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By Brian Robin

Coming Home to the Stage—Jennifer Parsons Finds Her Spirit

Jennifer Parsons has always viewed the theatre as home. Even when there were diversions like the desire to be the next great blues musician, the next Mississippi John Hurt or Lightnin’ Hopkins, Parsons found her way back to the stage. Just as she’s done since the second grade, growing up in San Diego.

Even Hollywood couldn’t keep her away from the theatre stage. When Parsons graduated from UCLA, she expected to join a repertory company. Instead, the movies beckoned and Parsons’ ability to play teenagers took her away from her de-facto “home.” Temporarily.

But again, Parsons found her way back to a stage. She’s back in her happy place, playing the role of the Spirit of Christmas Past in SCR’s 43rd production of A Christmas Carol, now in its final week.

It marks Parsons’ 20th season in the production, first appearing in 1987. She played Mrs. Cratchit for 16 years before taking the role of the Spirit of Christmas Past in 2021. Parsons’ other SCR credits include The Importance of Being Earnest (1985), Buried Child (1986), Our Town (1998), Getting Frankie Married—And Afterward (2002), Cyrano de Bergerac (2004) and The Heiress(2008). She has also appeared in 11 Theatre for Young Audiences and Families productions.

Parsons took time to chat about playing her current role, other roles at SCR and whether she and husband Richard Doyle—who plays Ebenezer Scrooge—talk shop at home.

Tell us what it’s like to play the Spirit of Christmas Past.

Jennifer Parsons: “It’s fun. It’s a departure from Mrs. Cratchit, who never had much power to change things. This character actually has some influence over Scrooge’s redemption.”

How did you go into playing this character? How did you make this character ‘yours?’

JP: “First, it became ‘mine’ simply because I’m a girl playing a role previously played by a boy. My outfit alone dictates some of my choices. She has a lighter presence than the other ghosts—she’s kind of like a fairy—and I mean that in all the powerful and mischievous ways fairies can be.”

This is your third time playing the Spirit of Christmas Past. How do you evolve the character over time?

JP: This year, (director) Hisa (Takakuwa) gave me license to actually conjure the scenes I show Scrooge. That’s been fun. I can actively choose what to show him next that might spark/remind him he once had a heart. I watch how the moments affect him and decide my next move. Although I was playing that in a general sense before, it’s more specific for me this year. I’m a little bit more playful, but also remind him I’m in charge from time to time. I’m not a pushover.”

How did you get involved in A Christmas Carol? Tell us how this long journey came about.

JP: “I was an ingénue new to South Coast Repertory, having just appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest, and they asked me to play Belle. The following year, I was off in the regions, so I didn’t return in that part and I was sad. I had a great time being inside that show. How often do you get to be in something where the audience response is consistently terrific? Then, in 2003, I was asked if I’d like to play Mrs. Cratchit and I said, ‘Yes, please!’”

Speaking of The Importance of Being Earnest, that was your first SCR role. What do you remember about it?

JP: “First, I remember finally landing a role at SCR after I’d had a few auditions for other plays—and I was thrilled. Secondly, that play seemed to have a laugh every three lines. That was amazing for me to hear the first time we had an audience. In the rehearsal hall, it’s different. As I remember, I was playing it straight, not thinking about laughs, but that is what made it funny—how ‘earnestly’ the actors attacked their roles. I had a blast. And I learned a whole lot about comedy.”

You’ve been in 11 Theatre for Young Audiences and Families productions (often referred to as TYAs) here at SCR. Tell us how that niche came about and what you most enjoy about doing those productions.

JP: “They asked me to be in Bunnicula (2005). I thought, ‘Heck, why not?’ Then, I found out how much fun it was. That kind of theatre draws on every talent you have in your arsenal—singing, acting, dialects, tumbling, musical instruments—all while transforming into several different characters in one show. It requires peak energy, focus and a lot of artful silliness, which is probably why I’ve met some of my favorite actors and people in that realm. Those of us who are repeat offenders admit that it became a bit of an addiction, and even though those morning school shows were brutally early, we kept signing on for more. We recognized we had a problem and eventually found it necessary to start our own TYAA meetings.”

What is it like acting alongside Richard Doyle? What else have the two of you done together and does the “night job” ever bring about shop talk at home?

JP: “We’ve done a Theatre for Young Audiences and Cyrano de Bergerac at SCR together. Both of us covered (understudied) shows the other was in and we were in a couple of low-budget movies. Sure we talk shop, but we don’t give each other notes! If there’s a good story to tell about something that went on in the show on a particular night, of course we’ll talk about it. But we don’t dwell on that world at home. … Besides, our cats really do demand a lot of attention.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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