), however when news of her death was announced in 2013, newspapers around the world wrote articles and retrospectives. Many of these repeated the same facts (Deanna saved Universal from Bankruptcy/Married three times/Quit Hollywood at age 28, and retired to France), and several of them mentioned the rivalry with Judy. Turner Classic Movies had a good biography of Deana, and I also found a comprehensive article on a blog about Deanna’s roots in Winnipeg, Canada, as well as an extensive database from the Deanna Durbin Devotees – a fan club which has been active for over 80 years!
So I had facts – a lot of facts – and pages and pages of organized notes. And I was starting, in my head and through extensive notes, to put together the story of a life that was both compelling and fascinating… But all this was information that anyone could find. I wanted to dig deeper. Not only for more information about Deanna, but to understand her a bit better, and how she fit in to the historical narrative of the 30s and 40s...