Molly Ivins in the 1970’s worked at The Texas Observer before moving to The New York Times, and in short time she was home again. Photo by Alan Pogue/www.documentaryphotographs.com.
Journalists can cut compelling figures on the stage. Think Mark Twain, as portrayed by Hal Holbrook. Or Will Rogers.
Who better to entertain and provoke audiences now but Molly Ivins, the red hot rose of Texas who was syndicated in nearly 400 newspapers dispensing wit and wisdom? And who better to play Molly than celebrated actress Kathleen Turner who bears a strong resemblance to Molly and shares her deep commitment to the First Amendment?
Molly, a 6-foot, red-haired force of nature, has been deeply missed since she died in 2007 at the age of 62. As journalists (and twin sisters) who appreciate the tough slog of those women who paved the way, we decided to write a play about her.
Even though this was our first play, it didn’t seem far-fetched for us to undertake the effort. Our father, who had an M.A. in playwriting from Columbia University and once worked for Helen Hayes, made sure that we attended theater classes and as many plays as possible. One of us was the president of a venerable community theater and just finished an M.A. in screenwriting. The other serves on the board of the Helen Hayes Awards.
And there was no shortage of people who loved and worked with Molly who were willing to share their stories, both hilarious and poignant.
She was a true American original. She brought her dog and bare feet into the newsroom of The New York Times, from which she was fired after describing a chicken cleaning festival as a “gang pluck.” She retreated from the power corridor of New York and Washington to Texas. From that perch she attracted a national audience, including bylines in influential magazines, a commentator’s spot on “60 Minutes,” and even being spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.” She felt she had a clearer picture of national politics sitting in the Lone Star State.
And she was right. From an eagle-eye view of the savings and loan crisis to the rise of Bush 41 and 43 (whom she named “Shrub”), Molly supplied barbed observations that are still quoted today.
Molly was Smith-educated and spoke fluent French, but grabbed readers by using “the piss and vinegar” idioms of plain Texas speech.
We felt this voice was a natural for the stage. “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” was born after we re-read all of Molly’s columns and books and analyzed the scripts of many one-person plays. We finished an early draft in spring 2008 and Molly’s longtime agent, Dan Green, arranged permission from The Texas Observer and the American Civil Liberties Union, her literary beneficiaries.
We were lucky to find the sympathetic ear of Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. This Molly has a long history of incubating new plays and she arranged a staged reading in August 2009. Writer and editor Jim Autry, a personal friend from our days at The Des Moines Register & Tribune and Meredith Publishing, got the script to Kathleen Turner, a fellow member of the board of People For the American Way Foundation. The actress brought Molly to life in that staged reading.
Turner’s schedule had an unexpected opening for spring 2010 and the Philadelphia Theatre Company was able to find an available slot. We’re happy to report that the play will run from March 19 to April 18 at the company’s new theater on the Avenue of the Arts on Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia.
There’s been a long link between journalism and the stage. During the Depression, the Work Projects Administration financed The Living Newspaper, a multi-year series of plays based on news ripped from the headlines. More recently, “The Exonerated,” a play taken from court transcripts and journalism about unfairly convicted persons, has toured the country. In the aftermath of 9/11, a journalist wrote “The Guys,” about a New York City fire captain. And, of course, there’s “The Front Page.”
Molly, who died of breast cancer far too young, deserves a second act. We saw a play as the way to do it.
There’s other new attention focused on her. “Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life,” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, was published recently by a longtime friend of Molly’s, Peter Osnos of PublicAffairs.
We’ve learned many things about the difference between journalism and playwriting. One happy discovery is that the playwright’s words rule—actors and directors only suggest changes and there are no ad libs. Another discovery is the number of rewrites required. We’re past 38 and counting.
Margaret Engel, a 1979 Nieman Fellow, is the director of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation in Washington, D.C. Allison Engel, who was a 1980 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, is director of communications at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.