As Big as Texas: A Full-Length Musical about the Life and Times of Texas Governor Ann Richards

Friday, April 01, 2011

Last fall I was fortunate to receive a PDA to work on a new musical.  PDA stands for Professional Development Assignment and is a competitive granting of support for a faculty member to pursue her or his own creative or research project.  By competitive, I mean that you have to apply and a committee of professors from many disciplines look at the proposals and make selections.  My proposal, “As Big as Texas:  A Full-Length Musical about the Life and Times of Texas Governor Ann Richards,” allowed me and my writing partner, Rebecca Burkhardt from the School of Music, to spend most of the fall in Austin, Texas.  Here’s a little bit of information about Governor Richards:  Ann Richards rose to national prominence at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.  Her best-known quote from this convention is about George H.W. Bush:  “Poor, George.  He can’t help it.  He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”  This made headlines and Ann Richards was suggested as a future candidate for the first woman president of the US.  When she became governor of Texas in 1991, it seemed as if nothing could stop her, but George W. Bush managed a successful challenge to her bid for reelection in 1995.  Though no longer Texas governor, Richards continued her active political life up until her death from esophageal cancer in 2006.   A political pioneer and openly recovering alcoholic, Governor Ann Richards continues to loom large on the landscape of Texas. 

Ann Richards’s papers are in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas campus in Austin.  It is a huge collection, with 1500 boxes of public and personal papers, but that’s where we needed to begin.  Our work in the fall was the third time that we had visited Austin to do archival research.  My schedule consisted of getting to library by 9 or 10am (after coffee, of course), working until around noon, having lunch, and then returning to work until the library closed at 5pm.  There was so much information!  We discovered that there were additional materials that had not been catalogued in our previous visits, and though we had hoped to finish up the research portion early on in the fall and begin our writing, that was not possible due to the wealth of information we found about the last stage of her life when she was struggling with cancer. 

How do we keep track of all of this information?  The old-fashioned way.  I typed notes on 3 X 5 note cards, categorized them, and filed them in card file boxes.  There are five boxes, including the bibliography card box.  This seemed the only way to organize our work.  This semester, Dr. Burkhardt and I have been meticulously outlining the piece.  We began by reading through all of the cards and putting aside information that we thought we didn’t need to use, or couldn’t use for some reason.  Then, I began outlining.  My outline process was executed with 11 X 17 inch sketch paper.  We had identified topic areas, which we call buttons, and I drew a large circle in the center of the paper which represented the button.  Possible songs were identified and these were smaller circles surrounding the larger button, or when needed they had their own smaller piece of sketch paper.  Next, we read through the material related to that button, selecting information we wanted to use.  I drew a line sticking out of the button and wrote a word or phrase that would help me remember the information.  The card number was also noted.  Our buttons are related to the different roles Governor Richards assumed in her life.  I am going to write the piece out of order, picking a button and starting off with it to see where it leads.  There is so much information that I feel overwhelmed at times, but I also know that our meticulous approach will pay off and that once I begin, the work will draft itself.

It has been a challenge to devote time to this project while directing and teaching, but I have learned an extremely important lesson:  I can do it!  As I told my playwriting students today, stealing advice about the secret of successful writing from one of Dr. Burkhardt’s former professors, “affix your butt to the chair.”  And that’s what I will keep doing.

Share this Share this