Ann Talman On Her Amazing Life With Woody, Being Funny & Dame Taylor


Gil Kaan

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic


Growing up, Ann Talman did not know her older brother Woody acted any differently from any other older brothers. Every action or gesture she did for him came naturally and second nature to her. Not until she was old enough to venture out in public with him, did she learn that Woody had cerebral palsy. In WOODY'S ORDER! (beginning March 22), Ann has crafted a show around Woody, the various choices she made, and the effect Elizabeth Taylor had on her life.
Thank you, Ann, for taking the time for this interview with Better Lemons and myself.
WOODY'S ORDER! is a major slice of your life. Being nine years younger than your brother Woody, when did you become aware that his behavior caused by cerebral palsy was different from most other people?
This is such an interesting question because my answer would have been different had I not viewed ALL the many hours of home movies I have, since my birth in 1957. I have more, beginning from about 1950, but I had honestly never seen many of them until I started gathering all and digitizing them for the stage show, and for the short documentary that I made.
When I viewed the very early ones of Woody and me together, I noticed that we were always playing, cuddling, and connected. He was like a fellow toddler being non-verbal, not walking, but cuddly. Mother often told me how, when I was a toddler, Woody would have to have some part of his body touching me if I was anywhere near him. He would fall asleep in his wheelchair bent over the rail of my crib or playpen with his twisted hand on my pumpkin head. At a certain point, around age three, I noticed that I would toddle over to him and wipe his mouth with a Kleenex, or crawl up in his lap on the wheelchair to hug and kiss him and I was always trying to push his wheelchair. I would try to hand him objects he could not hold on to. So I would try to help him, or finally just set it on his lap.
I think, at that time I just adapted to HIS NEEDS, not necessarily aware that he was different. It was all I knew. I would set up my Barbies on his wheelchair, play the xylophone on his lap, play with him in the baby pool, and snuggle with him to watch cartoons on TV. And I guess I was aware that someone had to feed him long after I could feed myself. But it was my family “normal.” I viewed him as a real live doll to care for, and, boy, I did. That is why I was so thrilled to begin to learn to feed him at age five! I have seen my friend's kids at that magical thinking age beg to learn to feed him too. And I teach them.
I remember knowing very early on that when we were in public, people - especially kids - would stare at Woody and it made me furious. I became extremely protective of him and as a three-to-six-year-old, I would give a really mean look to anyone who stared too long at him. Especially kids my age, and especially at Pirate baseball games! I even carried my Romper Room baton around because I wished I could hit the kids on their funny bones if they stared too long at Woody. I also would divert folks from staring at him by acting out and being so silly they would look at me instead. The comedian was at work in me, to deflect unpleasantness or pain.
For those who haven't dealt with a family member with cerebral palsy, please describe what this condition involves for your brother, as well as, for your parents and yourself growing up.
Woody is clinically: A non-verbal, spastic quadriplegic. His Cerebral Palsy is severe. However, cognitively he is normal and quite brilliant as were my parents (IQs in the 160 -170). Woody was unable to breastfeed because he is unable to make his mouth suck inward. Mother often spoke about how her world revolved around nourishing him his early years because he had “failure to thrive.” He has always had to be fed. He has always needed bibs. But Mother was adamant about calling them 'protectors' because he was no longer a baby. Pretty much all things had to be done for him, but the few things he could do on his own, our parents made sure to accentuate. Like turning onto his sleeping side, Woody was also in charge of helping Dad with colors and patterns for his clothes. Dad was colorblind, so he would roll Woody into his walk-in closet and have Woody point to what he should wear.
We had sleds with backs so that he could sled with us. Our swing set and toys were adapted as well. Woody had battery-operated toys with a cord and button to push like airplanes and cars and Lionel trains. Neil Young has two children with CP and his one son, very much like my brother, loved Lionel trains so much that Neil bought the company. Swimming is wonderful for kids with CP, so summer was all about the pool or the beach!
Until 1980 when Medicaid began, his care was out of pocket. Mother once told me, as a child, that since the year he was born in 1948, it was like having a son at Harvard every year.
Our parents did everything possible to give Woody independence and self-pride. They were told to leave him in diapers and think about a tube feed. They refused and he was potty trained and continent up until about a decade ago when he aged. This was a real source of pride and independence for him. He has been downgraded from what is called chopped soft to pureed, which he HATES, but he will never ever be put on tube feed!
You have been acting since the early 1980s. When did you start writing the beginnings of what is now WOODY'S ORDER!?
I come from a long line of storytellers. So in middle school, I began to write them all down. I have well over 500 computer pages of these stories. I began reading them aloud in theater groups and series in New York and LA from the 80s to the present. I have appeared on NPR's Tales From The South radio show four times. Five years ago, I began attending Naked Angels Tuesdays @ Nine after a long hiatus. Many friends and audience members told me that these stories should become a book, play, screenplay or solo show. A wonderful casting director, Billy Hopkins, urged me to do a solo show of all my characters, because I loved to mimic. 
Then, Matt Hoverman introduced himself and urged me to keep the stories coming, he had a special sister too. I found out that he is THEE Solo Show Guru. He teaches “How To Create Your Own Solo Show.” In 2012, I took his Level One, then his Level Two FIVE times over the years! Each class culminates with 20 minutes of a solo show read aloud to an audience. I built the show this way.
I have worked for five years to get this production the way I want it. In the Pittsburgh premiere production, my wonderful director John Shepard was also a great dramaturge. We honed the script even further, which was invaluable.
Did you also do stand-up comedy?
I think I have been doing stand-up all my life. Honestly! Since kindergarten, I was class clown and even if I had straight A's, I got N's in conduct (Needs Improvement). I was a chatterbox and loved making everyone laugh. I know it is because of Woody. I spoke for two, and my world revolved around making him laugh or making others laugh for him. In the show, I have a scene when I did stand-up for the residents at Woody's nursing home during meals while wearing a bib and using a spoon as a microphone. I created such a disturbance that Anna, who was in charge of prayers before the meal, could not get anyone's attention. She burst into tears and told the charge nurse. I got written up and I called her a heckler from then on.
In high school and college, I did stand-up in variety shows. But my best shows were for slumber parties, dorms and student apartments. I also dated a well-known comedian and stand-up in the 90s. I would go with him to his sets in LA. Loved it! He taught me so much.
So, after all those years acting and stand-up, what made you finally say, "But what I really want to be is a writer!"
I joke that I was never a triple threat, darn it, because I act and sing, but dancing… not so much. So now I can say, "I am a triple threat." I act, sing and write! My father often would say, “The best things that ever happened in my career (mining, engineering) came as complete surprises. But then, if I looked back, I could see that this led to that… led to that… and it was a natural progression, and meant to be. I feel the same way. I have been writing my entire life, and been a comedian my entire life, and did so, in spite of myself. I think that even with all of my professional training, I have spent more of my life writing. Just because you don't study something does not mean you can't learn it. I am best self-taught anyway. And since I never did test well, I learn best by DOING.
You must be of the school of thought that lessons/messages are more easily communicated with laughter, right?
I often say if it were not for comedy, I would be either dead or in a straight jacket. Red Skelton was one of my childhood heroes and I was allowed to stay up an extra half-hour on Tuesdays to watch The Red Skelton Show. I often dreamed of clowns too. Once as mother was feeding Woody breakfast, I told them both the entire clown dream and then finished by asking her why did I dream it? Her response was, “So that God willing, you will always keep your sense of humor, Miss Ann!” Red Skelton's widow Lothian even allowed me to use a poem Red wrote to his father, titled “The Clown,” in one of my stories. When I was dating Michael Richards in the early 90s (Kramer and the stand-up I referred to earlier), we attended Red's 80th birthday party in Taos and Michael read the poem on Red's request. Then Red did 40 minutes of stand-up! I was in heaven and felt like the little girl in her PJs, bath taken and teeth brushed, loving Red all over again. Michael had idolized Red as a child too, and studied him.
Please tell us how you met and worked with one of the many characters you include in your one-woman show - Ms. Elizabeth Taylor.
I had often been told that I resembled Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. In grade school when it re-ran on TV, teachers would mention it the next day to me. In 1980, I was the cabaret intern at Williamstown, where I sang with Austin Pendleton. I later studied with him at HB Studios and when he got the directing job for THE LITTLE FOXES, he brought me in. I had a callback and then twice went to Lillian Hellman's apartment on Park Avenue to read for her. She was legally blind and mostly listened, but she had final casting approval. I never met Elizabeth until the first read-through. Over the years, she adored Woody and Dad. When I attended the Emmys in the early 90s, she helped me find my dress at Saks in Beverly Hills. I was at her 50th Birthday party in London, and then her 60th when she rented out Disneyland. I met Michael Jackson that night too.
That was some cast you were in! Besides Ms. Taylor, the 1981 Broadway production of THE LITTLE FOXES included Maureen Stapleton, Anthony Zerbe, Tom Aldredge, Joe Seneca and Dennis Christopher. Tell us some funny memories you have of working with that cast.
I am actually thinking of writing a book full of fun backstage stories, especially from THE LITTLE FOXES. Elizabeth was a dear friend for life and I promised her I would never, ever write a tell-all or disparaging book about her. She used to tease me because I was always writing in my diary backstage. She would say, “That better not be about me!” and then cackle her delicious cackle. I was approached twice to contribute to unauthorized tell-all's and offered money. I turned them down and explained I would never do such a thing because she is my dear friend. Then I would call her and tell her all about what they had said and offered. She really appreciated that. Elizabeth LOVED to play practical jokes backstage. Once she slathered the banister of the set with vaseline and when Tom Aldredge had his banister heart attack death scene he practically slid down it like a rollercoaster. It was hilarious and Tom loved it.
Once she put real booze in all the prop drinks throughout the show. That play had a lot of booze! Of course, a few of the cast were in AA and smelled it in time.
Once in DC, one of her front teeth caps fell out and she had to finish the show snaggle-toothed. In one scene, Dennis Christopher even worked his way around behind the sofa and got down on his hands and knees to find the cap, which she then had glued back in, right after the show. BUT, for the curtain calls we all got black electrician's tape and blacked out a tooth of our own. Afterwards, we all turned to her and grinned our Hillbilly grins, which made her double over in laughter.
She loved to try to make me break on stage, which I never did, but, boy, would I get her offstage. Before an entrance once, when she used to try to make me laugh, I turned away and put on an Elizabeth Taylor mask, and then turned back to show her just as she was about to re-enter for a scene. She laughed so hard she had to recover before she walked on.
Our hair and wig person, named Michael, dressed up entirely (head-to-toe including wig and makeup) in Elizabeth's understudy's costume. Elizabeth would always get in place the last minute for her first entrance  (which was a dinner scene that would begin with the sliding doors of the dining room opening and her walking down into the parlor), Michael was in her seat at the table in full regalia. When she rushed to get to her place before the doors opened, she absolutely flipped out with laughter to find her doppelganger waiting in her place. We had to delay the sliding doors until everyone recovered from giggles. I have so many more!
In 1986, you were on the Great White Way again in THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES. Your cast included Danny Aiello, Stockard Channing, Julie Hagerty,  Swoosie Kurtz,  John Mahoney and Ben Stiller. Would you share some fond recollections of that cast?
WOW, again there are so many… but... Christopher Walken originated the role of Billy Einhorn, which then, Danny Aiello took over. Once during previews, Chris forgot to set his clock back and he did not show up for the half-hour call. He was taking a nap and his phone was off. No one could reach him. Since he only appears in the second act there was still time, but Jerry Zaks, our director, had to suit up and be ready to go on… book in hand. They had not cast understudies yet. Chris arrived at what he thought was his half-hour call, which was an hour late but he still got there in time to quickly dress and go on.
Swoosie and Julie and I would take naps on gym mats in the ballet studio of Lincoln Center between matinees and it was always like a hilarious slumber party. John Mahoney tried to break me up always, and never succeeded. But I got him back. Our entrances were frenetic and traded off. So, once while I was standing backstage during that sequence, I made a startled gasp and looked at him like he had missed his run onto the stage. Sure enough, he instinctively ran onstage. He had to turn around and run right off because it was not his entrance. John congratulated me for getting him good.
I played "Little Nun" in full nun get-up designed by Ann Roth. Once, as I rushed on stage the habit caught on a nail, ripped off and stayed stuck on the nail flapping away. I was in only my white skullcap with little thread nubs sticking out, but I did not even realize it. So when I got down to Swoosie and Chris to play the scene with them, I couldn't understand why they were cracking up. They both had to turn fully upstage to recover from laughing, but I could see their shoulders bouncing with their laughs. It was not until I made my exit and saw my habit flapping away on the door that I realized what had happened.
Swoosie's father, Colonel Frank Kurtz was a dear, dear friend of my uncle Colonel John Chiles. They were bunkmates in WWII at Clark Air Base in The Philippines and they got out together, in their skivvies, when it was attacked.
Colonel Kurtz wrote many books and stories and always mentioned my uncle. My Aunt used to say, “I hope you work with Swoosie Kurtz someday.” And luckily, I did. Colonel Kurtz was the most highly decorated fighter pilot in WWII and Swoosie was named after his airplane called The Swoose, which is now on view at The Smithsonian.
How many re-incarnations of WOODY'S ORDER! have there been before its current state now?
I have lost count. I was constantly editing based on feedback. I also presented it in different forms, twice, in The United Solo Theatre Festival. I have worked this whole past year editing it, and again when we went into rehearsal in Pittsburgh, January 3, 2017. I continued to edit every day with John Shepard's guidance. Matt Hoverman has continued to work with me on it at times. Matt is now in LA and writing for Disney, so I am thrilled he will see it. I hope to take another workshop with him because I want to write a sequel that is especially about our beloved housekeeper Amelia Albina Kuna Critchlow who worked for my family since I was six months and she was 31. She is 90 now and going strong!
As you just mentioned, you premiered WOODY'S ORDER! just January of this year in your hometown Pittsburgh, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. What audience reactions took you by surprise?
I was most pleasantly surprised at folks who came more than once. When we invited the audience to come up on stage after the show to take in all the pictures that are part of the set, they stayed for a long time. One night we had two wheelchairs, a service golden retriever and aides in the front row. That was amazing and so rewarding. We also did an ASL performance which I loved doing. We had lots of wonderful audience feedback and reviews.
I always dreamed of premiering this show in my wonderful hometown of Pittsburgh and it was a “dream come true,” thanks to John Shepard. I have known him since 1982 when he and my former husband, Bruce MacVittie, were in AMERICAN BUFFALO with Al Pacino on Broadway. John, now a professor at Point Park, pulled the production together with The Professional Rep Company of Point Park University at Pittsburgh Playhouse. I loved working with student crews and audiences, even taught a few classes while there.
Any tweaks between the show you performed in Pittsburgh and what you're doing at EST/LA?
Not really, so far. But, we're doing a lot of outreach for the LA show to connect with the CP community. We open March 25th, which was the first National CP Day and March is CP Awareness Month. There are a lot of Pittsburghers and Steelers Bars in LA. Many local celebrities are from The Burgh including Michael Keaton who I hope will come, and Laura San Giacomo who has a son with CP. Susan Lucci and Julie Andrews have grandchildren with CP, John Ritter had a brother with CP, John C. McGinley has a son with Down's Syndrome.
What would you like your WOODY'S ORDER! audiences to leave with after your curtain call?
I suppose, maybe a feeling that even if you do not have a sibling or child like Woody; if in your life you are faced with adversity or infirmity, you can get through it especially with love, laughter, and a little help from your friends.
Thank you again, Ann! I look forward to seeing the show, and joining you down your memory lane.
For ticket availability through April 2, 2017 and further info on WOODY'S ORDER!, visit www.estlosangeles.org

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