“Auditions for Shadowlands, British accents a help!” So read an advert for this theatrical production to be staged at Nashville’s prestigious Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) in 1996. Payne, who had never been on stage before but who did have a British accent decided to audition hoping for a minor part. He staggered everybody (including himself) when he won the lead role of C.S. Lewis. Though he did not know it at the time, a successful acting career had been launched! The TPAC production sold out, Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham flew in for the opening night and director, Sylvia Boyd, said of Payne afterwards, “I took a chance on someone who had never acted before but was rewarded with a performance of great power and sensitivity – I felt we had found the real C.S. Lewis!”
During rehearsals for Shadowlands Payne was given a copy of A Grief Observed, Lewis’ diary of grief following the death of his American wife, Joy. Captivated by the brutal honesty of a man bearing his soul, Payne memorized the whole book and then adapted it into a one-man show Mist in the Mourning. Premiered at TPAC, where all three performances sold out, he then toured this production extensively throughout the US. Following these performances, Payne was very often peppered with lots of questions about Lewis. He was always very happy to answer these questions and then one day, a thought struck him. “Wouldn’t it be fun if Lewis himself could answer these questions.” That’s when he wrote An Evening with C.S. Lewis, basing the show around the questions that people kept asking and the pivotal occurrences in Lewis’ life. Now it has become his flagship production with over 500 performances.
Payne’s first encounter with C.S. Lewis was when, as a teenager, he was given a copy of Lewis’ best-selling book Screwtape Letters. Little did he realize that some 40 years later he would be gaining a reputation for his portrayals of its famous author. He has played Lewis in a number of productions of Shadowlands, in his self-penned Weep for Joy, in numerous presentations of An Evening with C.S. Lewis (My Life’s Journey) and St Jack & The Dragon a touching yet sometimes hilarious account about the relationship between Lewis and his adopted mother, Janie Moore. It was his re-reading of Screwtape Letters that inspired him to write the musical Target Practice. Set in the academy of Fiends, this energetic show features a cantankerous professor (Payne) attempting to teach unruly junior fiends on the art of tripping up Targets (humans).
Payne has not limited himself to Lewis related ventures. Having completed a commission to record an audio version of a new Bible translation he was then commissioned to write a play featuring the new translation text. The result was Prisoner of Passion. Set at the time when the Apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome, his encounter with servant girl and secret believer, Sempronia, leads Paul to acknowledge his past as a persecutor of the growing band of Jesus followers and his dramatic conversion. He then thrills Sempronia by reflecting on many of the things he has written to the churches. Using dialog almost entirely taken from Scripture, many of the famous passages from the Pauline epistles take on a captivating dynamic.
His play, Relative Surprise (again self penned) features Payne as a famous, but reclusive painter, whose serene world is turned upside down when a young American girl and aspiring painter turns up on his doorstep unannounced. His frosty reaction does little to deter her from achieving the aim of her visit – to get his reaction to the paintings in her portfolio. Deciding that he can get rid of her quicker by seeing her works he reluctantly allows her entry into his house. What he does not know is that her visit has an ulterior motive and one that will forever change his life.
Payne’s latest self-penned Lewis based show is Wardrobes & Rings, which focuses on the very last meeting between Lewis and his great friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Payne, who was born in London and is recently widowed (his wife Marilyn Joy Payne, died in Dec 2014) has two sons and three grand children.
C S Lewis
Though British author C S Lewis has been dead for over 40 years, almost all his books are still in print. Most sell better than they have ever done. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and both authors – arguably two of the most successful of the 20th century – wrote all their books in their “spare time.” Tolkien’s output was primarily limited to the Silmarillion, out of which came The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. However, Lewis’ writings spanned a broad range of subjects. His academic books still remain essential reading for students of English literature and his novels continue to sell in the thousands. His Christian books – which made him one of the 20th century’s foremost Christian Apologists – still have enormous sway. But he is probably best known for his classic children’s series – The Chronicles of Narnia. First launched in 1950 with publication of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, all seven books remain among today’s best-selling children’s books.
Apart from his undoubted gifts as a writer, Lewis was also a powerful orator, evidenced by the fact that his Oxford lectures were always over-subscribed. He was a regular broadcaster on the BBC and came to be recognized as one of the great intellects of his day. Yet, for all his intellectual prowess, he always retained a great capacity for simplicity and humor, never really losing his irresistible propensity for “boyish” fun. Although Lewis became a legend in his own lifetime, he remained quite oblivious both to fame and fortune, most of which he gave away.
“An Evening with C S Lewis” takes you into the unique world of a man who lived a simple life in a modest house on the outskirts of the city of Oxford.