Holland, Libby, and Ann

Actress and playwright Holland Taylor, and actress Libby Villari, talk about the play Ann, about Ann Richards, currently at Dallas Theater Center.

published Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Holland Taylor and Libby Villari, photographed at the Kalita Humphreys Theater



Dallas — You know Holland Taylor from a long career in television (Bosom Buddies, The Practice, Two and a Half Men) and theater, both regional and on Broadway. She's won and has been nominated for numerous awards. Still, the project she is most proud of is her three years of researching Ann Richards, the legendary politician who was governor of Texas from 1991 to 1995, which was the last time Texas had a Democratic governor. Taylor workshopped her one-woman show, Ann, in Austin at the Paramount Theatre. It made its Broadway debut in 2013, earning her a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. Taylor has since played the role in Washington, D.C., and twice at Austin's Zach Theatre. The show has also featured a number of actresses playing it in regional theaters across the country.

One of them is Dallas-based Libby Villari, who has done the role in California and Louisiana. In 2018, she performed it for several Democratic fundraisers, including several times for Beto O'Rourke. Villari also has had a career in television and film, best known for the Oscar-nominated film Boyhood, and for playing the mayor in the TV series Friday Night Lights.

Taylor is currently working on a Netflix anthology series called Hollywood, produced by Ryan Murphy, who has worked with Taylor's life partner Sarah Paulson on American Horror Story and other projects. ("We're having Thanksgiving at Ryan's house this year," Taylor says.)

TheaterJones sat down with Taylor on a recent visit to Dallas, along with Villari. The first part of this conversation is with Taylor; and then Villari jumps in.

Ann runs through Nov. 11 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, presented by Dallas Theater Center.


Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Holland Taylor, photographed at the Kalita Humphreys Theater

TheaterJones: You started working on Ann during the Obama presidency?

Holland Taylor: Well, it was a couple of months after she died [in 2006], that I found myself in a really emotional state as though I had lost my favorite aunt, and I'd only had, I had lunch with her once, but that had nothing to do with it. I had a very big sense of her from having followed her since she burst on the scene in '88 and her election was so exciting, good God. I mean, I remember watching that and watching the inauguration live. So, I had a big attachment to her, but I had no idea that I would be literally devastated by her dying. After a couple months I just thought I have to do something with this feeling, something creative.

Where are you from?

HT: I'm from Philadelphia. I don't have any special kinship to Texas or Ann, and it's funny because over the years, working the research, I really immersed myself for about three years. I mean, I turned to ice. I essentially withdrew from Two and a Half Men. I really tried to give as much time as I could to my research, which was, which I never wanted to stop. In fact, I never did stop it. But after about three years, I felt I've got to start writing because I've got to still be ambulatory by the time I get this thing written so that I can do it for a couple of years.

When she was governor, and when she was rising through the political ranks, what about her, drew you to her? She's such an out-sized character.

HT: Well, her wonderful reality. Her reality for humanity and her empathy, and her sense of fairness. You could really feel that potently. These were essential parts of her that were in her marrow, and those feelings showed themselves in her policies, in the things that she tried to achieve. I remember hearing ... I mean I would endlessly pick up stories. Everybody who I ever met who knew Ann would tell me stories and I would be interested in things they wanted to tell. I remember, I met Lloyd Bentsen's sister when I was playing it on Broadway. She came backstage. She gave me her book and she told me one of her last things about Ann was that she was trying to get legislation passed, something to do with UT, the students at UT and she was pitching it to Ann and she kept trying to push forward.

I guess Ann was in her last year as governor and she said to her, "I only have a certain amount of powder left." She says, "I'm using everything I have now for the very old and the very young." She says, "If you're at UT, if you're a student at you're already in good shape."


HT: She said, "I want to save my energies right now for the very old and the very young." I thought that was so Ann. Everything I ever learned about Ann just went into this giant hopper to make up her persona.


Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Libby Villari, photographed at the Kalita Humphreys Theater

She was also incredibly witty and had these wonderful bon mots. Isn’t it incredible that she and Molly Ivins existed at the same time in Texas?

HT: She also was just personally very funny. One joke that her hairdresser [Gail Huitt] told once ends up in the play. I've given a couple of good lines from other people in my life, including my own aunt Louise, I gave to Ann as a joke because it was so up her street. If she didn't say it, she could have. Ann's sense of humor was just unparalleled, in my universe anyway. That was a big thing of what makes her so attractive. But she was taught from her earliest years by her daddy to make herself appealing and pleasant and fun. She wanted people to like her. She wanted to be liked by people. She was very, very good at all the people-pleasing skills that are about something real, like making people feel at ease, welcome, admired, paid attention to listen, comforted. She had an uncanny knack, if she was in a room, to see the one person who needed to have some attention paid.

She would also call out bullshit.

 HT: Oh, she was fearless in that regard. I think she was willing to stake a lot on her doing that. She was not really very fearful, and I don't think she was very fearful as a candidate either. I think she had a certain amount of proof throughout her career that speaking the truth would get you far, rather than hurt you. She was a truthful person.


There certainly had been prominent women politicians before her, but as we still see in the current political climate, to be a woman in that position, you really have to be bold and speak out. A lot of the men can be even-keeled and they're praised for it, like “No drama Obama.” It’s not right, but we expect different qualities in our women candidates. And then when they are forthright, we call them out on it, even though they’re doing the same thing men candidates do.

HT: Well, it's interesting that you say that because I think there's truth in it. There's something like when a woman comes up to the microphone, who's running for officer or doing anything where there's power. I sit up; I expect my ears to perk up because I'm going to hear something, because she's actually going to say something. I think we're very used to man just getting up there and making all the usual noises and looking pretty and being powerful and being male. It's paved the way for them to just hang out any way they want and it's accepted. But a woman can't and doesn't want to. I think that this character appeals to young women very much because she is tough and she has grit and she has real invested interest in the rights of everybody, at every level. It means something to her right from the dinner table on.

I loved all of the social media comments of that photo of Nancy Pelosi a few weeks ago, giving it to Trump, in that room full of men. The women on my Facebook feed said things like, "This is exactly how it is in every board room I've been to that's filled with men."

HT: Yeah, I mean, she's going to speak the truth. I even remember back in the day when the banks were called on the carpet for their shameful dealings in the financial crisis, and how, Elizabeth Warren ripped them a new one. I remember them sitting there and they all seem perfectly willing to be shamed so that they could keep on doing basically what they were doing, as usual. I mean, it's only legislation that will stop some of these extraordinary, serious practices on the parts of the banks.

But I remember Elizabeth Warren just scorching the earth with some of the things she had to say to some of those guys. It's interesting and watching today in politics, who will remain silent no matter what happens. I don't think women tend to as a rule — and being a lady does not include sitting on your hands.

Sadly, we still see people calling Kamala Harris, for example, arrogant. Whereas, a man would never be called that. He’s just being “strong.”

HT: Yeah. I've heard people say, if Ann is in any way bitchy, that puts people off. First of all, I don't see Ann as being bitchy at all, anyway. She was very, very, very powerful, and she called it like it was. I think people of quality tend to be attracted to that and find it. They would follow her to the ends of the earth, a lot of the people that voted for Ann.


Photo: Kirk Tuck/Zach Theatre
Libby Villari as Ann 

Tell me how you settled on the format that we see in Ann. The first half is her at the lectern talking to a graduating class and then we see her in her office, doing everyday things. Everyday for her, that is.

HT: Well it's the magic of the theater, and this idea came to me very early on. It's a graduation speech, which is a particular kind of speech because a graduation speech allows you to cover the big themes, to talk about issues large and small, and family issues, country issues, nation issues, human being issues, and also to speak to the generations. People do that in graduation speeches. They speak to the grandparents, to the kids, to the brothers and sisters, the graduates. It just allows for certain kinds of themes to seem very natural in that setting. But being in the theater, it's like, well, I'm going to walk over here and I'm going to be in the governor's office.

That's the magic of the theater. The audience understands that and knows that and there's nothing strange about the governor's office just appearing as she talks about getting elected governor and in comes this extraordinary office. This was at our Broadway production anyway. We actually had the office make it an entrance — and that's the beauty of theater, is that whatever happens is the new rule.

It was very important for me to have her talk on the phone, and it doesn't seem like a one-person show anymore because when you see people behave with different people, you see different colors of who they are. I think there's about 20, 24 or so phone conversations that she has in that section in the office. I use that to show the range of her personality and the range of the things that she cared about, and the range of the things that kept her occupied. How busy her life was, and how she was continuing on with her family, arranging for a family weekend. You see the whole spectrum of what her life was like and what she was like because we all, it's not that, it's nothing, not honest about it, it's just that we are different sides of ourselves come out depending on whom we are talking to. I thought this would be a great device in the play to show A) a busy hour in her life as governor and B), the variety of her persona.

Her persona was what I wanted to convey in this play. This play is not a history, although everything in it is historically accurate and everything she talks about is as it was, it's not history. It's showing what, who she was as a person. Because that's why she was so loved. She was not loved because of some little individual trait of hers. She was so loved because of all the things that she was, warts and all.

In fact, the warts and all part of this play is I think why people are so then open heartedly inspired by her. They know they're seeing the real person. When you see the remarkable qualities that she had of fairness and fair play and wanting the government to look like the people of the state, all of those things, you realize you've seen it all, so those things are true. Not something put on, it's not something attributed to her.

The season that you were on Broadway, you were one of a few woman playwrights represented there, right? I know we've certainly seen lots of seasons when there were only plays by white men. Things feel like they’re changing — slowly — in theater, and in film and TV. But what needs to happen for there to be even more of that?

HT: Well I think it is happening. What needs to happen is of course what is going to organically happen. I think as we grow, as we mature as a people, it will be less and less a matter of black theater or women's theater, it's just theater. It will become more inclusive in an organic way, of course, stimulated first by outright efforts to make it so. It has changed just as our government is. I mean look at the women in the house, there are more women coming into the Senate. It's going to happen more and more until the time comes when we are not thinking in terms of black playwrights or women playwrights at all.

I don’t know if you noticed, but in the Dallas Theater Center’s current season, every play is by either a woman or a person of color, except A Christmas Carol. That’s the first time in the theater’s history this has happened.

HT: Right, yeah, it's a welcome relief. I'm very thrilled a number of theaters are doing Ann now. When Ann first came out it was somewhat of a stunt in my having written it. There was probably the assumption that an actress [wrote] a play for herself. … It's doing very well in about 10 theaters now [looks at Libby Villari].

Libby Villari: That sounds about right, yeah.


Libby, you originally auditioned for the part at Stage West, and when you didn’t get that, you started doing it at smaller theaters and for political fundraisers. Talk about your journey in this and then I want to hear from Holland on seeing Libby doing it and picking her.

LV: Not too long after [the Stage West audition], Sharon Garrison was going to do it in Shreveport at the Riverside Rep. She's a dear friend of mine. Twelve days before they opened, she called me and said, "I need you to do this play for me. Besides, I'm not the one who should be doing it. You're the one who should be doing it. You were born to play this role." I said, "No, I can't learn it in 12 days." I slept on it and the next day I got up and said, "I'm going to do it."

HT: I don't know how you could possibly have learned it that fast.

LV: I worked on it 18 hours a day. I was all by myself.

HT: I don't know how you could work on it 18 hours a day.

LV: Well, that's what you had to do if you were going to do it in 12 days.

HT: Could you actually get through a full run of this entire full length play without going up or stopping? Unbelievable.

LV: I had cheat sheet, on the lectern and on the desk.

HT: I could have no more used a cheat sheet than fly to the moon. First of all, how could you find your place? This is 33 single-space type-written sheets.

LV: It was very difficult. I didn't use the script. I typed it in big letters, double spaced, but I learned it. I mean I really did learn it. I'm sure I made mistakes, but it was a huge hit even in Shreveport. I just said, "I've got to keep doing this." … I looked on Dramatist's Play list to see who had the rights to it. A Sonoma theater had the rights coming up in about three months. I wrote them and I said, "If you haven't cast your Ann, I'm your gal. I should be doing this everywhere." I said, "You may know me from Friday Night Lights."

Luckily, they'd just finished bingeing Friday Night Lights.

HT: For that purpose? Were they checking you out?

LV: They just happened to be watching it. They said, "Oh, we know exactly who you are. We're just doing a staged reading," and they said, "What would we need to do to bring you in?" I asked for an outrageous amount of money and they said, "Okay." I said, "You're going to need us an office, you're going to need a lectern."

They pulled together a pretty fabulous set and flew me out there. Then I did it in Kerrville [Texas]. Then last summer I did nine different productions raising money for different democratic candidates, mostly Beto [O’Rourke]. I raised over $20,000 for everybody all together. I did it all for free. My husband did all the tech, and we had a desk and a credenza and an office chair and a rug.


Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Holland Taylor, photographed at the Kalita Humphreys Theater

HT: That's actually why you got me on board. When I heard how hard she worked on this. I can't communicate to anybody who hasn't done it how much work it takes to do this. If she was prepared to work that hard as a contribution to a candidate, that she could hand a candidate 20 grand, like what she did to Beto, I thought, "Well, that is a page right out of the Ann Richards' playbook."

Doing this play, the actual act of performing it is tremendously stressful in the preparation, stressful in the anticipation and unbelievably challenging in the execution. There's a 15-minute intermission, but there's an hour and 50 minutes of talking.

There are three guaranteed surefire, huge laughs that allow you to truly take a swallow or two of water. If you do not keep up the pace, if you do not keep your mind just ahead of everything, you haven't got a good performance. I mean, it is the most tremendous thing I have ever done.

If she was going to do that as an effort of generosity towards some candidates, I thought, "That's my gal." I knew she was good, because she'd had wonderful reviews wherever she played.

LV: Yeah, she followed me. In fact, before my second gig in Sonoma, she called me up on the telephone. I was on my way to rehearsal with Sharon Benge, who is a legendary director here, and Johnny Simons [of Hip Pocket Theatre] is the one who said “you should get Sharon to direct you.” She was just tremendous. She knew Ann, and her daughter worked for Ann and her husband did press for Ann, which she didn't tell me until after I was about ready to go to Sonoma.

Oh, and so you called me on the way to one of the rehearsals and said, "This is Holland Taylor." I said, "Well, hi, I don't even know how you got my phone number." She said, "I heard that you did my play and you couldn't possibly have done it in the time that you did."

We became friends from the get-go. We started emailing, talking on the phone all the time. There were lots of things she wanted me to know about all the people I talked to on the phone and in the office. People I talk about and what they meant to Ann and what they mean in the script.

Libby, you're a Texan, right?

LV: No, I moved here from Los Angeles. … You know the saying, I got here as soon as I could.

HT: I love that line.

Was Ann Richards an influence on you?

LV: Huge, I worked for her campaigns, for both of her gubernatorial campaigns. I showed up at every march or rally she announced. I have Christmas cards from her, but I never got to meet her. And then of course she was instrumental in my, I mean, she's responsible for my television career. She schmoozed Hollywood and said, "Come to Texas, make your stuff here. We have everything and more than Hollywood has." And they did, they loved her. Everybody wanted to be around her, be with her and so in the four years she was governor, I think I made 10 films in Austin. And they always put me up downtown, and I always went for a walk in the evening and I walked by the Gubernatorial mansion and she was often out on the patio barefooted and we would wave to each other. Isn't that wonderful? She's been my hero forever. I mean, I never dreamed I'd play her someday. But it's the honor of my life and my career to do so. I plan to do it the rest of my life.

You learned the lines for the Shreveport production in 12 days. So there is that part of it. But then you've got the part of becoming Ann Richards.

LV: That has been a natural thing for me. I'm so much like her in my personality, both the good and the bad. And so that's been the easiest part of it.

Oh, I follow you on Facebook. You call out bullshit too.

LV: I probably should stop that, but I'm not going to because it's too important to me. I feel the same way she does about government and I believe the same thing she believed. And so that's been... And you know what? The things that I didn't naturally have, I've been given by Holland and Ben Klein, who is Holland's Broadway director. And my God, we hit it off like that from the first moment that we met. He's like my son now and he gave me gifts. And then her family, her family would contact me and say, I just shared some of the messages I got from her daughter-in-law with Holland just today, telling me how much I was like her how much I reminded them of her and that they just sat there with tears running down their faces watching [the 2019 production at the Zach Theatre in Austin].

>I'm sure they felt that way about Holland's production too, and I think that because I've been here 40 years, I'm a Southerner anyway, I was born a Southerner. I think that that really helps me understand what the cement of who she was feels like, the grit that she got from her mama and the humor she got from her dad. I have all of that in spades.

Her life changed when she moved from tiny Lakeview to San Diego, when her dad was drafted into the Navy. And her eyes, as Holland writes, popped open because of all of these nationalities and these different people that she met that she didn't even know about. I had the exact same experience at the exact same age. I moved from a teeny tiny place in North Carolina, I think it was about a population about 50 and we moved to Los Angeles. And the same exact thing happened to me. And then of course, I grew up in that tiny place until I was 10 and I too felt like there's the line, if I'd known I was going to become the governor, I'd have fallen backwards off the porch laughing. If I had known I was going to be on television and millions of people would know who I was, same exact thing. I'm a lot like her. And then I had those experiences. Married my high school sweetheart, had children, never been alone in my life until we split. So, yeah.

Do you see women in politics now in DC having to sort of deal with some of the same things she dealt with, just in terms of reaction to this strong personality? People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

LV: Oh, yeah. They try to denigrate them. They lie about them. They did the same thing about Ann. Of course there were plenty of things to tell about Ann that were true. And I always found it fascinating that nobody talked about those things in public, because it was over. It was behind her. But yeah, I see a little bit of that. I mean, I think we've made a tremendous progress and Ann was one of the first people who started it, Ann and Barbara Jordan. Who knew? Who would think that they would come from a backwards place like Texas?

But maybe that's what it took; it had to happen in a place like Texas.

LV: Yes.

HT: Well, the time will come when this won't be anything unusual about a woman in government or a woman playwright and that's the time that we have ahead of us, it happens to every -ism — sexism, racism.

LV: But then we have the backlash.

HT: Well, the immediate backlash.  mean, ultimately, it's just the human race and I don't know when we're going to get there, but they will someday.

LV: Ann felt that she would see a female president in her lifetime.

HT: Well, if she had been 50 when she left the governor's office instead of 60 she would have been the first female president. She had all the big qualities and she fought like a general, she was as smart as anyone could ever hope to be to be president. Thanks For Reading

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Holland, Libby, and Ann
Actress and playwright Holland Taylor, and actress Libby Villari, talk about the play Ann, about Ann Richards, currently at Dallas Theater Center.
by Mark Lowry

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