By Holland Taylor
During this time of “sheltering at home” I was actually meant to be in rehearsal for the west coast premiere and run of ANN at the splendid Pasadena Playhouse – now of course postponed until theatres may safely re-open. Should this run I’ve longed for even happen, it will likely be the last time I will play ANN, all things considered. (I am, after all, seventy-seven now, never mind later.) It takes two months for me to relearn the vast text, get it up to speed, be able to barrel through a real rehearsal…and I have hit that milestone, as of mid-May. A once-in-a-century global cataclysm suggests my “keeping it on a back burner” has new meaning here. At least my cue-ing assistants know they have a steady, if infinitesimal, income for the duration.
The first time I actually made it through the 55-page, single-spaced script of ANN without needing a prompter to tell me what the Hell to say next, was our sold-out opening night at the 1,000 seat Galveston Grand 1894 Opera House on the balmy Texas coast— our first paid public performance ever. Rehearsal had been burdened by my still writing (and even finding props for the show) so the entire text was not securely “in my bones,” and I was just out there alone, generating the play with no other actors for support. Occasionally a hollow voice in my head would say “nobody is coming,” and I’d marvel at my own nerve. But there I was, launching the play I had written after years of research, and experiencing a kind of miracle~ while terrified crew, director, and producers peered wide-eyed from the dark wings, nervous as new mothers, watching their baby girl drive a Bugatti through the streets of Rome at night…
I wasn’t scared at all. I had no time to be scared. I was too damn busy.
Only later came the understanding that, the point is, I wasn’t caught up in the usual ‘show biz’ ego fears. It wasn’t about me. Not at all. Looking back, I saw I had been on a mission, in service to a higher cause; I was a vessel, and a special star shone on me. Now, at the time, I didn’t talk like that~ I was a seasoned professional stage and screen actress, in my late sixties, I was playing the role of a lifetime~ and I knew my subject better than I have ever known a single person in my entire life. A journeyman performer who had not spared the horses in my preparation for this moment~ I knew I could and would carry the day no matter what.
Waiting to begin the show as Ann’s own favorite country music played in the darkened house, sitting behind the projection screen—I had a sensation I would often feel- that I was in the driver’s seat of an enormous old 18-wheeler I was gunning up to speed on the long entry ramp uphill to a country highway. More gas, more—pedal to the goddam metal, get going over this hump up to the road, Girl! My heart pounding, I’d imagine looking back over my shoulder as we poured smoke— is that darn 55-foot trailer still hitched?! When we crested the ramp and did hit the pike, we were cruising like a locomotive on flat track.
That long very first script took about two hours and forty-five minutes to play; the Broadway and filmed version -the PBS broadcast- is two hours with an intermission. The opening night marathon in Galveston was like a meteor in a balmy tropical evening, punctuated by a few minutes of violent storm, the Opera House’s old metal roof drumming as if hammered by hail. In the din, I had to pause the play momentarily, and à la Ann, laughed along with the audience- finally gesturing to the lofty dark eaves, and shouting in my best central Texas twang- “Good things happen in the rain!”
Curtain down, the audience stumbled out into the clear, starry night to find 14 inches of rain had fallen, surging like a black river in the deep gutters; the big crowd steamed into the cool air, spreading into the wide, turn-of-the-century stately boulevards ~ A misty-eyed woman, a friend of the production, one of Governor Richards’ kitchen cabinet— said she saw an old, retired State Senator surging out of the theatre all aglow- his granddaughter chattering about how the lady did the show for almost three hours! ~ He thrust his fist to the heavens, proclaiming, “It wasn’t long enough!!”
A show about Ann Richards, that captures who she was, warts and all — cannot be too long in Texas. We saw that we had caught lightning in a bottle, and nothing could stop us now.
Over its eight runs, ANN has had several major rewrites and many polishes. After the premiere in 2010, came our slow march through Austin at the Paramount, the Empire in San Antonio, the glorious big ol’ Shubert in Chicago, soaring and selling out at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and then our 2013 Broadway run at Lincoln Center – in the Beaumont, their main stage. That chiseled script we took to Broadway is the published version, and is the one we filmed in live-performance, three years after Broadway, at Austin’s Zach Theatre. OK, maybe there’ve been a few minor tweaks after Broadway— like…75 or so teensy, tiny things.
There is nothing like having the luxury of many runs, with time in between, to hone a script to the ground, to a burnished clarity a real privilege to achieve. But even in these past two study months, I made little adjustments, word changes, a few phrase adds— all for clarity, exactness, and the truth that poetry brings, along with the facts.
The words are on the tip of my tongue today, which as it happens, is the 10 year anniversary of ANN’s premiere in Galveston. My uploading the script into my brain again began February 24th, just as fear of this pandemic loomed. I was glad for the structure of work and then even comforted by Ann’s ‘company,’ as fear turned to woe. It was good, it was nourishing- the presence of a persona who never looked back, who figured out the best course to take, who inclined toward the positive, towards solutions— towards seeing truly what was so, and doing the next right thing. She believed in her core that life could be made better for people. It’s a good way to feel in the spring of 2020, in the shaking storm.