Last week, WVFC reviewed Red Hot Patriot, in which Kathleen Turner takes on the role of iconic journalist Molly Ivins. But before Patriot hit the stage, it was the godchild of veteran journalists Allison and Margaret (Peggy) Engel, twin sisters with award-winning careers in journalism who share a deep appreciation for what the feisty Ivins spent her life fighting for.

The Engels, who turned 58 this year, spoke to WVFC a few days after Patriot opened.

If you’ve seen the WVFC site, you know why this play was irresistible to us.

Peggy: It’s interesting—one reason we felt really compelled to do this was because there are not so many roles for women over 50 on the stage. Molly, who we miss so much, was passionate about making sure that women were front and center. She had this strong voice you couldn’t ignore, and we really didn’t want that voice to go away just yet.

Take two award-winning journalists. Add determination, Kathleen Turner, and the spirit of Molly Ivins, and a new kind of theater emerges.

Speaking of strong voices, the two of you certainly have that. How did each of you get started in journalism?

Allison: We both started in 1973, at about the same time. Me, I started out at the Des Moines Tribune. Then I went to Meredith Publishing, which publishes Better Homes and Gardens and many other titles, for a number of years. I also worked at the San Jose Mercury-News and went on to become was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. A few years later I became an aide at the Iowa governors office, and finally moved to Southern California, to become assistant dean for communications at UCLA. But I’m now the editor of our weekly newspaper and also senior editor of a quarterly alumni magazine, so I don’t think I’ve left the business entirely.

Peggy: I started out at a gritty industrial paper called the Lorain Journal, then went on to the Des Moines Register. After a year in Boston on a Nieman fellowship in narrative journalism at Harvard, I became the first woman at the Register’s Washingon bureau. In 1979 I joined the Washington Post.

Now I’m director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which funds investigative journalism projects. In recent years I’ve also worked for the Newseum, a Freedom Forum center in Alexandria, Virginia, and as chair of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

When did you meet Molly Ivins?

Peggy: I met her a number of times over the years. The time I remember best was at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference, which was held in San Francisco. She was speaking on a panel. After we met, she and I talked for about half an hour. She had an ability to speak plainly. She wrote the truth, without worrying it might offend someone. That’s a quality we all aspire to.

Where did the two of you grow up? How does your background compare to Ivins’?

Peggy: In the play, we write about her upbringing—it’s remarkable that she grew up in a very Republican home, and then moved away from that later. Whereas Allison and I grew up in northeastern Ohio, in a home that was very progressive. We also grew up with four daily papers, including the New York Times. Our dad subscribed to the Congressional Record, and our mom was a librarian. Lots of reading material in our house, for which we’re forever grateful.

This is your first play. Do you think starting it in your mid-50s—at that stage of life—had an influence on your willingness to risk such a step into the unknown?

Allison: I think it made it easier. Especially because by now we’re used to doing something we “never did before.” We’d never written books before, but then we did a series of books that started out as one book. That first one, Food Finds, became a show on the Food Network—and we were the producers, and we’d never done that before. Also, in my past life I was head of play selection at the Des Moines Playhouse. So it wasn’t as if we were trying something actually new, like game theory or particle physics.

But if you’d been 34, say, would the play have turned out the same?

Peggy: Allison and I have a collective 60 years total in newsrooms, covering politics. We probably could have done it as rookie reporters, but I think it’s better now. We brought a lot of our own experience to this, to what we wrote and how.

What was it like getting together with Kathleen Turner to work on a project like this?

Allison: We have never seen an actor work as hard as Kathleen. The first rehearsal, she works longer and harder than anyone else: a consummate professional. It’s no wonder that she’s one of the top stars in her field.

Peggy: Thank goodness Kathleen had met Molly Ivins, and is herself a committed citizen who does a lot of work for First Amendment rights with the People for the American Way. She gets why Molly is important.

Back to the two of you. I’m interested in the twinship bond. How does it play out in daily life, particularly since you live at opposite ends of the country? In particular, since this is Women’s Voices for Change, I have to ask: What’s it like to go through the stages of life together? What was menopause like with a twin?

Silence. Then both sisters gasp and break out in laughter.

Peggy: Menopause actually wasn’t much of an issue for us We went through it abt the same time, and it was sort of a non-event. I know a lot of women have a terrible time with it, but so far that’s not our experience.

Allison, in addition to your position in communications at USC and co-authoring books with Peggy, you’re a screenwriter. What sort of projects you’ve been involved with?

When I came to USC, I knew I wanted to get my masters. At first it was going to be journalism. But then I realized the caliber of the screenwriting program here, and decided to get the screenwriting MA instead. It was great. For comedy writing I had the comedian Shelly Berman, and I worked with Coleman Hough (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Diagnosis). All my teachers were just incredible. Without them I’d never have felt this play was possible.

Writing dialogue is something completely different from writing journalism or nonfiction. It’s a great stretch for both of us, to write something so completely different in order to have enough of an impact.

In writing “Red Hot Patriot,” what did each of you draw on from your experiences in journalism?

Peggy. We’ve had wonderful editors who we loved, but we couldn’t resist poking fun at those who we didn’t love. There’s a line we loved of Molly’s, that we put front and center: “Editors—mice training to be rats.” We also talk about coverage—there’s this phrase, to “cheapen out,” to give less coverage to less favored groups. Usually that meant members of minority groups.

Peggy, you got started at the Washington Post in journalism’s post-Watergate glory days, and have written eloquently about what you’ve called “the death of investigative journalism.” How does Molly Ivins fit into that? And is there a connection to your desire to create this play?

It’s a real theme in the play, the death of serious journalism. The set is made of broken and empty desks, where there once were bustling newsrooms.

Everyone we know is concerned about the economics of journalism today, how newspapers are not getting the funds they need. But every serious story had its origin in newspapers!

We are concerned that our great information-gatherers, who know how to analyze land records and campaign contributions, are being shown the door. And that our society will suffer for it.

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins has been held over through April 25 at the Philadelphia Theater Company.

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