Through a mock press conference and two-act play, Steve Holgate embodies the nation's 16th president

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Steve Holgate portrays Abraham Lincoln as he entertains seniors at the Sherwood Senior Community Center by reciting speeches Lincoln read in his day.  “We’ll start with volunteers,” the Abraham Lincoln portrayer said. “Who here would like to be a slave? (Awkward laughter) Let’s try it another way. Who here would own one?”

It’s a great responsibility, pretending to be Abe Lincoln. First, you must consider what everyone knows about you. Then, of course, there’s what they think they know. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s what they don’t know.

Oh, and then there’s what they don’t know they don’t know.

These elements are what Steve Holgate of West Slope had to consider when he first thought about writing a play where he would portray one of the nation’s most influential presidents. The idea first struck him a couple years before his retirement from foreign services, where he spent 18 years working in embassies around the world. At the time, he was living in Monterey, Mexico, and knew that once his career was over, he’d need to find a way to pass the time.

Holgate wanted to return to theater — his first love. He’d heard that small theaters could be difficult to break into, so he considered his options.

“I thought, ‘Well, what if I write my own play? A one-man-play? They can’t very well tell me I can’t do it,’” he said. “It was a little backwards. Most people think I was so inspired by Lincoln I just had to do a play. It’s a little the other way around. I wanted to do a play, and I thought, ‘Well, what would I do it on?’”

As Holgate said, he had to think about the characters he could believably portray. With a tall, lanky frame, this automatically narrowed his options. With some historical knowledge under his belt, a fascination with the Civil War and a confirmed Lincoln resemblance, before long he had a character. For a year, Holgate researched biographies, speeches, letters and news articles about the former president. He dug into whatever he could that would give him a glimpse behind the scenes and into the life of a man who rarely talked about himself.

Initially, this led to a two-act play that ran about 90 minutes in length. After recently performing it for a friend in the theater business, Holgate is currently in the process of cutting it down. To make the show more accessible and to widen his performance field, Holgate also performs as Lincoln in a mock press conference. For this, he speaks for about 30 minutes before opening it up to questions from the audience, who he has instructed to act as journalists. From there, Holgate answers the questions as Lincoln the best he can, rarely missing a beat. He performs this shorter version upwards of 20 times a year for classes, museums and historical TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Steve Holgate, an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, applies glue to his face before placing on a beard prior to entertaining seniors at the Sherwood Senior Community Center during a lunch last week.

Huge ambition

Last week, Holgate performed the abridged show for the Sherwood Senior Center. His voice, usually deep and neutral, took on a slightly higher pitch to mimic the Kentucky twang that research shows Lincoln had. Holgate slowed down his words, too, though not as much as Lincoln would have, because that’s been known to put audiences to sleep.

He talks of the end of the war while grasping his vest pockets and looking out at the audience. He chokes up when talking of his son, Willy, who died.

He makes jokes that the audience catches and laughs at. He reads from news articles that spoke poorly of him, and contemplates their meaning.

“I try to make him human again. We tend to think of him as this guy out there on that marble seat in Lincoln Memorial — it’s all preordained that he was going to be right about everything and that he would turn into this demigod in our minds. But it wasn’t preordained … he made lots of mistakes, but he just kept persevering,” Holgate said. “You have to have a big ego to run for president, and certainly he had that — a huge ambition. But, there was a lot of humility about him, too. So I try to show his humanity and show his complexity. He was a very complex guy. Kind of hard to figure out.”

Right away, these facts make writing a one-man-play difficult. How do you get into the mind of a character who never discussed personal matters? Who even his closest friends knew little about? How do you do this without the buffer of additional characters and personalities? How do you address complex issues, like the ones behind the Civil War, while alone on stage?

When conducting his research, these were several of the factors Holgate considered. Speeches were a natural “in,” since they were written by Lincoln for an audience. But other scenarios, even if seemingly necessary to include, could only be used if the actor could do them alone.

“As I went through the biographies, I looked for things that were one, important, two, interesting and three, could be done by myself,” Holgate said. “In a sense, the whole thing is a lie. I have him talking about himself in front of people, talking about the things that mattered. He wouldn’t have done that. But, if you don’t go from there, then there’s no play.”

Most of the words in both the long and short versions of Holgate’s play are Lincoln’s.

The actor only adds his own words when it’s necessary to make something clear or more concise. But, he doesn’t like getting too far into that territory because he wants the character to remain as authentic as possible.

“It’s a real responsibility to get him right. This isn’t about me. When people come to the play, it’s because they want to experience Abraham Lincoln. This is no moment for me to start showing off quirky theories that I have about him,” Holgate said. “The Lincoln we think we know is the real one, he’s just more complex … we are who we are because of the Civil War.

“It’s an opportunity to speak to students or adults about, OK, this is what happened and this is how Lincoln formed us.”

Side-by-side, Steve Holgate and Abraham Lincoln are two completely different people. But when performing, the actor does what every good actor should — he becomes his character TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Steve Holgate as Abraham Lincoln stands ready to address seniors at the Sherwood Senior Community Center as part of a one-man, two-act play.

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