Emily K. Harrison and Erin Rollman on Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing
When the FBI tried to track down Cowboy Bob, a repeat bank robber in Texas, they had no idea that they were looking for a single, middle-aged woman who used her heists to fund her ailing mother's health-care costs. Tallas was a modern-day outlaw, making her tale irresistible to both square product theatre company and Buntport Theater Company, which have collaborated in writing and producing Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing. In advance of this weekend's opening, Westword spoke with Emily K. Harrison of square product and Erin Rollman of Buntport to find out more about the production.
Westword: Talk about Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing.
Emily K. Harrison: The production is based on the real-life story of Peggy Jo Tallas, who was a bank robber in Texas in the '90s and the early 2000s. The idea came from a Texas Monthly article that I read a long, long time ago. It's about her escapades but also about America, in a lot of ways.
Erin Rollman: It's the first time we're collaborating with square product, which is really fun. Emily brought us this article, because it happened really close to her hometown where she grew up. She brought us this article and was like, "This is a fun, weird story. What do you guys think?" It stuck in the back of our heads, and we were like, "This is something that can be made into a show," and hopefully, we're not wrong about that.
Who was Peggy Jo Tallas?
Emily K. Harrison: She started robbing banks in her forties. She was in the Dallas area, in Texas. He mother was aging and was increasingly ill, and Peggy Jo was a single woman. Her mother moved in with her, and it became harder and harder for her to pay for her prescriptions, her doctors' appointments and her medical care. It's unclear why she started robbing banks, but I believe that was probably a factor.
In her forties she started robbing banks, and she dressed up like a man. She put on men's clothing, a big cowboy hat and a fake beard, and she robbed banks. The law enforcement officials were looking for a man. They called her Cowboy Bob. She got away with it for a really long time. She was very smart and very efficient.
She did one day make one little tiny mistake and ended up being caught and went to jail for a while. She only served a few years, because she never used a weapon in her robberies. She never went in with a gun. She served a few years and went back to regular life working a job at a marina at Lake Texoma. She had always dreamed of living on the beach in Mexico, so she started saving up her money and bought a used RV.
It seems like one day she was like, "This is bullshit," and she started robbing banks again. She robbed a few more banks. She bought the RV and sold all her worldly possessions, except what she needed in her RV. She said goodbye to everyone and was going to go down to Mexico and ostensibly live out the rest of her days in Mexico. She decided she was going to do one more robbery. It was the first time that she went in without the disguise. She went in as herself. She was sixty years old. She robbed the bank.
She ended up getting quite a lot of money out of one drawer. It's unclear what happened. People speculate that she was just really excited by how much money she got from this one robbery, and she neglected for the first time ever to check for a dye pack when she left the bank. When she left the bank, the dye pack exploded. People saw it and called 911 on their cellphones. The police arrived very quickly and pursued her in a low-speed chase. She was in her RV that she bought. They pursued her in a low-speed-chase into a neighborhood, in Tyler, Texas, and trapped her in the neighborhood, and she basically refused to go alive, and they killed her.
The thing that attracted me to her was just this idea of American mythology. There are so many American mythologies of Wild West bank robbers. She was a single woman, a middle-aged single woman and had never been married. I think it's fascinating that this woman in her forties, who's never been married, is like: "Fuck it. I'm going to start robbing banks. I don't fit into this culture." Read on for more about Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing.
Talk about how you approached the topic?
Erin Rollman: We read what source material exists. There's not tons and tons of information on her, and obviously, anything now that exists is sort of based off of the interviews with people that may or may not be reliable sources -- you know, people who get a little excited to say that they knew her when. I think that's a little bit of their motivation, and we address that in the show, that the history is sort of cobbled together based on people's remembrances that may or may not be accurate.
We don't have any information from her, and we don't know why she changed her routine. Certainly, there are feelings that you get like, "Oh, is this just this kind of wild sort of suicide-y thing." You think, why would somebody who has a really good system change it up. So, partly what became interesting to us is this sense of how alone she seemed to be. There were plenty of people who she spent time with, that she would see on a semi-regular basis on her job, or something, but she seemed to be pretty solitary. We got really interested in that, and we decided we shouldn't have any main characters besides her on stage, which is one of the reasons four people end up playing her and different versions of her.
We also got really interested in this FBI agent, Steve Powell, who is clearly obsessed with her. It was his big case. In our minds, though obviously not in reality, there's some sort of strange camaraderie between the two of them, and we used Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as a source of inspiration, in the way that we see the two of them acting.
What we know about him is that it was this sort of case that he was obsessed with. He wasn't still working for the FBI when she was killed. He was one of the people who brought her in the one time she was caught, but he clearly kept following the case and had this connection with it. I think that for people in that business, the case stood out because she was so good at it. They actually don't know total how many banks she robbed. They're not sure how many to credit to her. She was just really calm and cool and collected about how she did it, and she didn't really fit the standard bank-robber profile. I think he became obsessed with her in that way. We like that. Maybe it speaks to a sort of emptiness in both of their lives, in a strange way.
Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing opens at 8 p.m. Friday, May 30, and will play Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through June 21 at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street. Tickets are $20 on opening and closing nights and include a food-and-drink reception; they're $16 on regular nights and pay-what-you-can on June 5 and 9. For more information, go to buntport.com or call 720-946-1388.
Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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