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Out actor Holland Taylor met Texas Gov. Ann Richards at lunch with legendary lesbian gossip columnist Liz Smith at fashionable Le Cirque in New York City.
“When Ann arrived, it was like a rock star had entered the room, and that wasn’t an easily impressed crowd,” Taylor says. “She was incredible and the lunch was great fun, but I didn’t know her.”
So, when Richards died in 2006 at 73, Taylor was surprised at the deep sense of loss she experienced.
“I was really caught off guard,” Taylor says, “And like many creative people, I had to find something to do to get the sadness out. Because I’m a denizen of the theater, I looked toward the stage.”
Taylor’s desire to celebrate Richards indomitable life force spurred a massive endeavor Involving three years of research and two years of exhaustive rewrites.
The result is “Ann,” a comical and inspiring solo play about Richards’ life and work that Taylor wrote and has performed to great acclaim, receiving a Tony Award nomination in 2013. Currently, “Ann” is playing Arena Stage with Jayne Atkinson in the eponymous part.
“My research was about finding a persona and not what she did on a given date,” Taylor says. “By interviewing her children and closest friends and aides who are often the same, I came to know a tough boss who engendered soulful devotion. She was no-nonsense, yet her sense of humor and sense of wit was such a rich ingredient in all of her transactions with people.”
Richards rose to national prominence delivering the keynote speech at the 1988 National Democratic Conventions where she famously described President George H.W. Bush as having been born with a silver foot in his mouth. She was elected governor in 1990 and served one term, yet she remained a larger-than-life presence on the national scene. An ardent feminist, she memorably noted: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
“The play isn’t political,” she says, “It’s about life. It’s about how to live a purposeful life. Ann was in the zeitgeist. Ann was a person who mattered to me. I liked knowing she was there for all of us, for our country.”
And while Taylor, 76, considers herself a political person, her decision to go public with her relationship with accomplished actor Sarah Paulson (“Carol,” TV’s “American Horror Story”) wasn’t motivated.
“To an extent, the personal is political. It’s a statement of who you and what you stand for,” Taylor says. “But I don’t beat a drum about it because I think we’re all living for the day when no one even thinks about this kind of thing. I remember hearing a French movie star say that in France it’s a question that isn’t asked. Unfortunately, we live in a prurient society and it’s getting more so under the man in the White House.”
Taylor’s upbringing reads idyllic: Reared in Philadelphia, she attended Quaker boarding schools before studying drama at Bennington College, and then went on to New York City for theater.
Famed drama teacher Stella Adler encouraged Taylor (then in her 30s) to do TV sitcom work to create more stage opportunities. Soon Taylor was playing Tom Hanks’ intimidating, sexy boss on “Bosom Buddies,” and subsequently found fame and fortune assaying sophisticated, whip smart women on the big and (mostly) small screen with “The Practice” and “Two and A Half Men.”
While L.A.-based Taylor might wish she’d done more theater early in her career, she’s more about the now. She praises partner Paulson’s work.
“We share the same taste and talk the same language. But we’re very different. She’s very much a chameleon. She has the histrionic ability to act well, but she’s also very changeable with a talent for mimicry; it’s uncanny.”
And Taylor is delighted with the casting of Jayne Atkinson (“House of Cards,” “Criminal Minds”) in Arena’s “Ann.”
“I’ve written a play with a narrative line, and not strung together quotes and historic things. It’s going somewhere; it’s doing something. And it doesn’t require Holland Taylor to do it.”
While Taylor admires women other than Richards, she doesn’t feel compelled to dramatize them.
“Writing ‘Ann’ wasn’t a choice. It was something I had to do. I’d like to write again, but I think the solo show is a one off.”