Holland Taylor returns to Austin with her “cantankerous and charming” tribute to Governor Ann Richards at the ZACH Theatre, as political activist Deborah Hamilton-Lynne learns more in this exclusive interview
When Holland Taylor walks into the room it is always my inclination to smile although I am admittedly more than a little in awe of the woman. I smile because I remember her comedic roles in Two and a Half Men, Bosom Buddies and The Wedding Date. I smile because I know whenever she is present there will be lively, informed and intelligent conversation. On this day in particular I smile because she has returned to Austin to grace us again with her feisty portrayal of one of our most iconic and beloved Texas women, Governor Ann Richards, in ANN.
It has been a long and winding road, but the white-haired fireball returns to the stage in a revamped and sleek production through May 15 at ZACH Theatre. “It has been a very big thing for me to have done this play – unquestionably the achievement of my life,” Taylor remarks. “Not everybody has the opportunity to make on such an effort on a grand scale,” she continued gratefully.
The seed which became ANN began with Taylor’s grief upon learning of the governor’s death in 2006. Although she had only met Richards once, Taylor found herself feeling a profound loss and felt compelled to memorialize her in some way. Unable to let go of that experience, Taylor was “heartsick for a long time” until one day while driving to work in Los Angeles she was overcome by the certainty that she would create a live performance for the stage embodying the political dynamo.
“I was going to research it, write it and do it – the whole thing. It all came in a matter of minutes,” she recalls. Fittingly the road began in Texas with initial performances in Galveston in 2010 followed by San Antonio and the Paramount Theater in Austin in 2011. From Texas, ANN journeyed to Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. before landing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City in 2013. Like a determined gladiator, Taylor brought her hard-driving, witty and determined character to life in 151, eight-a-week performances. Quite a grueling feat especially for a one-woman show. Taylor wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“It took brass, guts and grit to do this play from beginning to end,” Taylor recounts. Throughout the challenging stage run of the play, Taylor continually felt gratitude at the opportunities to represent her hero. “To get a play on Broadway…who do I think I am? And to play Ann Richards – who do I think I am… I don’t know where I got the nerve, but I never questioned it,” she says. When the extended Broadway run ended, Taylor found herself gratified, yet emotionally and physically exhausted. “When the play was over in 2013 there was such an absence in my life. I kept thinking where is Ann now?,” she pondered. What came next was a time to rest and step back from the project, a time to recover, and to grow, in the aftermath of the intensity of the performance.
Fortunately for Texans and especially for Austinites, Taylor has chosen to joyfully revive ANN on stage at Zach Scott. The choice was not a difficult one given Taylor’s affection for all things Texan and especially for the people closest to Governor Richards who helped her craft her feisty portrayal. Taylor has fond memories of her 2011 Austin performance and Austin audiences.
“I loved playing Austin. There were the most extraordinary audiences. Austin was her home and there is something so rich about playing in that arena,” she recalls. Following one performance, the play’s executive producer Kevin Bailey surprised her backstage by bringing women who had spent countless hours with Ann and knew her well. These women had generously helped Taylor with the play, sharing their stories and memories of Ann. “They were clearly not only approving, but also they were also moved by the play,” Taylor says, “It meant everything to me.” In fact, ANN collaborator Cathy Bonner shared, “Holland is now the keeper of the Ann flame. When she gets her needle out in the play and starts hemming the flag she sews up more than just the fabric.”
Recalling that evening brings a twinkle to Taylor’s eye and I feel the spark of Ann Richards enter the room. “Austin is a rare and extraordinary city. I wish I was a Texan. I just love all things Texan. It has an uncanny appeal for me and I don’t know why.”
There is a silence after her last statement and finally we both smile. The why is the indomitable spirit of Ann Richards which Taylor will bring to life night after night until the last curtain goes down. Taylor smiles in the knowing and I smile in gratitude for her commitment, dedication, faithfulness and hard work. For anyone who is wondering “Where is Ann these days?” you will find her on stage – bold, brassy and blue as ever.