After more than 20 years and 800 performances, David Payne still isn’t tired of portraying acclaimed writer C.S. Lewis in the play “An Evening with C.S. Lewis.” By the end of the production’s run across the U.S., it will have racked up 1,000 performances of the play, but Payne said he’s still having as much fun as ever giving viewers a peek into the mind of the creator of works such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Screwtape Letters.”
In “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” — which will play at the Broadway Playhouse (175 E. Chestnut St.) Oct. 22 through Nov. 3 — the writer welcomes a group of American writers, the audience, into his home. In his living room, Lewis recounts the most notable moments in his life from meeting his wife to converting to Christianity.
With Lewis as the only character, Payne is forced to command the stage all on his own.
“It is only one man so that one man better be good otherwise you’re in an awful lot of trouble,” Payne, 77, said.
For the show to work, Payne said he can’t lose the audience’s attention for a moment. In earlier years, he could tell when viewers were engaged and when attention strayed. Using that information, he changed up the show — making the audience “the best directors” he’s had.
“There was a time when I think it was them and me,” Payne said. “Now I see it more as us. It’s a show where we feed off one another.”
He’s gotten to a point where he’s happy with where the show is at, but the evolving has kept it fresh for Payne. He said he hasn’t gotten tired of the show — only from the travel schedule. If the show ever stopped changing, Payne said he suspects that’s when he’d call it quits.
For now, the London native is content with using his own life experiences to bring Lewis’ to the stage, but he wasn’t always an actor.
Before moving to the U.S. in 1992, he saw the show “Shadowlands,” a play about Lewis’ relationship with his wife. After two years in Nashville, Payne came across an audition flyer for a production of that same show which called for a British accent.
Payne went in with low expectations — he hadn’t acted on stage before — and walked out with the lead role of C.S. Lewis. Thus began his increased admiration for Lewis and his work.
“He was a brilliant writer, I am not,” Payne said. “He was a high-end intellectual, I am not. But he was a human being and I’m a human being so that helps.”
The commonalities don’t end with simply being human. Payne’s transition to Christianity at 16 helped him relate to Lewis’ eventual embrace of Christianity.
In this sense, Payne said parts of his performance aren’t purely acting. After Lewis tells the audience of the love story between him and his wife, her tragic death comes. Presenting the grief Lewis felt came naturally to Payne — he had experienced that same loss.
His wife of 49 years passed away suddenly in 2014.
“3 months after that I had to do my first Lewis performance [since her death], actually in Chicago at the Metropolis Theater … and they wanted to do a tech runthrough,” Payne said. “And we got to the part where Lewis talks about his wife and I just broke down I couldn’t go on.”
But when the show came around, Payne used the emotion to propel his performance. He said this connection to Lewis and his experiences helped people connect to Payne’s portrayal of the writer.
Payne works to capture Lewis’ humor and condor in his performance to make the audience feel as if they’ve actually spent an evening with Lewis, not an actor.
“An Evening with C.S. Lewis” will be playing at the Broadway Playhouse (175 E. Chestnut St.) Oct. 22 through Nov. 3. Tickets are available at www.aneveningwithcslewis.com.