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BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below

"I guess survival is the driving force behind my optimism and humor. I am a survivor and never give up."

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below They got their union cards for Actor's Equity together. They made their Broadway debuts together. One was an up-and-comer and one was a legend. One would play the mother, one would play the daughter, and they would remain friends for the rest of their lives. Now, Ann Talman is telling the stories about her life as a F.O.E. (Friend of Elizabeth) in a new one-woman musical cabaret titled THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE. The Elizabeth in question? Dame Elizabeth Taylor.

As the days count down to the opening night of The Shadow of Her Smile, Ann Talman took out a few minutes to discuss the creation of her show, the friendship the two women shared, and another project close to her heart, dedicated to another loved one - her brother Woody.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced with minor edits.

Ann Talman, welcome to Broadway World!

Thank you so much.

You are preparing for your Feinstein's/54 Below debut with your new club act THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE. Tell me about the timing of your F54B debut show and why now is the right time to play Broadway's Living Room.

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below My new motto is "Better Now Than Never!" but there is more to it than that. I began writing this show in the fall of 2018 and worked on it as a solo play first in Melinda Buckley's One Up Solo Workshop. www.oneupsolo.com I called it Who's Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor? I presented a 20 minute script, never intending to mount it as a play but to use this as a way to dig deep and hone the patter/stories for the cabaret which was my ultimate goal. Especially I wanted to mine the mother/daughter elements and how I had just lost my mother when I was cast as Elizabeth's daughter and she instantly took me under her wing and mothered me.

Melinda Buckley is a protégé of Matt Hoverman, www.go-solo.org who is my solo play mentor. I worked with him for almost 5 years to perfect my solo play Woody's Order! which premiered at Pittsburgh Playhouse in 2017 and led to my 16 minute short documentary Woody's Order! which premiered at The Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and is still screening in festivals.

On the subject of timing, you knew Elizabeth Taylor since 1981. Is there a reason you waited until 2022 to create this club act around your memories of Dame Elizabeth?

In the big pic I needed to be at this point in my life to have the maturity to reflect on my Little Foxes experience and my lifelong friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. I also needed the space in my life to be able to focus on myself. I have been a caregiver most of my life. With the passing of my beloved brother Woody, January 29th 2018 I was finally able to regroup and refocus. Caregiving takes quite a mental toll.

I took a few months to rest and on September 1, 2018 I began my self-study, self-designed graduate school program focused on all things singing, cabaret and music. I had wanted to go to graduate school when I was an undergrad at Penn State. I had been accepted to CMU my sophomore year at PSU for voice in the music department but they were going to make me start from scratch and not take any of my credits. I chose to stay at Penn State. My dream was Yale, Juilliard or NYU but my mother died the first day of winter term Junior year in a car crash. I was 20 and that very day I knew Grad school was out because I needed to take over her role caregiving my older brother Woody, cerebral palsied and non-verbal from birth. I knew enough to sense I would be too overwhelmed to juggle all that. And this show is, as Lina Koutrakos and I like to joke...my Doctoral Thesis!

Elizabeth Taylor is an actress without a huge association to musical theater and music. What was the process like, creating a musical cabaret centered around a non-musical person?

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below Well actually Elizabeth LOVED cabaret, musicals and to sing. In 1981, when we were beginning the Pre-Broadway run in Ft. Lauderdale, we were invited by Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett to see their show at The Diplomat, all expenses paid and it was an amazing night. In the summer of 1981 I did a show at Pallson's (where Forbidden Broadway began) which is now The Triad and Elizabeth came twice. In London I did a show at The Canteen musical directed by the late Martin Smith, and she came then too. She even offered to lend me her jewels! I declined...I didn't want to get kidnapped.

Her mother, Sara Southern, wanted Elizabeth to be a famous singer in movies! She arranged for young Elizabeth to sing for famous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. In my show you'll find out what Hedda had to say about that and about how Elizabeth got even. too. Elizabeth sang a Welsh folk song with Richard Burton on Sammy Davis Variety Show which I think is so sweet. Here it is on youtube:

 

And Elizabeth did her own singing as Desiree in the film of A Little Night Music.

In my show each song is a continuation of a story or vice a versa.

You have managed to apply your storytelling craft in many different avenues of the entertainment industry. Is there a difference in the satisfaction derived from playing a character, saying words someone else has written, and telling your own stories in your own words?

Well, you can get away with more when you are telling your own stories in your own words cause you can pretty safely ad lib and embellish. When you are saying words that someone else has written in a play, you are still telling a story which usually has a beginning, middle, end, climax and conflict. You have to memorize exactly what is written (or at least you should) when it is someone else's. Especially if they are still alive. When I do my solo play and this cabaret I memorize word for word but there is a fundamental difference. In a play there is still The Fourth Wall. In cabaret there is NO Fourth Wall and you are connecting and relating to the people and faces you see. You are yourself, not a character. I call it being me with timing. You make eye contact and the audience should feel as if you are connecting directly to them. There might be times in cabaret that something could happen in the room or the audience that you can react to and it can be fun and thrilling for everyone. In a play you are reacting to the audience reacting to you, riding the wave of laughter, holding for the next line until the crest of that wave so the line will not be drowned out and inaudible. Little things like that. In sitcoms taped before a live audience that is what fuels the actors. The immediate laughter that they receive.

In rehearsal of my solo play and this cabaret there have been moments when I'll joke...WHO WROTE THIS ANYWAY!? Also I like to say, I wrote a solo show and thank God there was something in it for me.

You have taken particular pride in your documentary film WOODY'S ORDER!, which is about your brother, a project that started out as a play and ended up a film. Walk me through that trajectory, if you would.

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below I have been writing down family stories and my own stories and events since grade school. I have reams of journals and computer documents of them all. In 1994 I began really compiling what I have always called Woody's Order! which is over 300 pages and not finished. Recently I posted chapters daily on Facebook and got up to Day 63 which takes us to 1995. The reaction was terrific. I am now finishing up from 1995-2018 and the ending, with Woody taking his last breath in my arms, smiling, looking into my eyes. The Epilogue will be "Wait There's Less!" - kidding but once that is finished I plan to have a wonderful literary agent and publisher. Eventually it will be a feature screenplay. But in 2012, I began reading chapters aloud at Naked Angels Tuesdays @9 and that led to me working with Matt Hoverman to make it a solo play, which led to the short doc, which led to me having the confidence to do The Shadow of Her Smile. And Woody is important in it too. When he meets Elizabeth, there is a hilarious event that is in the play, the doc, and The Shadow of Her Smile. He was a rascal for sure! Matt's class culminated in 20-minute presentations, so I took it 5 times to complete the 80 minute solo play. Then I worked on it at United Solo Theatre Festival, Emerging Artists, and Ensemble Studio Theatre before premiering in Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh Playhouse directed by John Shepard. I grew up in Pittsburgh. Dad was a mining engineer and head of the coal division of USSteel.

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below Woody and my dad, until he was diagnosed with Senile Dementia of The Alzheimer's Type around 1987, came to everything I have ever done in New York and even the regions. When Dad and Woody came to The Williamstown Theatre Festival to see me in The Cabarets in 1980, Christopher Reeve helped dad carry Woody, in his wheelchair, up a flight of stairs at The British Maid, whereupon Blythe Danner fell in love with Woody, sat with him, held his hand the entire show and gave him intermittent white wine from his sip cup. The ushers at Lincoln Center STILL ask me, "How is Woody?"

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below But I did not want Woody to see the solo play Woody's Order! in an audience because I knew it would overwhelm him and be far too emotional. I wanted him to experience it, however, so I came up with the idea that I would read it to him and have a friend film us. When I mentioned this to another of my mentors, Ken Mandel, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, he said, "Ann! That's a documentary. I'll help you find the right team to make it." And he did. We filmed it in July 2015. It took over a year to edit and weave archival home movies into it taken by our mother since 1948. Finally it premiered at Tribecca in 2017 and is in a festival as I write this.

https://www.iwoman.tv/playstream/e18c38832b08d9f4115bf0062d0c68af

You have said that Woody is your muse. Tell me about the experience of being, so, inspired by a sibling in such a powerful way.

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below I guess, for the rest of my life, I will say to almost anyone, "I wish you could have known my big brother Woody." Watching my short doc ensures that anyone who sees it will feel as if they have, indeed, met him. He was severely cerebral palsied and non-verbal. When he was born in 1948 his life expectancy was 12. He lived to almost 70. He was brilliant, hilarious, irreverent, and expressive in his face and sounds that he could make which, as a child, I would write out in music notes, like the hymns in Mother's hymnal. To me, even then, he was singing. He was attaching an emotion to a sound which had a pitch too.

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below All I know is that from the moment I have memory I adored my big brother and longed to care for him, protect him, play with him and be his teammate and partner in life. I learned how to feed him by the time I was 5 so I could help mother when her arthritis was acting up I would brag. I think he is my muse because our parents first wrote the script as a family legend. When Woody was 8 our mother had to have radical back surgery for a ruptured disc. In 1956 that was surgery and 6 weeks in hospital. As they took her away in an ambulance, she waved to Woody and he shouted the only word he has ever uttered. MOTHER! He also realized he needed a sibling so he would not be all alone in the world. So he went on what our dad called The Campaign (military of course) and he would touch mother's tummy and dad's groin and wave his hands and laugh. He was telling them to make a baby. Mother had lost 2 but Woody conjured me, and after 3 months total bedrest, I was born Cesarean Section on Friday The 13th. On the wavy white border of those black and white Polaroids of newborns they took in those days mother wrote, "Woody's Order!" and the legend began. They would say, "You have a destiny Miss Ann. You are your brother's keeper in case anything ever happens to mommy or daddy, but don't worry sugar...it won't." This empowered both Woody and me as youngsters. We loved it. Woody was like a real live doll I could help take care of. Woody felt he had accomplished something very important.

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below

Of course it was much more, and, yes, a lot to place on a little girl but I have no resentment whatsoever. We embraced our legend fully. And then it became a reality. A literary agent once asked me how I was able to do what I did and the answer is I told myself I was a soldier and I would survive and get the job done. And I did. But I had my own destiny, too, which was to be an actress and clown and singer and story teller. When I was 4, mother was watching me perform The Percolator and she remarked, "Oh my! You look like a young Elizabeth Taylor from National Velvet. Why, you could almost play her daughter. Even as a percolator!" And all my life, up to when I was cast, I was told I looked like Elizabeth from National Velvet, especially if it ran on the late show the night before. So I guess my other destiny came true too.

At one point you mentioned to me that there was an inkling that Woody's Order might make a good cabaret. Is that still in the air?

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below Yes as a matter of fact Alex Rybeck and I had dinner last night, after my first invited run-through of Shadow, and I shared some of my ideas about it with him. Stay tuned. Also Gregory Toroian and Geoffrey Stoner collaborated with me on a 12 minute set in Gregory's Christmas Show Workshop that we did at Pangea and it was an ideal inspiration to expand as a Christmas show about Woody and me in 1963 and our best Christmas ever. I would like to call it "Oh What A Night! (Late December Back in 63)"

I also have an idea for a musical I want to write with my friend Steven Lutvak. It is about something totally different.

You seem to find resonance in telling the stories of people who have had a strong effect in your life; where does that instinct come from?

My parents. They were wonderful story tellers. From a long line of story tellers. My Grandfather was named William Logan Maupin after Chief Logan a famous Cherokee Indian Chief who was a revered story teller.

Your Facebook page is one of the few that I actually look at because it is always uplifting and funny - there is always merit to looking at your social media. What is the driving force behind your optimism and humor?

I have been a clown all my life. I loved making my family laugh. My mother had severe clinical depression (untreated sadly) and in 1994 I was diagnosed with the same, which my doctor felt began when I was in 2nd grade. He told me it was a miracle I was still alive, my depression was so severe. But I knew that comedy has kept me alive and would heal my depression, too. Along with tons of therapy and Prozac. I loved Red Skelton and even had dreams about him when still in my crib, which prompted my mother to remark, "Well, God willing you'll always keep your sense of humor." My father was very witty and loved puns. So, I guess survival is the driving force behind my optimism and humor. I am a survivor and never give up. Dad, who was a Colonel in WWII, also taught me to never give up and always try to believe that good will triumph over evil. Comedy will triumph over sorrow.

Help me tease our readers by giving us a tiny preview of your March 31st show: what's an Elizabeth Taylor tidbit that you can share that isn't a spoiler of The Shadow of Her Smile?

Well two of the many questions I would ask Elizabeth during our many slumber parties were:

"Elizabeth why do you keep getting married?"

AND

"But who was the love of your life?"

Come see the show or LIVE STREAM IT to find out!

Also, both Elizabeth and I were baby sisters with an older brother whom we adored.

Ann Talman, thank you for chatting with Broadway World today, I can't wait to see your act on Thursday night.

Thank you!

BWW Interview: Ann Talman of THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE at Feinstein's/54 Below

Ann Talman THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE plays 54 Below on March 31st at 9:45 pm. For information and tickets visit the 54 Below website HERE.

THE SHADOW OF HER SMILE will live stream. For information and tickets visit the event page HERE.

THIS is the Ann Talman website.

 


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