A one-woman stage tribute to Ann Richards becomes Ms. Holland's opus
Ann Richards was born for the theatre. Though not an actress, she held the political stage with a larger-than-life persona that was right at home in the playhouse; she had a playwright's instinct for the great line and a great actor's ability to deliver it to maximum effect. Moreover, the battles of her life – as a liberal politician in a conservative state, as a woman in the good ol' boys club of the Texas Capitol, as a divorced single mother, as an alcoholic – were the stuff of great drama.
"Was there ever a figure more suited to a live performance than that live wire?" asks Holland Taylor, the accomplished actor of stage and screen who brings her new solo show, Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards, to the Paramount Theatre for a six-performance run beginning May 4. Taylor did not know Richards well, but she was deeply affected by the former governor's death in 2006, and she was driving to her job on the sitcom Two and a Half Men when the notion of creating the one-woman vehicle struck her like a bolt from the blue. Since then, she's committed more than three years to researching Richards' life, interviewing her intimates and colleagues, and writing and readying the show for production. In May 2010, she workshopped the play at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, following it with a run at the Empire Theatre in San Antonio in December and an encore run at the Grand last month. Taylor plans to tour it to Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and eventually New York.
Prior to her visit to Richards' hometown, Taylor told the Chronicle how an actor with no aspirations to perform a solo show and no experience writing one came to do this one.
Austin Chronicle: Was this play something you felt you had to do?
Holland Taylor: Yeah, I was absolutely compelled to do it. It took me a while to realize that. In fact, I've discovered a lot in hindsight. I was thunderstruck by her death, which was already surprising. I didn't know her personally – I'd had lunch with her, but she was just someone I loved, and I loved knowing that she'd always be there, so then when she wasn't, I was quite undone. And I couldn't shake it. I thought, "This is odd. What does this mean?" I realized that when I got the idea, I was literally driving to work, to Two and a Half Men, that job, and the idea to do a staged play [came to me]. But the thing is, right then the idea of how to do it, what the setting would be, what the occasion would be that she would be speaking, and also this centerpiece in the governor's office, all these things literally came then, at once. I had to pull over, and I sat there in my car, looking off into the middle distance, thinking, "Oh my goodness, oh my goodness," overwhelmed with the idea. After about 15 minutes, I pulled off the service road and went to work, and I never looked back. From that moment on, I was putting one foot in front of the other – often in the dark, not knowing quite what I was doing, but I was doing it, that was for damn sure.
After about six months of reading about her and thinking about her, I started to feel like, "Holland, you shouldn't even be doing this research unless you get in touch with the family, let them know you're doing it, and see how they feel about it. Because if they don't want you to do it, you're not going to want to do it." I did meet Cecile and Ellen [Richards' daughters], and they seemed very enthusiastic about the idea. Then I forged on, and I soon met Dan and Clark [Richards' sons], and they were very welcoming. And then all the people really close to Ann, they all welcomed me with open arms. I couldn't believe it. I expected exactly the opposite. Because I think in general all these people were pecked to death with people wanting to know things about Ann or do things about Ann. Sandra Castellanos, her secretary from New York, scheduled me a lot of time. And then I said, "Look, I've got to go to Texas. I've got to meet these people," and she got off her job for five days and lined up the people for me to meet the first go-round. In five days, I met about 16 people, and that means at breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, dinner meetings, cocktail meetings, and meetings in their offices. It was overwhelming.
I've talked to many, many people now; it must be close to 100, and some of them at great length – I mean, Jane Hickey [Richards' campaign manager] and Claire Korioth [a Richards gubernatorial appointee] and Mary Beth Rogers [Richards' chief of staff], I don't even know how many hours I've talked to them. A hundred? I asked Mary Beth, who's been wonderful, after we'd talked for three hours one day, "God, Mary Beth, how many hours do you think we've spoken?" And she answered immediately: "Thousands."
They're all teasing about it, but they gave at the office, you know what I mean? I didn't think about it at the time, because if I'd thought about it, I would have hesitated. I would have not called. If I'd considered them, I would have not done what I did. I robbed them blind. I just took their time, and I didn't care, because I needed what they had. I just put aside my normal politeness. I put aside my natural caution and my natural thoughtfulness, and I said, "Screw it. I need to talk to Mary Beth about thus and such. Mary Beth's the only one who knows. I must call Jane. Jane has to explain this to me. Claire would know this." I would go to these women for what I needed from them, and I just took it. And they gave it. They gave it. They were good to me. Everybody I've met has been so generous.
And I think it has served a purpose for many of them, to talk about her, to talk about their time. Particularly someone like Mary Beth; you think, she was chief of staff for the governor of Texas. She had known [Richards] since they were both young women, and they were housewives trying to make a difference, and look how high they went. That period in their lives is very romantic for them, I think, and also Ann's death was so untimely and so cruel that I like to think a lot of them have been served by being able to talk about her to someone who's really listening and who really cares and really finds it compellingly interesting and moving. So to have a good listener and not just someone they want to talk to about something in their lives. I hope I made up for how much I took from them.
AC: Is there also for them the element of your giving Ann's voice another life in a way that a book can't, to keep her voice alive?
HT: I think so now in hindsight. I can't really say that I had that motive, because I never knew how far this play was going to go. I wasn't being professional and practical. It was really following an impulse. And of course, I was in search of her persona. I wasn't doing a history. This isn't history. This isn't political. This is about who she was. And of course, you reveal who people are by showing them in different circumstances, and that's what I do in the play. People would tell stories, and they wouldn't know the relative importance of anything they might say. They'd say, "Oh, you don't want to hear this," and I'd say, "Yeah, I do. Whatever came into your head just then, that's what I do want to hear." The person who's being interviewed doesn't know what is being sought. They haven't spent any time thinking about it. And they shouldn't. Things that pop out are what you want. Sandra Castellanos, for example, told me a story that the minute I heard it, I thought, "That's the end of the play." And it is. She didn't think that it had any relative merit over anything else. Everything for them is just in passing. But for me, it was like, "Oh my goodness, that's an amazing story." I was always listening for how Ann would talk about things – how informal would she be, how formal, how warm, how intimate, how distant.
AC: Everybody is looking at her life from a different angle, and you're coming at it from an angle of how this life can be represented dramatically.
HT: And in an understandable way, that has resonance to an audience.
AC: It's that crucial detail that looks small from one angle, but from another angle, it explains everything.
HT: I have a lot of film of her, and it's often the small detail in her behavior that tells me everything: how she listens to people, what she looks like when she's listening – just many, many things that were revealing to me and delighted me. I saw a picture of her taken when she was down at South Padre Island when she was there a few days after she lost the election for a second term. And she's on the beach, and she's got a sweatshirt on, and she has a bandana around her neck and to it is safety-pinned her house key. I actually started to cry, because it told me so much about her. There are lots of little details like that. I got to know her very well, such that when I'd see a video of her at some event, I'd think, "I know what she's thinking." But then again, she was always full of surprises, and people's tales about her would surprise me, too. Times when she was vulnerable when I thought she would be tough. Times when she was tough when I thought she would be vulnerable.
AC: Was there that moment when you crossed from writer to actor, when it came time to inhabit Ann, that you worried how to be her onstage?
HT: Oh my gosh, I've had lots of trepidation. The audience is very supportive from the minute I get out there, and that helps. They want it. They want it to be good. They want me to be good. They want to have a wonderful time remembering her and also discovering her, because they discover her in a new way. I feel that power, and that power fills me with assurance and insight. Because in subtle ways, the audience will know when you really got it right, and you'll feel them really getting it, and that in some ineffable way cements certain things into you.
But I was working so hard as writer and producer, by the first time I actually performed it, I can hardly even describe what it was like. I've still got a lot of thinking about this play to do – actor thinking. That's still ahead of me, a lot of it, because all that takes time, breaking it down: What's really happening in this scene? What's she trying to do? I wrote out of instinct. And I perform out of instinct. My instinct has taken me a long, long way. The intellect became very involved with the writing of the play and the research. Now the intellect still has a lot of acting work to do, although what I'm doing as far as the audience is concerned is fine. But for my money, I will never be finished with breaking this part down.
AC: So how many arguments did the actor have with the playwright?
HT: A lot. A lot. Oh, bitter complaints. "Who wrote this?" And "This is too long." And the playwright would say, "It's not long enough." But when I'm playing her, I've learned this ... approval is not the right word. [From] the lively and delighted response that I get from the audience – it's not that I get, that she gets from the audience – I've learned that I'm in the ballpark, that there's not a moment in the play that I'm not in the ballpark. The audience stays with it. And it's actually quite rigorous to perform in the sense that it requires tremendous focus and concentration, but it is joyful to perform, because first of all, I'm playing her. What a great character. Second, the response from the audience – what I've coined the "flowback" – is elixir. It's the fountain of youth. I've never had such a joyful experience as a performer. Never.
And I certainly wouldn't be performing a big solo show at my age by design. It wasn't that I was thinking at my advanced years, "Oh, I want to do a one-person show. Let me see, what character can I pick?" Well, people do do that. And they smartly do that. Hal Holbrook started Mark Twain when he was in his twenties. There it was, a case where he did want to create a character that he would do. That's not the way it happened with me. It was from the inside out. First of all, Ann made me do it. I really think that I was drafted, or what's that word for when they get you on a pirate ship and they put a bag over your head, and you're suborned or whatever, you're suddenly a pirate?
HT: Well. I was shanghaied, and now I'm a pirate for Ann. [laughs]
AC: And it sounds like she hasn't just pressed you into service but opened a number of doors for you from the beyond to make sure you had no opportunity to walk away.
HT: Yeah, I've never lifted my head from the task. And as it has evolved into a production that has and will continue to have a very viable life, I've seen how it affects people that I wouldn't expect it to affect. When I would think about it, I'd think, "Oh, this will be enormously appealing for women." Well, it's just as appealing for men! My god, I'm astonished by how men have responded to this play. And young people who, if they had heard of the governor, she was just a governor when they were 1. So they didn't have any expectations. They weren't comparing what I'm doing to some memory that they have. And the biggest surprise of all – I did want to be an echo of her, but what I didn't know was that right along with the echo came the inspiration, came the empowerment. Because people walk out of this excited, inspired – [they] want to redouble their efforts in their own lives, want to recommit themselves to their dreams, want to make new dreams, believing that anything is possible, because that's something that she conveyed to people. She would say, "This has nothing to do with girls. This is anybody." And I hadn't expected the show to function that way, but it does, and that may be the strongest thing about it. Which is thrilling. Can you imagine? That wasn't my goal, but imagine that as an extra benefit of doing this.
Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards runs May 4-8, Wednesday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 2 & 8pm: Sunday, 2pm; at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For information, call 474-1221 or visit www.austintheatre.org.