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'How do you play your part?'

Ann Richards would fight, and playwright Holland Taylor won't let you forget it

Eric Webb
Holland Taylor, pictured here July 22 at the Four Seasons in downtown Austin, wrote the one-woman show "Ann," about former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. The play returned to Zach Theatre on July 31. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

As a child, Ann Richards once spotted a prize Easter egg in the low branch of a tree. She let everyone around her know, and another kid closer to the tree grabbed it. She was none too pleased, and Holland Taylor thinks that story of Richards' just about sums up the former Texas governor.

“You could tell that she was still. Pissed. Off!” Taylor says, her emphasis on each word escalating until everyone else in the room is laughing.

“It’s so Ann. That’s. Not. Fair!” Again with the emphasis.

Taylor’s ability to channel Richards’ ferocity down to the syllable makes sense. The actress, a fixture of stage and screens big and small, wrote “Ann,” a one-woman play about Richards. Taylor also originated the title role, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award in 2013. A new production of the show starring actress Libby Villari is currently running at Zach Theatre (which also mounted a production starring Taylor in 2016). The show runs through Sept. 8.

Even more than a decade after her death, Texans know Richards. The Democrat’s quips stole national headlines, and her formidable crown of white hair is still instantly recognizable. Richards was the second and most recent woman to serve as governor of the state, winning the office in 1990. Even after her reelection defeat after one term by George W. Bush, she stayed in the public eye; she even made a guest appearance on “King of the Hill.”

The way Taylor invites Richards’ voice into herself tracks with how she talks about her almost divine inspiration to write “Ann.” By now, the basics are so well documented that Taylor could hand out a pamphlet: She didn’t know Richards, but had met her once at a lunch. When Richards died, Taylor couldn’t imagine living on planet Earth without her. Taken aback by a monthslong sense of mourning for a woman she barely knew (“like an absent family linchpin,” she says), Taylor thought about paying tribute through her own bread and butter: performance.

» Listen to Taylor tell Ann Richards' Easter egg story below:

At first she considered a TV movie of the week, perhaps covering Richards’ infamous drinking days. One of Taylor’s friends, like Norman Lear or George Clooney, could be interested in producing, she thought. Then one day while driving to the set of “Two and a Half Men” for work, Taylor snapped out of her funk.

“What is the matter with you, you lazy cow?” Taylor remembers chastising herself. “You have so much feeling about it, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and do something about it?”

She realized her tribute to Richards wasn’t going to be a movie of the week. It would be a play.

“Talking right to the audience,” Taylor says. “That’s how she was.”

» Related: When Queen Elizabeth met Ann Richards

Taylor says that within 15 minutes, the “operating principles” of the play funneled into her. That road to Damascus moment — or road to Jon Cryer, as it were — was the beginning of three years Taylor spent researching Richards’ life and getting to know many of the major players in the governor’s circle (gates that Cecile Richards, Ann’s daughter, helped open). Taylor never got writer’s block; she felt like she had a direct line to Richards. Getting to know a person who looms larger than life in such an intimate way, she says, was a “lavish experience.”

“I am not a particularly spiritual person,” Taylor says. “I actually think I was anointed and appointed at that moment. I never looked back. You could call it the arrogance of what I did.”

The most powerful person in the universe

If writing “Ann” was in the service of Richards’ memory, Taylor gets a gold star. The play’s been produced all around Texas and the U.S., including runs in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and on Broadway.

Now, with Zach’s new production, Taylor is back on familiar grounds. On a recent Monday, she sat in a suite at the Four Seasons in downtown Austin to talk about “Ann” and Ann. One magnetic figure keeping the name of another on the world’s lips. The hotel is where she took many of the meetings in researching Richards, over drinks and meals on three separate trips. She still makes a point to walk around Lady Bird Lake, as Richards once did, and visit the state Capitol — “Pink granite, what is more gorgeous than that?” — whenever she comes to town.

» Listen to Taylor talk about why she walks around the lake in Austin below:

“Coming back to Austin, I’m full of the memory of the joy of those days,” she says. “I was learning about her firsthand in a way that was unique. I doubt that anyone could have an experience like that.”

Taylor’s all-white pantsuit and pale blonde hair lend her a saintly glow when backlit by the suite’s wide windows. She carries herself with comfort and confidence, feet up on an ottoman while she talks and her hand never far from under the chin of a head that tilts when she’s listening.

Taylor takes questions and runs with them the full length of a football field, a trait she teases herself about. For anyone who’s a film or TV fan, listening to those winding, lively answers can be surreal. The characters she plays are often poised and wry (and maybe a little seductive), given to stirring, stentorian zingers. Sound familiar?

Maybe you know Taylor from her role as Professor Stromwell in the “Legally Blonde” films. She hears from fans of the movie all the time on Twitter, especially those who found a toehold in Stromwell’s beauty-shop pep talk to Reese Witherspoon’s character, Elle Woods.

“It’s a wonderful emblematic story about someone who would not seem to be a candidate for something nonetheless prevailing,” Taylor says. She personally asked Witherspoon if a third movie in the franchise was planned, and said she would love to return as her character. (The film is slated for release next year.)

» Related:Andrew Rannells on his early days in Austin (and his big regret)

Maybe you’re more familiar with Taylor’s work on TV. In addition to “Two and a Half Men,” she’s brought gravitas to fare like “Bosom Buddies,” “The Practice” (for which she won an Emmy Award in 1999) and “Saved By the Bell: The College Years.” If you mention that last one, she’ll playfully shout “Oh. Come. On!”

“Actually, it was a lot of fun to do. I loved those boys,” she says. “They were very, very sweet. I was sort of a fish out of water. I was clinging by my fingernails to some sort of acting reality.”

She’ll be in “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” the latest installment in the long-dormant Keanu Reeves franchise. Taylor’s set to film in New Orleans this month. She is jazzed to meet the “attractive” Reeves, whom her friend Tom Hanks assures her is a “hell of a sweet guy,” a character reference you’d find impossible to ignore. In perhaps the ultimate Holland Taylor role, she’s playing the Great Leader, billed in announcements as “the most powerful person in the universe,” which urges the question, “How do you play the most powerful person in the universe?”

“I think she has to look like she’s gravely concerned most of the time,” Taylor says with a smile.

A responsible position

A sense of concern: Taylor excels at conveying it, and perhaps that’s why she felt such a connection to Richards. She repeatedly emphasizes that “Ann” is not a political play. It’s a philosophical play.

“It is really about taking a responsible position in your life, a responsible position in your society,” Taylor says. Her interpretation of Richards “never speaks of it bluntly that way, but you see it by example.”

Taylor says Richards had personal qualities that have helped her outlast her political contemporaries in the zeitgeist. When she performs in “Ann,” Taylor says people come up to her recounting a time they met Richards or spoke with her. Moments of connection, the kind you don’t forget. It’s a quality of seeing and caring, Taylor says, and few public figures had it or have it. Michelle Obama, Princess Diana, Eleanor Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy make the cut, she thinks. You feel so seen by people like this, Taylor says, that it stays with you forever.

“It’s mysterious. Far be it from me to say what it is,” she says. “You know it when you encounter it.”

And that’s why Taylor thinks “Ann” — an “evocation of a persona,” as she puts it — has endured more than a decade after its debut. We are hungry, she says, for inspiration, and Richards in all her white-crowned glory will always be able to give it to us.

“Ann had this effect on people. She made you believe that goodness and fairness could prevail. So people clung to the moment that they got that charge of power and belief. She had it. She believed in it. I’m gonna believe in it!” Taylor says, her intensity surging with each utterance of belief.

» Related:Why the Dairy Queen Blizzard is the perfect Texas dessert

The present state of the country has Taylor frightened. She says she fears the U.S. is becoming a white nationalist country in its leadership. She sees the worst being brought out of people.

“Ann would be thinking of ways to fight it. I would be wanting to put my head under the pillow. She would not. I don’t know what she would say or do, but I assure you, she would be laughing about something,” Taylor says.

» Listen to Taylor talk about the political power of Richards and fellow Texas legend Barbara Jordan:

One place Taylor finds hope in the here and now is education. She is on the advisory board for the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in South Austin — “I couldn’t not be involved with the school; I was involved from the beginning” — and stresses the governor’s involvement in its creation before her death in 2006.

Jennifer Long, executive director of the Ann Richards School Foundation, says Richards (who was a teacher at Fulmore Junior High School, now Lively Middle School) wanted to help young women who don’t have the resources others might. She’d be hugging every girl and greeting every girl by name if she was still alive, Long says.

“We empower our girls,” she says. “They know they have something important to say, and they aren’t afraid to say it.”

Taylor says she will leave all her money to schools when she dies, including the Ann Richards School. She’ll also leave the rights to “Ann” and a filmed version of the play to the school.

Long says she believes that it’s important for the school’s students to meet women in which they can see possible futures for themselves. So, she’s grateful to Taylor for giving Richards life for new generations.

“Holland has brought her back,” she says.

A part of something

“This is a visitation from the beyond.”

Taylor’s betting big on her play, and on the mythic properties of Ann Richards. The hero of “Ann” will be one of the great roles of American theater, she thinks, like Auntie Mame or Dolly Levi.

“Long after I’m dead and gone, I expect actresses to be playing this role,” she says.

Taylor will probably perform “Ann” one more time, if she can. She doesn’t watch other actors’ performances in productions of the play. (“It hasn’t struck me as the right thing to do.”) But she forms relationships with every Ann over the phone, providing context and background when they need it. Every person who takes on the role needs to be passionate, she says, because it takes two months just to learn the material before you can rehearse it. There are only three moments in the play — long, dependable, rolling laughs — when an Ann can stop to take a sip of water. Other than those, it’s an hour and 45 minutes of straight talking, and straight talk. She honed the text of the play through seven runs, down to the punctuation.

Taylor insists “Ann” is done word for word, as written.

Villari, the actor performing in Zach’s current “Ann” production, has the right stuff, Taylor says. Her credits include Texas favorites like “Friday Night Lights” and “Boyhood.” The pair met for the first time in person at an Annie’s List fundraiser in Fort Worth about a year ago, and Taylor says it was like meeting an old friend.

Before starring in Zach’s show, Villari had been licensing “Ann” for performances in small theaters, raising money for political candidates. She gave Beto O’Rourke a $20,000 check during his run for U.S. Senate, according to Zach Theatre.

“If that’s not a page out of the Ann Richards playbook, I don’t know what is,” Taylor says.

Taylor knows that every “Ann” will be different. But she says the play, if performed as written, has all of her — and that includes a sense of responsibility to society.

“That’s part of what it is to be alive, is to be part of something. And how do you play your part?”



When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Sept. 8

Where: Zach Theatre (202 S. Lamar Blvd.)

Tickets: $30-$189