“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. The rest, as they say, is history…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 C.S. 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 – My Life’s Journey, basing the show around the questions that people kept asking and the pivotal occurrences in Lewis’ life. Now it has become his flagship production. Indeed, when a taping of An Evening with C.S. Lewis was aired on a satellite dish network in the US, the response was astonishing.
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 and, of course, in numerous presentations of An Evening with C.S. Lewis. 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). St Jack & The Dragon, another self-penned production, is a hilarious yet touching story about the relationship of C.S. Lewis and his adopted mother, Mrs. Moore. Says Payne “Thanks to Shadowlands, many people know about his marriage to the American, Joy Gresham. Few, however, know that there was another woman in his life – his adopted mother. She wasn’t easy to live with and because of her abrasive nature the household was very often in uproar. In spite of this, in the 33 years she was part of the Lewis household, Jack (as Lewis was known to his friends ) treated her with an enduring kindness that was little short of saintly” His most recent production – again self-penned – is Wardrobes & Rings which centers on the very last meeting between the C.S. Lewis and his great friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. Both in the twilight years of their lives they come together at the historic Eagle and Child pub for what turns out to be their final encounter. .
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. In this drama Paul reflects on what he has written to the churches and rejoices in the certain promises of God. Powerful and inspiring, the dialog is almost entirely taken from Scripture.
Payne, who was born in London, was widowed with two sons and three grandchildren until recently when he remarried to a lovely Englishwoman.