An actor portraying Abraham Lincoln holds an actor portraying his young son and kisses his forehead.
David Selby as Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Cook as Tad Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre production of The Heavens Are Hung In Black, by James Still. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

In Lincoln’s Shoes: An Actor’s Take on our 16th President

6 min read

Abraham Lincoln‘s words and philosophies have manifested themselves throughout our programming for Ford’s 150. In this year marking the 150th anniversary of his death, it seems fitting that our theatre this spring has given voice to those who felt his loss most strongly: his wife Mary in The Widow Lincoln and the soldiers and real people of the Civil War in Freedom’s Song (playing through May 20), who looked to Lincoln for leadership.

An actor portraying Stephen Douglas shakes hands with the actor portraying Abraham Lincoln.
Rick Foucheux as Stephen Douglas and Robert Parsons as Abraham Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre Society production of Norman Corwin’s The Rivalry, directed by Mark Ramont. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

In past Ford’s seasons, actors have tackled the role of Abe himself. Actor Robert Parsons played a young, untested Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s 2010 production of The Rivalry. David Selby, comparatively, portrayed Lincoln two times on the Ford’s stage, first in The Heavens Are Hung In Black (2009) and then in Necessary Sacrifices (2012), both of which show Lincoln in the midst of his presidency.

Both actors previously shared their experiences embodying the beloved president. As we approach April 14-15, we are republishing some of their thoughts below. Though they played Lincoln at different points in his life, Selby and Parsons seem to agree that Lincoln’s empathy, humor and unparalleled passion were some of his most humanizing characteristics—and why we take the time to celebrate his legacy today.

In your process of taking on the role of Lincoln, were there attributes from your personal experience that you were able to draw from to create the character? Were there differences preparing to play Lincoln versus preparing for any other role?

David Selby: Any actor playing Lincoln feels a responsibility to get him as right as possible. There are more than 15,000 books about Lincoln and one could research forever. My ancestors came across the mountains from eastern Virginia and Maryland about the same time as Lincoln’s family. I trusted the Appalachian accent … the twang, the high pitch of his voice, and, being tall, I trusted my walk. I also spent a great deal of time in Springfield and New Salem, IL, where Lincoln’s family moved from Indiana. I read all of his speeches and writings, all his letters and an untold number of books, including the ten volumes by his secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay. Through studying him and his writings, I understood Lincoln’s need and want to tell a story. As a father, I understand his love for his children (which was explored in Heavens). When you have children, you understand love and how vulnerable one can be to that love. Through all of this, I tried to find what made him human … his wants, his fears, his empathy and his weakness. He was a political animal—he did not shy away from confrontation.

An actor portraying Abraham Lincoln stands center stage with both arms outstretched. Behind him sits a man and woman portraying Stephen and Adele Douglas.
Robert Parsons as Abraham Lincoln with (background) Rick Foucheux as Stephen Douglas and Sarah Zimmerman as Adele Douglas in the Ford’s Theatre Society production of Norman Corwin’s The Rivalry, directed by Mark Ramont. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Robert Parsons: With any role you play you must draw from your own personal reservoir to create the character, whether it be by utilizing your own particular and unique imagination, drawing on personal experiences that can allow you to relate to the person you’re creating or by simply having an instinct for something which is often unexplainable and probably better off being so. In my life there are certainly moments I have experienced (and experience daily!) that allowed me to sympathize with the younger, untested Lincoln’s awkwardness and lack of polish. I can also relate on a certain level to the passionate feelings that he had for ideals and people. I also did tons of research and read a bunch of histories and biographies so that I could launch myself fully into the imaginative world given to us by Norman Corwin. I paid particular attention to the descriptions of how Lincoln and Douglass traveled from debate to debate: what the conditions were like, the manner in which both men spoke and carried themselves on the platform, humorous stories that Lincoln and Douglass told—to each other and to the huge crowds. This added a certain richness and depth that encouraged access to the imaginative world of the play.

An actor dressed as Abraham Lincoln gives a shoulder-seated ride to a child actor portraying his son.
David Selby as Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Cook as Tad Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre production of The Heavens Are Hung In Black, by James Still and directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Was there anything special about playing Lincoln at Ford’s?

DS: There is always the deep want and need to get it right … no matter. It was an honor and certainly a highlight of my career to be on Ford’s stage.

RP: Playing Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre is an unparalleled experience for an actor. The building is simply humming with Lincoln energy … I think everyone that came to see The Rivalry had similar feelings simply by association. Playing Lincoln in front of a packed house in that building is a very powerful and absolutely a one-of-a-kind experience. There is a scene at the end of the play—a meeting between Lincoln and Douglass—when the debates have ended and Lincoln, the president elect, has traveled to Washington for the inauguration. I entered the stage under the famous box, completely made over (in about 1.5 minutes by an incredible quick-change team) to look like the Lincoln we all know—and almost every night I was greeted by a discernible gasp from the audience. I think a gasp like that could only happen inside Ford’s Theatre.

What do you think Lincoln would be like if he were around today? What kind of guy would he be? What would he think about our politics?

DS: Politics were rough in Lincoln’s day, but he had the ability to ignore insults. Lincoln might not ever be elected today. Then again, he could be a media marvel. His character would certainly come across, his stories … maybe he would have his own show. His ambition would stand him well in today’s world. He would be, we know, an entertaining, engaging and feared debater … who would have had no trouble with candidates of today. He was an all-star … one in a million.

RP: I have a feeling Lincoln wouldn’t think much has changed in the manner in which our politicians debate the best way to govern, but I do think he would be surprised and disturbed by the amount of money now spent by candidates and lobbyists and probably not altogether enamored by the immense power of the electronic media. I don’t imagine that Lincoln would have fared so well in front of a camera. He would also hate the various debate formats that we see today. In his day, the first speaker had 60 minutes to open, followed by a 90-minute rebuttal, and then a 60-minute wrap-up from the candidate that started it off. That was a particular style of debating that today we can only read about—or perhaps watch a play about!

Kendall Helblig is the spring 2015 Marketing/Public Relations Intern at Ford’s Theatre; she is graduating from American University in May 2015 with a B.A. in Musical Theatre and Communication Studies.

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Kendall Helblig is the spring 2015 Marketing/Public Relations Intern at Ford’s Theatre


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