The Ms. Q&A: Why Holland Taylor Wanted to Act Like Ann Richards

I’ve always looked forward to being old enough to play Ann Richards in a one-woman show—so imagine what happened when I saw that Holland Taylor’s Ann was on Broadway HD and running at Arena Stage, with Jayne Atkinson in the starring role.

I was eager to talk to the actor and playwright about her career, the things that led to her one-woman show and how she feels about handing it over to other actors. Taylor opened up to Ms. about how it is that Ann came to be—and what comes next.

(Poster of ANN)

I know you studied theater in college, so I’m guessing you knew before that you wanted to be an actor. When did you know? What drew you to the theater?

It’s always been a little mysterious to me, in a way, because I wanted to be an actress, and was set on it before I ever saw a professional production. I knew when I was 11 or 12. I don’t know how I knew. One does school plays and stuff like that, and I suppose that must’ve been it because by the time I was seeing plays I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And specifically plays, you know, I didn’t really link it to movies, and I’m old enough so that television was not really a thing when I was at a young age. 

So I really don’t know how it began because it began so young, but by the time I was in high school, there was no question in mind that that was what I was going to do. Curiously and interestingly for me, my parents, who were very ordinary, conservative, upper-middle class parents, never dissuaded me from it. Maybe they didn’t think I was really going to do it! But I certainly never did anything else or looked back.

You went to Bennington.

Bennington was a serious school. You could be a drama major at Bennington, you could major in violin at Bennington. It was a serious—they took the performing arts pretty seriously, after all Martha Graham started there. So I was a serious drama major and I did three or four plays every year.

What was the training there at the time? What were you learning?

That is a very critical point. I think that with acting you can train the instrument, you can train the voice, you can train the carriage, you can train the body’s mobility and histrionic gifts, you can enhance all of that. As far as what the job of acting is, it is a very hard to nail down gift or talent. Replication of behavior can be thought of in different ways, as that—replicating behavior—or it can be thought of as an act that is shapeless and hard to teach. 

My real teaching was with Stella Adler when I was already a very seasoned actor. The teaching I had when I young was really haphazard: it was really just up to the taste and judgment and intelligence of the teacher whether they led you down some garden path of their idea of what Method acting is, where you’re focused on your own inner life and trying to prod it and poke it and into fitting a character that you’re playing, or whether you are imagining yourself in the circumstances of the play, which is what Stella always taught me, where your imagination is what carries you along within those circumstances, which means, depending on the play, a certain amount of research and work to understand the role in the play and to inhabit it emotionally. 

So I would say my training in college was haphazard depending on the teacher, and I didn’t really consider myself a recipient of actual training for acting the way I value it until I starting studying with Stella at 37 or so. Stella was a very rigorous teacher and she had real ways to get your psyche to expand into the demands of the role, rather than having you go into your psyche for the answers.

I just read this wonderful book by a scholar named Rosemary Malague, An Actress Prepares: Women and the Method, where she lays out the Meisner way, and the Strasberg way, the Stella Adler way and the Uta Hagen way of interpreting and practicing the Method. And what she says about Stella Adler is exactly what you just said—which is that she empowers the actor to figure out how to do it, to do the work themselves, as opposed to some of the kind of guru teachers who get into the psyche and are trying to work on the subconscious.

That sounds interesting! Yeah, I’m not fond of that approach. I think it’s on the face of it a mistake. I remember Stella saying to a young guy who was giving a very personal version of Hamlet that actually really had nothing that anyone could receive because it was an inner construct of his own. She said to him, Joe, or whatever his name was, Hamlet is not a guy like you. And it’s really important, I believe, to start with the world of the character, the world that the author has created, and all the clues that that leads you towards, and the text and all that can be mined out of the text and research. And then your imagination speaks to it.

Stella used to talk about the imagination and the person who has the histrionic gift.  It’s very mercurial to be sure, but it’s very alive. So just getting a “whiff” is what that kind of intellectual work can set you up for emotionally and responsively. You can ride a long way on a “whiff” of something.

And to me that’s actually so much more fun, to start with how I’m different from the character, rather than the dredging up my experiences with my mother.

Yes. I had so many wonderful experiences with Stella that I recall very well to this day because I wasn’t a kid when I was working with her. I had worked for 15 years, and that’s why so much that she said was really the penny dropping, because I had a field of experience into which her class entered and that made things stunningly understandable to me. But I remember her saying to a woman that was doing the scene with Elizabeth and Mary in Mary Stuart, “If you are playing Queen Elizabeth the first from England and you are imagining your grandmother from Hoboken, you’re certifiably insane.”

She really was wonderful in that she made the work of the actor rigorous and demanding, and you had to really study and imagine to do the work. You know the fact is it’s you who’s doing it, so you are using yourself, including your dim primordial memories that fuel a great deal of what we do. But not in some kind of conscious way where you while performing a role you think about your own experience, which just strikes me as a waste of time.

What was it that made you realize that you needed a few more tools, since you had already had a successful career?

Well I had actually always wanted to study with Stella. When I got to New York, I went to the Stella Adler Conservatory very promptly and I was very put off by the registrar. And I don’t even remember what it was, but I was very put off and I think I was led to believe that I wouldn’t be able to study with her. I don’t recall what it was and I probably was so injured by it that I can’t. But I was very lucky with work. So it wasn’t until about 15 years later that I was working with an actor who had studied with her and was a friend of Stella’s, and he said of all people you should study with Stella. 

And so I went and went into her class and soon it became a kind of friendship, even though she was much older than I. I couldn’t ever quite believe in her friendship, I couldn’t imagine why she would be friends with me. But she reached out any number of times, and was very protective of me and in touch with me when I would travel for work. I have a collection of letters from her: anyone who has letters from Stella saves them because she had no small talk and only wrote in this elevated and utterly charming way. I can’t find anything, but I know exactly where my Stella letters are. 

There were so many specific and broad general truths that I just fell on it. She was then about 79, and I studied with very intensely until she about 81, when I took a job in LA. But I turned down various jobs that would have kept me from studying with her during that time because I thought, “I’ve got to get everything I can out of this,” because I didn’t know how much longer she’d be teaching. I felt I got her at her great star expansion period. Before a star dies it has an expansion in space, don’t you know.

That’s beautiful. As you mentioned, you took a job in LA and started doing TV and film. What of your theater training proved useful there and what did you have to learn from scratch?

Film acting is something that I haven’t learned really at all. I’ve just sort of learned on my feet and not that well. Young people who are brought up n front of a camera know so much that we don’t, and it’s quite challenging. It’s not a matter of changing the nature of the performance, it’s a matter of doing what is right for the camera and knowing what the camera sees, and knowing how to replicate certain things because the camera has to be able to see in a way in each cut that will come together.

I’m much more free as an actor on stage because there are not those limitations, and my performance is never the same from one night to the next. I mean it’s essentially the same, but I certainly don’t match movements and gestures from night to night. I wouldn’t want to use up that much brainpower. I’m mostly doing the things fresh within the parameters, obviously, of what it is I’m performing and my text and the general blocking. But as far as where I turn my head or what my gestures might be, there’s quite a lot of variety in what I do.  

I think if you’re a star and you’re dominating shooting, sometimes you can be that way, but then they have to edit it together. And you can’t one take be eating something and then not be eating it the same way in the close up, which you’re going to be doing an hour later. Most good actors on film aren’t doing very much because they don’t want to screw up matching considerations and editing considerations. 

These are the kind of things that are second nature to a film-trained person. And it’s not at all to me. My whole impulse is to follow these “whiffs,” as Stella would say, these things that carry me to a completely different reading of the same thing. The tone of something might change. I might say something in a lighter way or a darker way on another night. It’s the same person, but sometimes you are led to truths in performance by an inspired moment or two, and then it alters the way you’re doing it because you’ve received a gift, another way to be in that particular moment. Replicating something is not something I really know how to do very well.

Nevertheless, you have won multiple awards for your work on camera. I wanted to ask you about your acceptance speech, when you said: “Overnight!” I’m pretty sure I know what you meant, but explain it for me.

Yes, because I was—well, I don’t even know how old I was at the time. I was probably 50 or something, but I’d been acting a long time and I had done a lot of television the previous 15 years. 

Actually, I wasn’t even sure I was going to say that because I remember walking up to the stage when I did win that award (which was very much a long shot), and I thought if I just say “overnight,” what if they don’t get it? But in fact everybody got it very, very well. I mean there was momentary pause as they realized I was making a rather witty joke and the reaction was just tumultuous. What I meant by it was just, you know, they talk so much about people being overnight successes and I thought, “Here was a success that belied the overnight trope.”

Tell me about the process of creating Ann.

I am extremely proud of the play as a piece of theater. It’s honed and polished within an inch of my life. It was developed over really six major production periods, and honed and honed. And even in its last iteration, which was a revival in Austin two years after Broadway, I made about 50 pretty small changes to the final text. It’s truly a play. It’s not bits and bobs of things that Ann Richards wrote or said, it is a coherent narrative.

It is a very effective theater piece. And I thought it would be a while before that’s realized. Because I performed it, unfortunately, I think in people’s minds they don’t think of it first as a play, a written narrative. It’s not like Mark Twain Tonight, which is all Mark Twain, not a play about Mark Twain. Though there are the occasionally snippets [in Ann] from her, it is an imagined narrative and based on years of immersion. The fact that I did it, and it was sort of a sensation as a one-woman show, took away from people’s impressions of it as a written piece.

It’s now picking up: there are quite a few productions of it that are happening now and are lined up for the future. It’s been done about nine or 10 times in smaller regional theaters, and it’s getting picked up more and more on the larger scale and that’s very gratifying because then the play will have its larger life.

What drew you to her and to that particular obsession?

Well, it wasn’t a “project” in my mind; I was really compelled to do it. And it had nothing to do with my wanting to do a one-woman show. I was far past the age of wanting to do anything as dicey as that, in a way. It would not have appealed to me, and it’s not anything I ever longed to do. It wasn’t like I thought, “I want to do a one-person show, who would be a good subject?” No, no, though a lot of people assume that I did. It was exactly that opposite. 

I think she chose me. After she died, I was simply unable to stop being mournful about the loss for the country, and for me personally. Although meeting her, which I did, was not the reason why. I just felt she was n incredibly important voice in the zeitgeist, and that she died at such a young age. She’s that the kind of personality where you think is always going to be there. You think, “What will Ann Richards say?” She was quite a presence in New York. When she died, I just simply couldn’t believe it. I started reading things about her, and I couldn’t shake my sense of loss and remorse. 

When we have feelings of loss we want to take action: we want to do something, we want to be creative. And I wanted to do something creative. If I were a painter I would have painted a portrait of her. And as an actress, I suddenly though, well I could play her. And I can play the significant years, like from when she quit drinking to 10 years later becoming governor, and I thought that could make a good story. And I knew some producers that I knew knew her and liked her very much (Norman Lear, George Clooney), and I thought, “I could get in touch with those guys and talk about doing a project.”

But over a period of months, I found myself not doing that. I was driving to work one day and I was sort of chastising myself, “Why am I not doing this?” And I suddenly realized, “Ah, it’s because it’s not a television show, it’s a live play, because that was her extraordinary gift: her live connection to people and the effect that she had on people.” And I just knew that was what I had to do. You could call it an obsession in the sense of an obsession that is healthy, in the sense that it is leading to a creative end; it’s not an obsession that’s neurotic and destructive. It’s productive. 

So I just submerged. I actually did not re-up on my television show. I told them I would visit occasionally, but I wanted to focus on something else, which they couldn’t believe because to be on a series is considered to be the greatest thing ever. It’s not the greatest thing ever in my book. When I was able to step away from being a regular, I did. And I stared traveling to Texas and traveling to various places where these people were. Washington was another place, and New York, of course, for Cecile Richards. For some miraculous reason, it was open session with me. And her closest people were very welcoming, and I think they saw and they were told by some body that knows me well, “Holland will do this right.” They took me seriously and were welcoming and supportive and great fun. I had the most spectacular—and still have—the most spectacular time with these extraordinary people who were part of the intimate “Ann nation”.  

I spent three years doing that, with papers and recordings and videos and stuff from the archives and CNN and many different sources, because it was really total immersion: reading, viewing, talking, visiting, inquiring, and imagining. And after three years of submersion, I felt, “I have to start writing because I could go on this way for ever.” It was so fascinating. And I still research Ann. I have access to a lot of material, which anybody does, in the archive, and I still search things out and think about things and I still ask the people who I think would know such and such, “What did she do about this? How did that work?” She’s endlessly fascinating.  So I had a great deal of nourishment to call on for the project when I started writing. And I could have written a six-hour play.

I’m interested that you watched and listened to a lot of things. What was the process for you in embodying her, doing her voice and her body, how did you get inside her—which you did very well, by the way. I watched the film.

Oh, you watched it? Well, we were very happy with that movie because I think as movies of plays go, that’s a very good one. We had five stationery cameras for a live performance. We couldn’t move the cameras, obviously. We had to do a very good job of editing, which I think we did because—was your experience very much like having a sort of miraculous intimacy, and yet it was a night in the theater?

Yes. You can also credit the writing for that: the set up of there being an audience at the beginning when it’s a graduation speech. Watching it on film, it made sense that there was an audience there because she’s giving a speech, but then when you go to an hour in the governor’s life, you kind of are sucked much deeper in, and it becomes like you’re in her private space.

Yes, I think that mise en scène actually works very well and allows her to go elsewhere and come back at the end. I think it does work as a speech at a graduation as well, with all the big themes and simple truths one wants from those occasions. When I had that first discovery that that’s what I had to do, I knew a lot about her, but I had only just started. What I really knew was how she effected me, because I’m the expert on that, and when I got this idea, “oh it’s a play, it’s a live performance of her, she’s speaking to the audience, she’s speaking directly to them,” it was really like a thunderclap. And I did pull over and I don’t think I even turned the car off I just sat and stared in the middle distance. And the five or six organizing principles of the play came to me in five minutes. 

It’s so smart because it’s something she was famous for doing—giving speeches.  It’s something she was incredible at. So it allows us to see her doing this thing that she’s famous for and wonderful at, and then you take us on this journey literally by going deeper into time and space, and you kind of forget about the graduation, and then you pull us back forward in time and space. It’s a really lovely journey.

Well, I thought so too. And it took a lot of shaping over the years, but the basic concept, the fact that it would be a graduation speech, that it would have a centerpiece in an hour in the life of a governor, that is something that the theater allows you to do. I’m walking over here and when I’m in this set, I’m being the governor. And the audience goes, “oh, okay.” That’s the thing that’s great about the theater: as long as the rules are clear what you’re doing, the audience goes, “great we’re right with you.” Years of acting in plays has taught me that, even though I didn’t know I knew it. When I was writing this I saw that I know a lot about how plays work and I didn’t realize it. 

So the concept of the speech and the organizing principle of the hour in the life of the governor, where you see how she functioned, which is really who she was, and is really what the play is about. It’s not political, it’s not partisan, it’s not history. It’s about who she was. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I thought if I really created something that evoked her, like a hologram in a sense, that her capacity to inspire would travel with it. And it does, and it doesn’t matter who is doing it. It doesn’t have to be me. Some actresses in various places have done it, and the plays are always extended. They always get standing ovations because it’s who she was. 

The other couple of organizing principle things were I absolutely knew I was going to be talking about the speech and say at some point, I never got to give that speech. Because I had to, in a theatrical way, reveal that this was a kind of visitation. It was intended to be a visitation from someone who is gone.

My original stage directions for the play say the time is the present. The place is an imaginary college in Texas. It’s now. The play takes place in whatever now you see it in. And at some point she says, “I never got to give that speech,” and then talks about unexpectedly having to check out. And she talks about it in the way that she does, by rejoicing: “That was a hell of a funeral.”

Certain basic things came to me in those first minutes that have always made me feel—I’m not a believer particularly but I certainly believe Ann Richards had a hand in making this.

Well you captured her voice so well. Was that kind of a natural thing for you to be able to do?

No, not at all. And I don’t think I do it very well. Her voice is very specific, it’s kind of slow honey. She often speaks more slowly than I do in this play, and speeding up was just something that I knew that I had to do. She just had a style that I could not maintain for two hours, in a replication way, because it’s not—it would not have served the theater that well. So I probably talked faster than she did. And my accent is just barely acceptable. It’s a very hard sound for me to get: I’m not a Texan; I didn’t spend any time in Texas until I was 60. And it didn’t come naturally to me.

I recognize when I hear different kinds of accent, but that doesn’t mean that I can do them. The people who are gifted at dialects are kind of freaks. They have a very freakish ability to be able to replicate the complex phonetics of an accent, and a central Texas twang. And there are some exceptions, some sounds she makes differently from the classic version of that. Certain words she does not pronounce a Southern or Texas way. She does not say “insurance” although most of the people I interviewed do. So you have to be aware of these things. 

I went to a dialect coach many times for many hours, and I got a pronunciation key that I did try to go through the script with, and I did an okay job at that. I think what I did in terms of replicating Ann was much more her body movements and her gestures. There are different parts of the play where I do that more than others: I do that in the governor’s office scene. I think her mannerisms are very comforting to people who knew her. And to people who don’t know her, the mannerisms still matter because it’s the whole gestalt of who she was. 

There are maybe two moments in those first 32 minutes when I could sip water. There was so much information I had to get in. and if I didn’t do it then I would not do it because it’s relentless. You can’t stop. There’s no thinking. There are literally maybe three moments in the play where the character Ann pauses and thinks about something. Otherwise, you better be talking, moving, doing something. It’s not reflective. It’s not inner. It’s outer. It is to an audience or it is terrifically acted. She’s in a conversation; you don’t just drift off.

So it’s a very specific kind of behavior you’re doing for two hours. And I think her mannerisms are very comforting to people who knew her. And as for people who don’t know her, the mannerisms still matter because it’s the whole gestalt of who she was.

Well it’s very humble of you to say you didn’t get the accent exactly right. I think one of the ways in which you fool people is that in the writing you capture the rhythm of that particular accent, and your use of her idioms is really spot on. How did you figure out how to work those in?

I didn’t work anything in. This is created. I can talk like her and think like her, how she actually spoke. I was immersed in her for three years before I actually tried to write her. There’s very little that she wrote or said that’s in that play.  The occasionally half sentence or phrase, “Why should your life be just about you?” is definitely right out of her mouth and one of the greatest things she ever said. That particular phrase is unforgettable. And I had to have that at a key moment in the play. But she didn’t write about an hour in the life of a governor. It’s all imagined. 

I really did feel I had a direct line to her; I really did feel she was helping me, because I had to write any number of really funny lines for her, many many jokes which are not her jokes, are not anything she ever said. But I know she had a kind of black sense of humor and she saw things from a very dark point of view sometimes. She was not a Pollyanna or pie-in-the-sky. She saw things fully, darkness included and she could make a wicked gallows humor joke. And I thought I’ve got to get one in there somewhere.

So very much in passing I have her say something like, “Make some fresh coffee; this stuff is going to kill us all. You’ll find 30 people lying dead all over the floor. It’s going to look like Jonestown around here.” Well that is a rough joke, and it gets this huge laugh. That was what she was capable of.  And that just came to me, because I was in the place where I was momentarily placed exactly intellectually, psychologically right in a place where she occupied, and I was gifted with an extraordinary sense of saying it, writing it the way she would.

There’s your Adler training—total immersion in the given circumstances leads to inspiration.  You mentioned the challenge of finding a moment to take a sip of water. I was really aware, even in the film version, of how much it takes for an actor to hold the stage that way for two hours. When you were performing it, how did you prepare yourself to go on stage? And how did you take care of yourself afterward?

I didn’t take very good care of myself because I couldn’t. I was always on the road. At all of those theaters, because of the nature of being on the road, you do eight a week. And then at the Kennedy Center, that a month-long run and it was blindingly demanding. Rock bottom minimum there’s a two-hour prep, between makeup, hair, wigs, bodysuit, costume; it’s elaborate. And I do a kind of transforming makeup. I plucked out my own eyebrows and made a much more peaked eyebrow, as she had.  By Broadway, I was without a doubt at the theater two-and-a-half hours before, and I would allow a good 15 minutes for a physical warm-up, which was necessary. So by the time I was ready to go on stage, I was on a fast march to that stage from backstage, and the stage manager would open that door for me right quick because he knew I wasn’t going to slow down. I had to come onstage like an eighteen-wheeler, and I never stopped. And afterwards I was physically tired, but I was stimulated. In New York, I’d come down at 10, 10:15, then it’s a long time to get out. You have to get out of makeup, hair and wig, and bodysuit—and then there were invariably guests—so it was quite a while before I got home. And I would have a bath, and before I would know it, it would 2:00, and I would try to go to bed at two. And on matinee day, I’d be back in the theater by 11:00 in the morning.

So it was very rigorous. And it was one thing to do it at the Kennedy Center because that was a month, but on Broadway, by the third month of this I was really flagging, and there was no way to build up my strength because it kept getting broken down. And I got the flu during that run and performed with it, which I never fully recovered from. It was pure ego.

I could have said now—because nobody does eight a week of a one-person show in New York. Alan Cummings was in his forties, I was in my seventies; his show was only 90 minutes, and he did six a week. Then Fiona Shaw came over with her show and did six a week. And I, coming into New York, partly for economical reasons, I said I’d do eight a week. It was sheer bravado.

Now looking back, I was just being cocky, big fat ego, because it bit me in the ass big time, and it took me several years after that to feel like myself again. 

But it was worth it, everything that was difficult about that. It was about 10 years from conception to the last performance, and I think I will do it again, because I saw the movie of the play, and since that time I’ve thought, “I would do such and such differently. I need to play that again.” When something is a great play, there’s no one way. With Ann there’s some overall arching intention you have to have, but even from the vantage point of being older, I have a different attitude about any number of things.

One of the benefits of aging is the points of view expand. I have a gratitude for having had the experience of doing this. I was basically gifted with it.

Is it fun to watch other people now act it?

I haven’t ever seen anyone else do it! I suppose I will, I mean it’s fun that it’s being done. I’m very excited that the play is having it’s own life. It’s something that I knew would take a while, but I assumed it would happen.

And I think the play being available to be seen on Broadway HD is helpful. They hear about the play but they have no idea what it is, then if they see it, they think, “Our theater could do that.” It can’t be staged in every theater the way it’s being staged in Lincoln Center, that’s very complex, especially when the entire governor’s office comes in. There has to be other ways to do it, other ways to create the illusion (because it’s full of illusions) and other ways for the actor to realize that persona. 

So I hope it’s done a lot. It’s a very—it’s not easy to cast. When they tried to put together a national tour of it after Broadway, they kept trying to cast it with established stars, which is very, very hard. A lot of them are not up to doing it. You have to be inspired by the material to want to do it, because it is sacrificial. You’ll be doing nothing else while you do that play. And it requires at least, rock bottom minimum, two months to learn it. You can’t rehearse it with the book in your hand, you have to learn it completely before you rehearse it.  It’s an unbelievable challenge. It was interesting the booking theaters across the country—who they wanted to see and didn’t want to see. It’s not easy to cast. So I don’t think it’s going to be done with wild frequency, but I think it will be done.

We now have so many women in politics, and I’m wondering if there are any of them you think are interesting and maybe should have a one-woman show written about them someday.

Well, first of all, I don’t consider the play political at all. I think a lot theaters, going into this season of women in politics, will do the play for that reason, and it’s very useful because I think the play can inspire someone to go into public service. It’s more about public service, which Ann thought was the greatest job in the world. Ann thought there was nothing more satisfying than public service. 

I happen to have had the great good fortune of meeting Michelle Obama and a person’s house not long ago, and I saw her again at the same person’s house at dinner last night. Now she was never elected to office, but I thought, “There was a public servant.” She is serving our culture, she is serving America in almost everything she does and did do. It’s a very taxing and sacrificial role, in a sense, a role of service, when she was first lady.

Now she’s all over the country constantly. I think she and her husband are very dedicated to the idea of trying to make the vote, the act of voting attractive, admirable, desirable, something a person would not miss doing, which is certainly not the way it is now. I mean Republicans vote because they’re very interested in their pocketbook. But curiously enough, young people and some very opinionated Democrats don’t even go to the polls. We just don’t vote. Fifty percent of the country does not vote. Fifty percent of eligible people do not vote, which is sort of staggering.

And I think that she and the former President are very interested in finding ways to make voting something that one would not dream of not doing, and inspiring people to service. They’re both in leadership roles as service-inspiring figures, and they’re constantly appearing in this guise for that reason.

I think Michelle particularly is profoundly gifted. She’s not unlike Ann in that they both have an enormous capacity to listen and to be a witness. Anybody who’s speaking to them—they utterly see and hear and respect what they’re learning about that person. I’ve never seen anything like it. And the fact of their soulful response, their caring response to people, makes people want to talk to them, to tell them whatever their struggle might be.

Oprah has this same talent; this is a very profound talent. Princess Diana had it. This is a kind of presence with their heart and their mind fully as witness. And this is a great role that Michelle Obama has, and I know with certainty that she will contribute this her whole life, and I regard her as a public servant.

So, I hope the play very much inspires people. Julie White, who plays Nancy Kohler, came to our final production in New York, and she came backstage in tears and said: “This play makes me want to be a better person.” And I think that is what it’s all about.


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.