By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Phone calls are not inherently interesting on stage, especially when we only see one person talking. If the writing and acting aren't sharp, then we're left staring at someone who's just standing there, shutting us out of a conversation. All we can do wait for the character to hang up.
But when they work, onstage phone calls are tantalizing drama. Take the middle section of Ann, a solo show, written and performed by Holland Taylor, about former Texas governor Ann Richards.
Now on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont, the show begins with Richards delivering a commencement address to a group of students. She speaks to us directly, as though we were the ones in caps and gowns, and it's like having a private chat with a fiery, funny woman. Ann talks about her wild family, her growing love of politics, and even her drinking problem with a confidant's wink.
Eventually, though, the play transitions to the Texas governor's office, and once the set slides on, Ann gets pulled into her job. Instead of talking to us, she mostly talks on the phone. She chews out her speechwriter. She cajoles her children to stop bickering. She even calls President Clinton to tease him about being an Arkansas hick.
These phone calls are roughly half the play, yet they don't go slack. Every one gives us something crucial---a joke that reveals Ann's political savvy, a moment of silence that suggests her doubt.
The script has been sculpted to make sure every word in those phone calls needs to be there. "It was much, much longer, and we've really edited it down," says director Benjamin Endsley Klein, who also helmed several regional productions of Ann. "Certainly Holland, in doing her amazing amounts of research, became enamored with every aspect of Ann, but the trick was letting certain things go that weren't crucial for the audience's understanding. She's said that as a writer, she's realized certain things don't need to be in the play, even though she needed to know them as an actor."
Klein has also focused on the people Ann's talking to. "I made sure that anytime somebody was mentioned or called, there was enough information for us to understand them or hang on to them in some way," he says. "Even though you never hear the person on the other line, you can imagine what they're saying based on what she says."
In other words, Ann doesn't just say "uh huh" or "yeah" or "okay" on the phone. When she's talking to President Clinton, for instance, she calls him by a pet name and sasses him about needing her advice. That tells us how intimate their relationship is, and it helps us imagine what Clinton's doing in the White House.
"Early on, I would say the lines from the other person on the phone, so that she knew exactly what that person was saying," Klein adds. "Of course, you don't ever let that much time pass in the theatre. We cheat that when she's doing the show for real. But in rehearsal we would really let her get those responses in her brain."
Similarly, Taylor's movements have been tightly scored when she's in the governor's office. When she's calling someone about a crucial bill, she knows to pick up a particular folder. "It is very intricately blocked, so that like anyone's busy workday, it comes off like reality," Klein says.
He adds that Taylor is the driving force behind these details: "Holland is the most specific actor I've ever worked with. The props that are up there are as close to what Ann would have as we can get. Everything she's signing in that orange folder is a letter or a bill the governor might have been signing. There are stamps from the 90s on the envelopes. She needs that because she doesn't want to be taken out of the play by something [from 2013.]"
He adds, "As we've worked, that's forced me to make everything else just as specific. That's how you keep things heightened and active."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Ave Bonar