For the veteran actor Holland Taylor, there’s no one surefire method for successfully embodying a real-life character onstage. But nailing down someone’s manner of speaking—and in the case of Ann Richards, her distinctive Texas drawl—is certainly part of it. “Ann was not a fast talker. She was slow, relaxed—cold honey, as I like to say,” Taylor says. “Words like ‘im-por-tant’ and ‘skoo-wl’—those are the keywords where, if you hit them wrong, you’ll really hear it.”
As the star of the one-woman stage show Ann, which the 77-year-old actor also wrote and produced, Taylor first stepped into the politician’s shoes ten years ago before a sold-out crowd of Galvestonians. A life story told in two acts, Ann is framed around Richards delivering a commencement speech at an unnamed college; it’s implied (though never stated) that the show portrays a visit from an angel. Half an hour into Act I, the reveal of designer Michael Fagin’s detailed executive office set begins a heart-pumping hour in the life of the outsized political trailblazer.
Over its ten years as a touring play, Ann has sold out theaters across the nation, and Taylor’s performance has earned her critical praise as well as Tony and Drama Desk nominations for Best Actress. On June 19, a staging of the play—filmed at Austin’s Zachary Scott Theatre in 2016—will air as part of the PBS anthology series Great Performances. A showcase of performances ranging from Oedipus Rex to Les Misérables, the PBS series serves as an archive of presentations deemed culturally significant enough for preservation—an honor not often given to one-man shows, never mind a one-woman staging.
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Although she’s been doing this for more than a decade, Taylor often finds herself in her office poring over interviews, speeches, and other videos she’s amassed of the former governor. “My research really never stops,” Taylor says. “I always keep that ear out for “What did she say?” “What was the occasion?” “How did she react?” To hear Taylor describe it, portraying one of Texas’s iconic figures “warts and all” is not unlike becoming a concert pianist—it’s a skill learned through years of diligent practice, yet it’s not something you can ever master completely. Those who knew Richards, though, say that Taylor managed to aptly capture her demeanor. “It’s scary how accurate [Holland’s portrayal] is,” says Richards’s former executive assistant, Barbara Chapman. With the play, Chapman says, “you’ve actually been gifted two extra hours with Ann.”
Though she’d only met Richards once, Taylor was surprised by the effect the politician’s 2006 death had on her. “I found myself mourning in a way that you would only do if the loss was personal—a friend,” she says. “I never imagined that the fact she was no longer available—no longer able to crack wise or give wholesome advice—would be such this aching absence.” When the idea came to her, Taylor immediately thought the stage would be the perfect medium to tell this story. “I was flooded with ideas for [Ann’s] structure. On stage it’s perfectly clear that—in the middle of a graduation speech—I’m describing how I got to be governor and then bang; I walk into the governor’s office,” she says. “Only in theater can you get away with that stunt, but it’s a stunt that’s quite magical.”
Throughout Taylor’s three-year research process—which included two extended visits to Texas—she conducted more than two hundred interviews with Richards’s friends, family members, and colleagues, and mined the archives at the University of Texas at Austin. Of course, research is hardly ever the biggest challenge for a nonfiction writer—organization is. “I had so many incredible, death-defying stories about Ann,” says Taylor, “things you’d think ‘oh, that’s for sure going in the play’… and almost none of it is. But that was when I realized, it’s important that I know everything. If I did, then the tip of the iceberg will be true.”
With these stories in hand, Taylor set about the daunting task of trying to become Ann Richards.“When I first started to speak Ann’s words in rehearsal, I remember feeling I was a little girl in her mother’s high heels–like, ‘Holy God, can I do this?’” she says. “You have to ask yourself, are you going to do [the show]? Yes? Then shut up about it.”
In 2010, a sold-out crowd anxiously awaited the debut of Ann (then titled Money, Marbles, and Chalk, pulling from an oft-used phrase of Richards’s) at Galveston’s Grand Opera House. At the time, Taylor was working with a script that ran roughly three hours. “The first version in Galveston was really unwieldy in its structure,” says Taylor. Regardless, “there were literal gasps in the audience,” Robert Tolero, the play’s longtime stage manager, recalls. “I remember watching from behind during her first entrance. Her presence and the play itself, it just took over these people.” But of Ann’s initial performances in four Texas cities, Tolero most vividly remembers the 2011 run at Austin’s Paramount Theatre. “All of a sudden, these characters that figured into the play were in the audience. Ann’s children, and all the people she’d worked with—even the ones she would rail [against] and terrorize.”
“There are moments in the show that are uncannily like my mother,” says Richards’s youngest daughter, Ellen. “The scenes in the governor’s office—poor David Miller! For her to eviscerate him on one hand, then turn around and buy him a pair of boots … that to me is quintessential mom. She could be the most generous person in the world … but also the most demanding. People would flock to her and were willing to suffer the consequences, because that’s who Ann Richards was.”
After Ann’s Texas stagings, the show moved on to Chicago, then Washington, D.C. But the final piece of the play, the climactic “speech Ann never got to give,” would fall into place only weeks before Ann premiered on Broadway in 2013. In the play’s earlier drafts, Richards’s character works through several versions of her latest speech. Though Taylor originally wrote Ann so that her protagonist never finishes or delivers the address, Ann’s Broadway director, Benjamin Endsley Klein, felt audiences should hear Richards’s parting words. “I want to leave knowing what this visitation’s purpose was for,” he remembers telling Taylor. Until that point, the dialogue throughout Ann had remained grounded in true-to-life facts and researched anecdotes. “I thought it’d be a bit arrogant on my part,” Taylor says. “There are certain areas that were out of bounds. I’d never, say, venture to write what she might feel about religion or imagine a fight with her husband.”
After drawing inspiration from one of Richards’s later speeches in which she asked “Why should your life be just about you?”—and after trimming the script word by word until it ran at a Broadway-appropriate hour and fifty minutes—Taylor crafted a powerful call to action intended to accomplish her goal of leaving audiences affected just as a real meeting with Richards might. “The government isn’t they,” the speech begins. “The government is you. It is me, it is us …” At Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, Taylor delivered eight performances of the revamped Ann every week for four months.
When Taylor donned her trusty white wig three years later in 2016 for her final performances as Richards (to date) at Austin’s Zach Theatre, she’d channel that experience into one final great performance. “Those [were] the most enthusiastic audiences I [had] ever seen in my career,” recalls Zach artistic director Dave Steakley. “A fiery tent-revival preacher would be happy to pull off a fraction of the performance Holland muster[ed] on Ann’s home turf.”
The fact that the Zach Theatre show will be the version preserved forever on Great Performances is a full-circle moment for Taylor. “I’m sure Ann would be really touched that her tale was to be told on every TV set in the land, for free,” she says. When Ann premieres on PBS, audiences will not only see Taylor at the top of her game—they’ll also witness Dorothy Ann Willis as the tenacious, strong-willed person she was. “Whenever Ann walked into a room, you’d have thought she was one of the Beatles,” recalls William Cryer, a press secretary to Richards. “Everybody felt special around her.”
Toward the end of Ann, the show’s protagonist remarks: “Let me just say—you haven’t lived until you’ve been governor of Texas.” Though it wasn’t imagined as such, one can’t help thinking that Taylor is speaking this particular line from the heart.