Actor Who Discovered the Stage Late in Life

Preview of An Evening with CS Lewis By Mary Ellen Wright

David Payne was a marketing consultant in his 50s when he auditioned for a bit part in a play about C.S. Lewis. Little did Payne know that the stage, and Lewis, would become his new midlife career.

For the past 15 years or so, Payne, now 70, has been traveling the country performing as Lewis, the Oxford University professor, novelist and Christian apologist who wrote the children’s classic “The Chronicles of Narnia.”  Payne’s one-man show, “An Evening With C.S. Lewis,” will bring the late British writer to life Wednesday night at The Ware Center, Millersville University Lancaster.

In 1996, when the London-born Payne was living in Nashville with his wife, he spotted a Tennessee Performing Arts Center ad that said, “Auditions for ‘Shadowlands’: British accents a help.”

The accent he had. The stage experience? Not so much.

Though he had never acted before, Payne decided to try out for the local production of William Nicholson’s play about Lewis’ relationship with his American-born wife, Joy Davidman Gresham.

“I thought it would just be fun to do,” Payne says by phone from his home in Wells, England. “I thought, well, I might just land a small role, as one of the Oxford dons, because of my accent.”

Instead, Payne won the lead role of Lewis.

While preparing for the show, Payne recalls, a friend arranged for him to call Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, who wound up coming to a performance of “Shadowlands” in Tennessee.

The two men also wound up becoming friends.

“And then, during the rehearsals, the director gave me a copy of ‘A Grief Observed,’ which was the book that Lewis wrote after his wife died. It’s really a diary of grief, a chronicle of grief,” Payne says.

“And, for some reason, I was very taken with it, memorized it and turned it into a one-man performance.”

Payne performed his play, “Mist in the Mourning,” before sold-out houses at the same Nashville theater, and then began getting requests to present it elsewhere.

“And, in the end, I decided, well, this could be a career.”

His current play was inspired by his audiences’ reactions.

“People would come up to me after the performance and start peppering me with questions about Lewis and about other people he knew,” Payne says.

“I would always try to answer the questions,” he adds. “And then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if Lewis answered the questions?’ That’s when I wrote ‘An Evening with C.S. Lewis.’ ”

In his show, Payne, as Lewis — whose nickname was Jack — talks about his relationships with key individuals in his life: His wife; his brother, Warren; his Oxford colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien; and, of course, God.

“People ask me whether it’s a religious play, and I say, no, it’s not,” Payne says. “But you couldn’t do a play about Lewis and not include part of what made him tick, and that was his Christian experience.”

The piece is set in 1963, the last year of Lewis’ life, at the author’s Oxford home, known as The Kilns. In the show, Lewis talks about his life as if he’s addressing a group of visiting American writers.

Payne, who recalls reading a couple of Lewis’ books as a teenager, did extensive research on the author’s life and work. He says he admires how Lewis bared his soul in “A Grief Observed,” revealing how profoundly his faith was tested after his wife died of cancer.

“Two or three things came out to me,” Payne says. “One, the man was very generous. He gave most of his royalties away from his book publishing.

“He was a very honest man, and a very humble man,” Payne says. “He had no sense of his own fame. Or if he did, he thought it quite amusing. And he was very funny.

“You couldn’t be in a room more than five minutes with C.S. Lewis without there being raucous laughter,” Payne says Gresham told him.

“So people who come to the show will find lots of humor in it.”

Payne eventually formed his own theater company, David Payne Drama, with which he has toured the United States and Canada in a variety of plays he has written or adapted. These include a musical based on Lewis’ novel “The Screwtape Letters” and a play about St. Paul under house arrest in Rome.

While his Lewis portrayals have brought Payne experiences such as performing at The Kilns and sleeping in the author’s bedroom, some of his favorite moments occur when he meets audience members after his show.

“When the little old lady comes up to me with tears in her eyes, and sort of looks at me, grabs onto my hand and can hardly speak, I know what she’s thinking,” Payne says. “She’s telling me that her husband died recently, or that she hasn’t yet gotten over the death of her husband.

“Every audience is different,” Payne says. “And so, when I go out on stage, it’s like a new partner is out there. That partner is that audience that night, and we’re going to dance together and we’re going to have fun.”

With thanks to Lancaster Online