In 2006, when actress Holland Taylor heard that former Texas governor Ann Richards had died from cancer, she felt an immediate sense of loss.
“She was an important figure in my mind and heart,” Taylor said, “and she stood for things that were profoundly fair. Her wonderful humor made the world a better place to live in.”
Feeling emotional about her death, Taylor wanted to take action. As primarily a television and film actress, she first thought she could create a project for the screen, but then she had the very clear feeling that this should be a live performance.
“I was struck with the realization of what it had to be and how I could do it,” Taylor said. “Four or five organizing principles just flooded my mind, and there was no question that I was going to do it and take it the distance. I was engaged in the project of a lifetime, and I knew it immediately.”
This almost magical creative spark that Taylor described led her to write and perform in a one-woman show about Richards called “Ann,” which opens at Zach Theatre on Wednesday under the direction of Benjamin Endsley Klein.
Taylor has spent a lifetime honing her craft as an actor. An accomplished stage performer, Taylor has also worked extensively in television and film, garnering seven Emmy nominations — several for her role as Evelyn Harper on “Two and a Half Men” — and scoring one win for her role as Judge Roberta Kittleson on “The Practice.” But even as a successful working actress, Taylor often felt that she was working on behalf of someone else’s vision.
“As an actor I’ve always been a gun for hire,” she said. “A lot of work you get as an actor is not what you crave. It’s not your passion, your dream, your vision. You’re hired to bring something to life.” But working on “Ann” felt completely different.
To get to know Ann Richards, Taylor began to dive into her life. She read biographies, as well as Richards’ autobiography, “Straight From the Heart.” She familiarized herself with the trajectory of Richards’ political career, which began in 1976 when Richards won a county commissioner’s race and reached its peak in 1990 when she became only the second woman in Texas to hold the position of governor.
Taylor interviewed some of Richards’ closest friends and coworkers, including Jane Hickie, Mary Beth Rogers, Claire Korioth and Cathy Bonner. She read speeches, looked at archival material and pored through the governor’s schedules and correspondence. She had access to about 200 hours of film that included Richards, and she would watch some events multiple times.
Taylor became quite sensitive to the subtleties of Richards’ facial expressions on film. “I can almost see what she’s thinking,” Taylor said. “When the camera is very close on her, I can see moments when she’s delighted in an interview or somewhat miffed. I can see these things flicker through her face. I see when she’s appearing in public and she’s tired, and she has to whip herself up to be Ann Richards. Once you are established as this persona, sometimes it’s a bit of a burden.”
But beneath her striking personality and feisty sense of humor, Taylor found Richards to be a woman of great complexity with a fierce work ethic and a devotion to the idea of fairness.
As an example, Taylor pointed to a 1992 initiative that the governor launched to enforce nursing home regulations. Richards herself would make unannounced visits to make sure the homes were up to state standards. “Ann’s career was about trying to get things done that would make life better for people,” Taylor said.
After all the biographical research she conducted, Taylor’s play is still a work of fiction, not a history or biography brought to life.
“I wanted to create an experience with her that reveals her persona,” Taylor said. “It was her persona, not just her deeds that lifted people. She represented fairness and goodwill and had a lightness about life that cheered me up and lifted some of my own heaviness. I wanted to re-create that personality like a hologram.”
Though Taylor always had a sense of confidence about the project and never questioned that she would see it through, the idea of embodying Richards in performance gave her a bit of trepidation. To prepare for the role, she drew on her years of serious training as an actor, which included time studying with the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler in New York. She worked with a dialect coach to try to capture Richards’ signature Texas drawl.
“It did not come naturally,” the actress, who grew up in Philadelphia, said. “People say I do it very well, but I think it sounds good because you want to hear her, you want me to do it well.”
In the end, her anxiety about playing the role took a backseat to the fact that she was also writing the play and had to focus on that. The first version of the show, titled “Money, Marbles, and Chalk” was staged in 2010 at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston. Taylor revised and honed the show through more performances and renamed it “Ann.”
“Ann” played briefly in Austin in 2011 at the Paramount Theatre, then went on to be developed further in Chicago, in Washington at the Kennedy Center and in New York, where it finally opened on Broadway in 2013 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Political luminaries, including several U.S. senators and former President Bill Clinton, flocked to the show.
In the end, Taylor wanted to create the opportunity for audience members to bask in the presence of Ann Richards one more time. She doesn’t believe that “Ann” is explicitly political in the partisan sense.
“What you’re seeing is someone who dedicated herself to service in political office, a wonderful person with an incredible zest for life,” Taylor said. “The show is about humanity, how to love life — that’s what it’s really about.”
When: Various times through May 15
Where: Topfer Theatre, Zach Theatre, 1510 Toomey Road
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org