BWW Interview: Jayne Atkinson takes on a Legend with ANN at Arena Stage
If the maxim "well behaved women rarely make history" is to be believed, then the legacy of Ann Richards is secure. And if Jayne Atkinson were looking for a tour-de-force, then she found one as the late Texas governor holding court at Arena Stage in Ann.
"I was very excited to bring Ann to Arena Stage and Dallas Theater Center because having done it at the Dorset Theatre and both times with WAM Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts the feeling that was engendered from the show was such a feeling of hope within the audience," says Atkinson. "This play is so profoundly important right now in all of the things that she is talking about that I felt that it was just the perfect time for her and her voice and this play."
Written by Holland Taylor, Ann is a one woman play about the late Texas Governor Ann Richards that is part reflective autobiography, part homage to public service, and always entertaining. In it, Richards tells how a divorced housewife, and recovering alcoholic, became involved in the down and dirty of Texas politics, ending up in the governor's mansion, and ultimately becoming a political icon for a generation of candidates.
"I think the fact that she has a great sense of humor, I think the fact that she says it like she sees it. I think it's wonderful to sort of hear a live autobiography of where she came from, what was important to her, what was a turning point in her life," says Atkinson.
Atkinson adds, "I think that people come to the theater for a story. Sometimes to change the story, sometimes to understand the story, their own story, and I think seeing her in action is so powerful because you see what it takes and how a woman, particularly her, governs, handles her job, handles her family, you see everything that is important to her."
Bringing any icon to the stage is challenging, but when it involves someone who left such an imprint on society, there are bound to be added challenges. In Ann, that includes more than half the play taking part in the governor's office where we see Richards work the levers of state government.
"It is challenging to play a real life person because you want to do her justice. I want to have her accent and her walk and the way she presents herself, but I think what I'm going for as well is her spirit," says Atkinson. "The sort of pastiche of who she is, and Holland's play really gives me such a beautiful runway to take off into her. Kristen Van Ginhoven [Ann's Director] and I talked about it and it sort of comes through me and that's going to affect the version of her, but I have been told that I'm doing really well, especially by people who have known her or worked with her."
Richards was known to command the political stage. In 1988 she became the stuff of legend when she proudly declared in a keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention, "After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."
A core element of the play is witnessing what came across Richard's desk everyday as governor. That, and Richard's reaction, is what provides us insight not only into the type of leader she was, but also the type of mother as well. But whereas most political stage adaptations have large ensembles, see All the Way and The Best Man, in Ann there is just Atkinson.
"We spent a lot of time talking about Ann and creating a new sort of traffic wave staging for the version at Arena because we're dealing with a round stage and a moving podium and we have to conserve my energy," says Atkinson. "It's a lot, so everything really was geared in many ways to my comfort, my energy level and making sure that we took our time and also taking breaks when I needed it, which is different when you have an ensemble because more people are up there so you get more rest."
Atkinson says she wasn't overly familiar with Richards before Ann, and that is one of the reasons why she wanted to do the play. "I just think that she was a maverick and a groundbreaker and she was very instrumental and encouraging women even before she was elected to run for office and even afterwards. She was very encouraging of women to vote. She knew it was a long haul, so I believe that she was the foundation, along with the women who had come before her," says Atkinson.
Eight years have passed since Washingtonians last saw Ann in its pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center with Taylor as Richards. The real life Richards passed away in 2006, but her legacy of public service still carries on, even in his own family. Her daughter Cecile Richard is a pro-choice activist and was the president of Planned Parenthood from 2006 to 2018, while her granddaughter Lily Adams currently serves as the communications director for Senator Kamala Harris' (D-CA) presidential campaign.
"Ann talks in one interview about that fact that she's asked why two million women didn't vote in one of the elections and she said it's because women want to know how you are going to help their lives practically," says Atkinson. "They are not interested in policy, and what I mean by that is it's not that they're not educating themselves and know about policy, but at that time, and I think still, they want to know how you are going to help their lives practically and their children's lives, their families."
As of this writing a record six women are running for president, 127 are serving in congress, and nine as governors. Asked where the spirit of Richards is most embodied in today's political climate, Atkinson says it is in the support women are providing to each other.
"I think that women are stepping up and protecting each other and helping each other. Ann got elected by a lot of powerful people, but in the play you hear how when she started to run, her network of women friends arrived on their brooms. She had the support of women. Women who had money, women who had intelligence, women who just wanted to see her succeed, and I do think that spirit is being embodied right now."
Runtime is one hour and 35 minutes with one intermission