The veteran star of stage, film and TV opens up about the iconic Texan-American she was born to play — and about the politics you won't hear expressed in "Ann," her one-woman Broadway show.
When Philadelphia native Holland Taylor steps onto stage in Ann, she’s isn’t just acting the part of Ann Richards, late, great governor of Texas and crackerjack orator; she channels her. Donning a snow white skirt-suit and the stiff silver crown of Thundercat hair favored by Southern ladies of a certain age—writer Molly Ivins once referred to it as “Republican hair”—Taylor moves with Richards' gait, cracks wise in her accent and delivers not just information about Richards, but the essence of her colorful personality.
Dorothy Ann Willis Richards grew up in Waco, Texas, married early in life, and soon after gave birth to the first of her four children. Taylor’s one-woman play brings us back to those early years, when Richards came up as a behind-the-scenes political operative in Texas politics, and then through the pivotal moment when she decided to run for office. Up until then, Taylor-as-Richards tells us, “I thought that taking care of my children and husband was my profession.”
Even though Richards was elected as Texas state treasurer in 1982, most of America—including Taylor—was not acquainted with her until that famous powerhouse keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. “Poor George,” Richards sighed about H.W. Bush. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Holland’s script emphasizes that, beyond breaking the gender barrier of Texas and national politics, Richards was driven by a fundamental passion for simple fairness, something that is not possible when the population of state legislatures and Congress don’t reflect the diversity of our country. That’s an easy sentiment to identify with from our vantage point in Pennsylvania: Not only are we still one of 24 states that has never had a female governor—which could change soon, with Rep. Allyson Schwartz running next year—we have a General Assembly in which women only make up just 17.8 percent, according to figures compiled by the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.
The Emmy-winning Taylor, having grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs, knows this story well. In the wake of her Tony Award nomination, the veteran actress and new playwright chats with PW about being in the 1 percent, the sudden flash of inspiration that led her to pull over while driving and write down the seeds of what developed into Ann, and the night of a lifetime when former president Bill Clinton told her she got it all exactly right.
We saw Ann at the Lincoln Center (N.Y.) last night, and it was awesome. What is your first recollection of Ann Richards?
The keynote [at 1988’s Democratic National Convention], like everybody else! I met her once, but that has nothing to do with writing the play. She was a figure in life in New York. After she was governor, she worked briefly for a law firm in Washington, then she was hired by Public Strategies to be kind of a very high-profile consultant in New York City. She worked here for four or five years until just before she was ill. She was a real presence in New York, and she became much more famous after she was governor than when she was governor—and really internationally so. She was mobbed in Tiananmen Square. She was a very romantic and heroic figure, and yet extremely accessible and warm at the same time. This is how I remembered her.
I just couldn’t believe that she died so young [at age 73 in 2006]. When people die even younger than that, it’s just incredibly shocking. I remember when Jacqueline Kennedy died [at 64], it was just—wait a minute, what? But I realized after [Ann] died that I really missed her so much. I missed the voice, and I was really sort of heartbroken in a way that just didn’t seem to make psychological sense. I didn’t know her personally, other than a lunch, which wasn’t anything. Except I did note at that lunch her charm and her impact. She was like the sun.
Was it a personal lunch or an event?
A personal lunch with me and Liz Smith. Liz Smith was her great friend she made in New York when she was here. Liz would have been slightly older than Ann, so Ann had someone a little older than her to relate to, which must’ve been wonderful for her—[she was] also from a very small rural area in Texas, so they had similar background, though not exactly the same accent. Ann really did have a central Texas twang. People don’t have a twang like that anymore.
Yes! As she quipped in her keynote intro, “After listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like.” You’ve referred to the creation of Ann as a “heart quest,” and that you had the feeling Ann Richards somehow chose you to do this.
I do feel that now, but not in some woo-woo way. But I was compelled. I’ve never written anything for public consumption before, [but] I like writing. I am an OK wordsmith; I have a feel for it, and I know the workings of the theater very well by osmosis. I’ve been in the theater for 54 years. You just get it through your skin. I know what works, and I know what doesn’t work. And I can put my finger on why sometimes.
The idea came to represent her in a play because I simply wanted to do something creative about her, something with my feelings. If I was a painter, I would have painted her. I felt, well, I can play her, then what to play her in? It came to me literally on the road while driving to work. The idea came that it has to be live theater, and in the space of time that I pulled over—10 to 15 minutes to think about it—the four or five organizing principles of the play, which are completely in place right this minute, came to me in a flood. I mean, really brilliant, brilliant ideas that were, like, from somewhere else! And I thought, holy god, that’s a great concept. That’s a great shape. That will really work theatrically. And I never looked back.
I did three years of intense research, a lot of travel, a lot of computer work and paperwork, a lot of watching videos—just relentless. Relentless! I still research because I find it compelling and interesting. Both Ann’s chiefs of staff and her daughters say that in a general way, I know more about Ann than any one person. A lot of other people know much more deeply about certain aspects, of course.
How did you present this idea to her family? Were they receptive from the beginning?
I actually did so very early in my research because I figured, well, I’m stumbling around in these people’s backyard; I have to let them know what I have in mind. Now, Liz, of course, was very close friends with Ann. She knew all the children and a lot of people very close to Ann, and she privately wondered if I could ever capture the essence of her old friend. But she respected me as a mind, and so she floated the idea at them.
I met Cecile [Richards, Ann’s daughter and current president of Planned Parenthood] and [daughter] Ellen at a luncheon in Ann’s memory in New York—that was at Liz’s arrangement—and I told them I was working on it, and they seemed to welcome it, which sort of surprised me. And then I met several people who worked very closely with Ann. Sandra Castellanos, who was mentioned in the play, she was the young person in the Capitol and then later worked for Ann in New York as an executive assistant. She was the conduit because she worked for Ann in a lesser capacity when Ann was governor, so she knew, and I knew by then from my research, the key people that I had to get to. And we went to Texas twice, the two of us, stayed for a week each time and met about 15 people each time. It was a wipeout. Once I had met them that way, we all started off very well, then I had phone relationships with all of them, sometimes at great length. Countless hours. For example, just with her general counsel. To understand the full confusion and quagmire around the death penalty issues and what Ann Richards was up against in dealing with that, I must have talked to David Talbot maybe six or seven hours in three or four conversations just on that one topic.
I was curious about your creative decision to focus a bit on the death penalty issue.
First of all, she had a case every month. She passed on 50 people to die while she was governor. She gave stays to two of them, and they were very controversial. I felt that the public watching the play should understand her situation, or any governor’s situation in Texas, because there’s great misunderstanding about it. Governors [of Texas] don’t give pardons; the Board of Pardons give pardons. The governor can only issue a stay of execution, which is a 30-day delay, period. Most people do not know that. And the rules for why they would or wouldn’t are nonexistent. It’s a mess. And that particular decision, I know why she made it, I know what was on the issue for that particular defendant, and I have privileged information there from the highest sources, and so I evoked the conversation about it. With my now-familiar sense of how she talked, I wrote it up. That’s what I did with all the office scenes. They’re completely imaginary in terms of conversation, but not in terms of events.
PW's Summer Guide 2015