Creating Molly Ivins, Red Hot Patriot
How twin sisters are inspired to write their first theater piece and, with the help of some well-placed friends, go on to entice Kathleen Turner to star in the vehicle—all to provide a legendary journalist with her “second act.”
Credit Jane Fonda and Sally Field. Two years ago at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, the two celebrated actresses issued a clarion call for film and theater scripts starring women over the age of 50. At a Women and Power conference partially funded by Sarah Peter, a New York artist and philanthropist, the actresses pleaded with the audience of 400 women—some of whom were writers—to consider developing scripts for actresses past the ingénue stage. Despite their renown, Fonda and Field said they are given little theatrical material of value.
Their suggestion was on our minds when we heard the tragic news on January 31, 2007, that political raconteur Molly Ivins had lost her battle with breast cancer at age 62.
If stage audiences could spend thousands of nights with Mark Twain and Will Rogers over the years, why not with Molly? She was our Mark Twain and Will Rogers. We wanted to keep her voice alive.
We are journalists and twin sisters who have collaborated on several books and many more magazine and newspaper articles. Although we have 70 years of professional writing experience between us, we’ve not written for the stage before. But we’ve been lifelong theater rats, performing through high school and college. Allison, who at one point was the president of the Des Moines Playhouse, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community theaters, just finished a master’s in screenwriting at the University of Southern California, where she helps run the university’s magazine, newspaper and website. Peggy serves on the board of the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, D.C. (Our father, a writer and would-be playwright with an MA in playwriting from Columbia University, once worked on the stage crew for Helen Hayes at her community theater in Nyack, New York).
Surely Molly Ivins’ distinctive humor, canny political analysis and outsized heart could dominate a stage, we thought. For weeks and months after her death, we re-read everything that Molly wrote, listened to her speeches and viewed her TV appearances at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City. We called and emailed many of her friends and colleagues, who gave us endearing, funny anecdotes. We ordered several dozen one-person plays from the Samuel French theatrical publishing company and started reading.
Lou Dubose, Molly’s co-author on the books Shrub and Bushwhacked, and Betsy Moon, her “chief of stuff,” became friends of Peggy’s at the Conference on World Affairs, a confab held annually at the University of Colorado. They pointed us to Dan Green, Molly’s agent in New York City, who explained that her literary beneficiaries, the ACLU and the Texas Observer, had to approve any use of her words. Our finished script, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, passed muster with both groups and gained a theatrical agent, Ron Gwiazda of Abrams Arts Agency.
The father of one of Peggy’s co-workers is the treasurer of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. He handed the script to Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, who was the first to recognize its potential. Her staff organized a full staged reading done by actress Kathleen Turner.
We reached Turner through another personal connection. Allison has been a longtime writer for various magazines published by Meredith Corporation and is a friend of its former magazine group president, Jim Autry. (Allison served as the speechwriter for Autry’s wife, Sally Pederson, when she was the lieutenant governor of Iowa). Autry is a member of the board of People for the American Way, where Turner also is a longtime board member.
At a board meeting, Autry mentioned the script to Turner. She asked to see it and gave an enthusiastic “yes.”
Turner—whose star turn in Showtime’s Californication, among other triumphs, has loaded her schedule—found an unexpected availability this spring. But Arena Stage’s schedule was already set. Her agent contacted Philadelphia Theatre Company’s artistic director Sara Garonzik, who was able to re-juggle productions to make room for Red Hot Patriot from March 19 to April 18.
Former Seattle Rep artistic director and busy Broadway and regional director David Esbjornson signed on to bring it to the stage. We both had been smitten by Esbjornson’s production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? on Broadway, and were thrilled that he agreed to bring his artistic sensibilities to our first playwriting effort. We also appreciated careful script readings from two canny female theater hands: actor/producer Gretchen Cryer and dramaturge Lloyd Rose.
Beyond the need for more visibility for mature actresses on the stage, we feel a need for more visibility for the many, many women who have devoted their lives to journalism. From The Front Page to All the President’s Men, journalism on stage and screen has largely been about men in the profession. A towering figure such as Molly Ivins, who was probing and prescient about national politics while living far from the New York and Washington power grid, deserves a second act on the stage.
For information on “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” visit the Philadelphia Theatre Company website.
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