ABC Players discuss family dysfunction and witty dialogue of “The Lion in Winter”

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ABC Players will be doing a live reading of “The Lion in Winter” at Stuart’s Opera House later this month. Ahead of this performance, WOUB reporter Arielle Lyons sat down with a few cast members (Sylvia Abbott, Amy Abercrombie, Jim Parsons, Celeste Parsons), the director (Karen M. Chan) and the assistant director (Allison Epperson). The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Arielle: So, why did you guys decide to do a reading of this play? How does it resonate with everything that’s going on right now?

Karen: So, about three years ago … I called up a group of friends, Jim and Celeste, among them … and we got a few people together and we read it. And then it became so relevant to dysfunctional families, which I’ve always been interested in. I don’t know about the rest of you, but dysfunctional families, the lure of power, and now it’s relevant because of Prince Harry’s “The Spare.” You can understand the sibling rivalry about wanting to be king. But also, we’re of an age, and leaving a legacy for the country, for the United States, for all of us, all of that comes into play in this very witty, verbal, jousting play.

Jim: And, why are we reading it instead of performing it fully staged?

Karen: Because most people, I won’t say most, some of us may have issues with memorization, but we are still alive, enthusiastic and above all, actors, and we still have performances in us and our experiences, our life experience is what brings us alive.

Celeste: Karen had asked us to think of some of our favorite quotations from the play, and the one that I had picked out was from the very early part of the play when Queen Eleanor was talking to her sons for the first time in 10 years, because she’s been in prison, and reminiscing a little bit about her life, and she says, referring to the time when she had been married to King Louis of France, “If I’d managed sons for him instead of all those little girls, I’d still be stuck with being Queen of France and we should not have known each other. Such my day … is the role of sex in history.” And I think that is definitely, not only does it encapsulate what Eleanor’s and Alais’ situation is, they are women in a patriarchal age and their role is to become bearers of children who can rule the world, not to do anything themselves. And we are still seeing that play out in the “Me Too” movement, in politics all around the world. It’s still the case in many places that if you are female, your role in history is to have kids who can be the rulers. And that seems to make it a very contemporary business to me.

The cast of ABC Players' "The Lion in Winter," which will be read at Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville later this month.
The cast of ABC Players’ “The Lion in Winter,” which will be read at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville later this month. [Courtesy of Jack Chan]

Allison: Sibling rivalry, adultery, throwing your children in the dungeon when they behave in a way that you don’t agree with …

Jim: Imprisoning your wife …

Allison: … imprisoning your wife, wanting to overthrow your husband … these are privileged people behaving badly, and that’s fascinating from an outsider’s point of view as to what constitutes that line of thinking. It’s like, oh, the stakes are high, this is war, and who will inherit? And the words of this play, if you’re a fan of “West Wing,” any type of Aaron Sorkin, quick back and forth, rapid-fire type of writing, this is in your bag.

Arielle: You mentioned privileged people behaving badly, (and in) very modern stories, it seems like people are still very interested in that. “Succession” just ended, people were super into that. The Kardashians ended their show and now they’re still doing it anyway. It seems like that type of thing never really goes away.

Sylvia: Trump’s daughters left him.

Allison: Family drama and dysfunctional family, it’s always intriguing when it’s somebody else’s drama and not yours. So, this is great.

Amy: I think a lot of people are questioning the validity of the reign of a king and who succeeds, doesn’t matter if it’s a good person or thoughtful of the good for the public, the common good, it doesn’t matter really. And I think a lot of us, even in Britain, they’re just really wondering, well, should this keep going on?

Arielle: Like you guys mentioned before we started, this is a cast of (ages) 50 and older, (but) most of these characters are not over the age of 50. Did that cross your mind at all when you decided to do this? How did you decide to go about this?

Karen: Well, because I have been directing the “Senior Moments” ensemble — as I like to call them — for the last four years, it was purposefully created by me, for the purpose of giving voice to those 55 and over. And I believe in the audience. I believe that they will suspend their disbelief, and get involved with and believe anything that we put on stage. It doesn’t matter what your gender is, what sex you are, what age you are, what color you are, it doesn’t matter.

Celeste: There are a number of plays that do it purposely. I mean, look at “The 25th Annual (Putnam County) Spelling Bee,” where specifically all of the characters are played by adults, but they are children. And they’re participating in the spelling bee. That was a glorious experience in itself. Where else can you be an aged person and play somebody who’s a kid?

Arielle: So, I know that this is a reading. What does blocking actually look like when it is just reading?

Sylvia: Stand up, sit down, go to the podium whenever you’re supposed to speak. It’s not a lot of movement.

Allison: Yeah. It’s really not a lot. There’s some gesturing involved. But there are some things that we can make clear to the audience in just a reading, but then there are some things we are not, which is where Sylvia’s role is crucial to explain, “Now we are in Henry’s bed chamber, now we’re in the main hall.”

Sylvia: “He exits.”

Allison: Exactly. Yes.

Sylvia: It’s my main line. I have that one line.

Allison: Or if some physical altercation takes place, we’re not blocking a fight, it’s “they fight.”

Karen: We have music composed by Timothy S. Klugh that was made just for “The Lion in Winter” for ABC Players. And I use his music throughout to emphasize what is happening in the show, whether there’s melancholy or excitement or anger. He uses Gregorian chants, he uses instruments that were only used in 1183, that type of period. The Christmas music is Gregorian chant. He has different layers of the Gregorian chants, which is lovely, and one of them specifically is something they would’ve listened to at Christmas time that, you know, they wouldn’t sing Christmas carols necessarily.

But speaking of which, Celeste composed music. I love “A Lover’s Christmas Carol,” which you created. Do you wanna talk about that?

Celeste: Well, it’s just this brief excerpt from a Christmas carol that apparently either was common during that time or it’s similar to them, and it’s used to emphasize a certain section of the play when Alais is getting ready to have King Henry come to her and she’s making him mold wine to warm him up. And the carol has a line in it about (how) the Christmas wine is in the pot, and so Karen asked if I could do something that would be appropriate to that. And it’s just a very, very simple melody to go along with the words. It’s just now a part of the play, and Amy starts it off and I finish it intermixed with lines of dialogue.

Karen: And didn’t you write additional lyrics for it too?

Celeste: Just like two lines to finish out what wasn’t there, what Eleanor says, I think the third line of the second verse, and then there’s no fourth line. Well, if you wanted something that could be played as a whole, it needed a fourth line. So I put in a fourth line that rhymed.

Arielle: What have you guys learned while rehearsing this show? Both you noticed about yourself (and) about your character? Is there anything that you never really thought about before you guys started doing this?

Karen: For me, it’s good to be a director, just like it’s good to be king. They’re very patient with me, but they take direction, they take suggestions. Even when they take lines away, of course, Sylvia is the narrator. She narrates the action that’s going on because as you say, it’s a stage reading, right?

We can’t have a fight on stage. One, we’re of an age, but two, that takes away from the fact that it’s a stage reading and not a play. So instead of having all the action up there, Sylvia narrates it. And as we’re going through the script, you know, initially we focused on what Sylvia’s going to say, what she’s not going to say, and so we had a lot of lines, but then we realized, “Wow, we have such great actors,” that they actually can make you think that they have done the action. So we’ve had to cross it out. So, Sylvia gets a lot of — what’s your favorite line?

Sylvia: He exits. (laughs)

Karen: (laughs)

Jim: I had to make a different voice for John. I’m kind of a cartoon character. Poor John is really out of his depth. He’s a teenager and he’s in this dangerous situation. He wants to be one of the players and he doesn’t have a clue.

Allison: I’ve learned this play just underscores even more deeply for me, the value of the written word and the value of writers, because as a performer, as a director, as a designer, there’s only so much that you can do without a script, and without a well-written script, you don’t have much to go on. A well-written script makes it easier, makes it more fun, makes it more challenging. It’s just better to do.

Karen: We support the WGA strike.

Allison: We need writers, we need good writers, we need smart writers.

Karen: And not only that, but if you have it, you don’t have to make it up if it’s on the page. You have to make up the beginning and the end, the pre-life of the character, things like that. What happened before you actually said those, how you react to it, that’s all the beautiful actors, how they bring those words to life. But if it’s on the page, it makes it so much easier, and so much easier to memorize too, because if it’s good writing, you memorize it. If it’s not and it doesn’t make any sense, well, it’s gonna be hard to memorize.

Allison: Which is why we have so many of these great one-liners, like, “The condition of your trousers, be they wet or dry, could concern me less.” That’s a line that Geoffrey has that, as soon as he says it, it’s like “mwah.” Chef’s kiss.

Karen: I just love what he does. He is our youngest member. We, when we were auditioning, I was short a Geoffrey.  And so I had worked with Chad in the 2000s in a play called “Writers of the Sea,” but he was wonderful then, and he’s wonderful now, and he has such a dry sense of humor that everything he says is (cutting). Nobody likes Geoffrey. And he has made his lines so relevant and so sharp that everything he says makes you laugh.

Sylvia: As a former director, I was always a stickler for lines. They wrote it. You say it that way. Don’t, don’t. You know? I had people that just … said, “What does it matter? I got the gist of it, you know?” I said it matters. There is nothing in here that can be rearranged or paraphrased at all. Because I mean, you stopped me and said, don’t add an “and.” (laughs) You know, because it didn’t need it. I’ve never seen a script that was that tight.

Karen: He’s (James Goldman) a wonderful writer.

Allison: Down to the punctuation you get, like, OK, this is how it should be. It’s its own brand of music.

Jim: Often in real life, you come away from a conversation, and an hour later you think, “Oh, if I had said that, that would be great.” Well, in the theater, that’s the way it is. Because everything that’s in the script has been worked over and worked over, and this playwright has had time to come up with exactly the right piercing rebuttal, and the actors get to say these things, you know, you don’t fumble it, and then later figure out that you could have been better. You’re good all the time.

Celeste: You just stole my line. That’s exactly what I was gonna say. Eleanor particularly is excellent at making those snap comebacks that you wish that you had made. And there’s one point where she’s talking to John. In one of the twists of the play, there’s a wedding going to take place right now, and Princess Alais, who was going to marry John, according to King Henry, is now going to marry Richard. And so all the others get called in and told “Richard’s getting married” and John says “Now? He’s getting married now?” And Eleanor’s response is, “I never cease to marvel at the quickness of your mind.” Now, I would never come up with that. To get to say that kind of thing over and over and over is just such a rewarding experience.

Karen: And the process of doing this, you see, we’ve been doing rehearsals for this play ever since the first of May. So that tells you that it’s not just going to be the first time someone picks it up, they are embedded in these characters. They’re so wonderful. Each of them has taken the character and made it their own, and they have made it their own because of their life experience. It’s just brilliant and exciting to see them. Oh, and so Allison has also coached our Frenchies, so Amy as Alais. She has just blossomed with her French, as has Joe, as Philip. And we’ve also had time for Allison to give British dialect as well and bring them closer together as a family unit. I just think that it’s gonna be brilliant on stage. I can’t wait for you to see it.

Arielle: So for the actors, did you find that — obviously these characters are very flawed — but did you recognize any of it in yourself, maybe like deep, deep within?

Amy: Well, about my children being murdered, I certainly wouldn’t allow that to happen. (laughs)

Arielle: I guess other than the flaws, did anyone find any similarities between themselves and their characters?

Sylvia: There’s not a lot with “He exits.” (laughs)

Celeste: As Karen was saying, I think there is something about — not so much the boys, I think they’re still living toward what they’re going to do rather than thinking about what they’re gonna leave behind — but Eleanor and Henry both are focused largely on “What are people going to say about them?” What are they going to have done to justify their being on the world as long as they have, and I have to say that that’s something I’ve thought about more in the past couple of years, particularly. I like to think that I’m not going to be a denier of the fact that the world is gonna end for me and, and I would like to have something left behind that people would remember me for. And so it’s been really interesting for me being able to find the moments when, instead of just jousting — and a lot of what is going on is just jousting — the back and forth of, “Can I get a little bit up on so-and-so this time?”

There’s this deep-seated “I really want to have a legacy that comes behind,” and I can resonate with that a great deal.

Arielle: So then, actually this is the last question that I wrote down. What do you guys hope people take away from this production?

Sylvia: Those old guys aren’t so bad. (laughs)

Amy: I hope they’re moved. I hope they laugh and cry.

Celeste: I hope they realize that history really isn’t black and white. History is so many different shades of gray. And you have to be able to see the shades of gray in history in order to be able to deal with the shades of gray that we are looking at right now, going on in big life and little life, in lives lived out on the world stage, and lives that just impact the people around you in the local community.

Karen: I hope that the young people that come, the teenagers and the adults alike, and those who are of a mature age who come say, “Wow, yeah, I wanna be like them.” And I hope they join us. I hope they join ABC Players because, I’ve been with ABC Players for how, how long … 29 years or so? 25? That’s about right. And you before that, because you were with the Bereans who merged with ABC players,

Sylvia: They existed for a long time, and then they were off, and the Opera House burned. They became the Bereans again, and that’s when I got involved. I was a member of both (Athenian Players Theater and the Bereans).

Karen: That was in the nineties. So I hope they realize how important it is to come to a production and (how important) drama is. I love musicals. Don’t get me wrong. I love musicals too. But to see drama, to feel it, to be moved by it — there’s nothing like it in the world to just give yourself to these actors and learn, and just appreciate the fact that this is a world that you would like to be in. It’s a world of comradery and education. And I mean, my husband is a history buff and he did some history review. And the first thing we did when we got together is he talked about the relationships of all the characters and why it was important for us to understand what Alais meant to everybody because … she was land basically. All the women are land. Eleanor of Aquitaine is land. That’s all they are: land and bearing children, and it has to be men, sons. So (it’s) important for them, the audience, to embrace it and become part of it.

Sylvia: My granddaughter, who is 16, wants to be in theater so bad and loves every bit of it, and these high school kids just did, this winter, “A Doll’s House” for God’s sake. “A Doll’s House.” I mean, I think it’s the most boring play I’ve ever seen.

Allison: I disagree. I disagree. I will argue with you on that point, but go ahead.

Sylvia: Well, the director did not know what to do. He just had them moving from …

Allison: It’s a weird choice for high school, that’s a very odd choice.

Sylvia: Very odd choice, and she played the maid. So she ran across the street, “Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”

Anyway, they just took a trip to New York and they saw Jessica Chastain in “A Doll’s House.” And they wanted to go see it. And I said, “I can’t imagine wanting to see that” …

Celeste: We’ve kind of adopted the motto or slogan for ABC Players, “We make theater magic.” And to build on what Jim was saying, it’s amazing to feel magic happening, and you can feel magic happening when you either participate in or see a dramatic performance, a good dramatic performance.

And when that happens, it’s such a marvelous experience. I think that’s what we’re all working for. We want the magic to happen.

Karen: Yeah. And not only that, but we’re inclusive, and Celeste just directed “Animal Tales.” You wanna just mention it? Because I think it was wonderful.

Celeste: It was a sensory-friendly production aimed at children who can’t tolerate loud noises, sudden noises, bright light, sitting still for long and so on. So we did a performance (that) lasted only about half an hour and that was broken up by an intermission. We did it under regular ceiling lights. We only amplified the musical instruments and it was 90% singing and choreography.

It was held in a space in Stuart’s Opera House that doesn’t accommodate more than about 40 people. And we ended up — after wondering whether there was gonna be anybody there — having almost a (full) capacity group. And that was an amazing experience because they did get a chance to experience the things that they like about theater, and we had a chance to see how they reacted.

And I remember particularly, well, two things that happened.  There was a time during one performance when one little boy who was sitting down in front on some mats got up and walked up on the stage in the middle of the opening dance number. And I’m standing out in front of this whole group, taking part in the number and thinking, “Oh my gosh, this kid’s gonna be trampled. What are we gonna do?”

Nobody panicked, (the) kid dodged around a little bit. Everybody kept looking to see where he was, and eventually, he came back close enough to the front that I could lean over, pick him up and put him down and give him back to his caretaker.

Well, that was one, he did what he wanted to do. We had said it’s OK to get up and stand up and take part. And, by golly, he stood up and took part.

At the end, we invited people to come up and meet the actors, and this one little bitty boy came walking up to me and threw his arms around my legs, didn’t say anything, just put his arms around and gave me a big hug.

And I thought, “That’s it. I got all the award I need for this particular performance.” Yeah. That was wonderful.

Arielle: That’s so sweet.

Sylvia: When I was 11 years old, my aunt took me to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. And you know Alexandra Danilova. I don’t know if anybody remembers that.

Karen: We’re too young. (laughs)

Sylvia: (laughs, gives Karen the finger)

Anyway, I fell in love with ballet and I wanted to take ballet lessons, but I was too old to be a toe dancer. When I was in college, I went by myself to the theater — and I don’t like to go places by myself — to see Mary Martin in Peter Pan, and she flew, and it was wonderful to see her. You know, that’s a dream role.

Celeste: That’s right. That’s what I wanted to be.

Sylvia: I wanted to be that or Ado Annie.

Karen: Because that’s such your personality, a gal who can’t say no. (laughs)

Sylvia: I love that show, too, and I think it’s sadly forgotten these days.

Arielle: My high school, I remember, we did “Oklahoma.” Gosh, I think I was a sophomore, so not totally forgotten. People are still doing it.

Amy: Wonderful.


After the interview concluded, the cast performed a short scene for Arielle. The cast is very dedicated to this reading and is excited to finally perform it. The performance will take place June 25 at 2 p.m. For ticket information go to