Feature: Directing ‘Ann’ at Arena Stage

Kristen van Ginhoven, founding director of WAM Theatre, talks about Ann Richards, the Texas Governor whose wisecracks, honesty and irreverence have audiences cheering - and voting - today.

Ann Richards, the late governor of Texas, and the first woman in that state to be elected in her own right, would be howling with glee if she could see the pandemonium unleashed in government today.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann” at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With 125 women in Congress, four of them singled out for bullying by a belligerent president, Richards would be thrilled to see that her battle to bring women into the fray of politics had finally succeeded.

Richards’ refusal to be intimidated is the subject of Ann, the one-woman show now at Arena Stage, where it evokes waves of laughter and occasional shock from audiences who are mostly too young to remember the feminist icon herself.

The play is the story of Richards’ life, using her own words in a sort of free-ranging reflection on women and leadership. Originally produced with its author, Holland Taylor, in the title role, Ann had a brief run at the Kennedy Center in 2011, followed by a staging at Lincoln Center in New York before it was shelved.

I was curious to know what brought about this resurrection of the play. To find out, I called Kristen van Ginhoven, the director of Ann, during rehearsals, and asked her if Richards had been a mentor to her.

“Not at all,” she laughed. Growing up in Canada, she had never met Ann Richards, and knew nothing about the Texas governor until 2017. At the time, she knew that the midterm elections were coming up.

Director Kristen Van Ginhoven. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“I wanted to produce a play about a woman in politics,” she said, pointing out that as founding director of WAM Theatre, a professional theater company in the Berkshires, she had always been interested in plays with a feminist focus. She turned to Holland Taylor. “I knew she had written a play that not only paid tribute to Ann but was designed to catalyze people to get involved in politics.”

Taylor sent over the script. As soon as she read it, Van Ginhoven said, “I got goosebumps. I knew it was right for WAM, and perfect for Jayne Atkinson” – the actress known for her roles in House of Cards and Madame Secretary – “so I called Jayne, who immediately agreed.”

The play was produced by WAM, with Jayne in the title role, at the Dorset Festival in the Northern Berkshires one year later. That’s when Molly Smith, Arena’s Artistic Director, decided to bring the play back to DC. “There really is no better place for a play about a strong woman politician,” Smith said.

The play begins with a recording of Ann’s keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention – the one where she famously insulted George H. W. Bush – and then follows with a commencement address at an imaginary college in Texas.

There is a flashback to a typical day in office, where she fields calls from President Clinton, all four of her children and a speechwriter who can’t meet deadlines.

“It’s a sweep across the arc of her life, a visitation of sorts,” van Ginhoven explained. “Time is suspended.”

The play moves from Ann’s childhood in Texas – with a father who thought she was perfect, and a mother who didn’t – through her marriage, first forays into political life and ultimately her career as governor.

Although it’s odd to think of a play about politics being funny, this one actually is. The director agreed. “It’s the humor that drew me in,” she said. “On the stage, it’s rare to find a female character who is genuinely hilarious. That’s usually the male role, while it’s the woman who plays the straight man.”

In the past, she added, women didn’t see themselves as leaders. “Politics,” Ann reminds women in the audience, “may be dirty – but you’ve seen dirtier fights at the PTA.”

She was also fond of saying, “If you can raise four kids, you can manage an elected office.” And “Life isn’t fair. But government should be.”

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann” at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Her influence on politics today is clearly evident in the makeup of the House. “Look at Congress,” van Ginhoven said. “Women of all backgrounds – not just lawyers, but nurses and teachers – are moving into political slots. Women are seeing themselves as ‘qualified,’ which they never did before.”

Directing a one-person play is often difficult, she admitted. “But with an actor like Jayne, it’s actually easier than directing a group.” The two women have worked together since 2011. “Jayne is perfect for the role of Ann since the part reflects both her personal philosophy and her persona.”

Now a U.S. citizen, Kristen van Ginhoven was born near Montreal. She went to Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, then got her master’s degree at Emerson College in Boston. She currently lives in the heart of the Berkshires, not far from Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts, where WAM is currently housed.

This staging of Ann, which is a co-production with the Dallas Theater Center, will go on hiatus for a few weeks before re-opening in Dallas in October.

Ann plays through August 11, 2019, at Arena Stage – 1101 6th Street, S.W. in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or go online.

[Related: Ann at Arena Stage, Reviewed by Barbara MacKay]

A post-script:
A long time ago, Bella Abzug – another feisty female politician – ran for Senator from New York. Her campaign slogan was “A Stag Senate is a Stag Nation.” And stag it was. In 1977 the Senate was 100 percent male. Not male-dominated, but totally male. Bella lost, but Ann and a lot of others since have won.