From moving pianos to moving audiences

NEW YORK • Actor Stephen Payne (below) first shuffled through the stage door of a Broadway theatre more than 30 years ago.

He was there to move a piano. The stage manager asked him to roll the piano towards a back corner and, as he crossed the stage, he recalled, "it was dreamlike".

"It was like walking through honey, the atmosphere seemed so thick," Payne said. "Every particle of dust - and there was plenty of dust - took on a life and a magic."

In that moment, he knew what he wanted.

"Before I die," he remembered thinking, "there's only one thing I really care about: I'd just love to own a part on Broadway."

Well, he got his wish, just short of his 70th birthday.

Stephen Payne

On opening night, it was his name in the programme for playwright Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men, his photo, his bio. Payne plays Ed, the straight white father of three straight white sons.

Yes, this is a Cinderella story, though it should be said that Payne doesn't look like Cinderella.

Born in Liverpool, England, and raised in rural Pennsylvania and Florida, he completed a tour of duty in Vietnam before weathering "some kind of a nervous breakdown or whatever", he said, and enrolling in junior college for visual art.

A few years later, he drove a Dodge van to New York and rented an apartment in Ludlow Street, where he moved pianos by day and self-medicated by night.

One day, sometime in the early 1980s, a woman saw him sitting out on St Marks Place and asked him if he wanted to act in a movie.

"I knew nothing," he said, "but I knew the excitement of it, the heat that came from the camera."

That led to other small movies. Then some plays, a little training, a TV guest spot here and there, and still piano moving.

Somehow he landed an agent. Along the way, Payne promised himself that he'd never do extra or understudy work.

"I just found it so frustrating to be so close to the heat and not be a part of it," he said.

But when he read August: Osage County, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, he signed on.

He rarely went onstage, but he bought a house with the money that not acting earned. And a Harley Davidson.

More understudy roles followed. More nights spent standing at the back of the theatre, so close to the honey, so close to the heat, just watching.

When he did get to go on, he'd try to play the role just as the named actor had.

"If you start changing blocking or trying to get cute when you're out there, expressing yourself - no," he said. "It's not something that understudies - it's not one of their perks."

"There's no glory attendant," he added.

At first, Ed in Straight White Men was one more understudy gig. But Tom Skerritt left the show in what Shapiro described as "a sad and amicable parting", citing stamina issues. And then his replacement, Denis Arndt, brought in just before previews began, left too.

At the first preview, there was Payne onstage, wearing Ed's sweaters, dancing Ed's dances, keeping the part warm. He hadn't had any real rehearsal. He'd only run the play twice. He'd never had the luxury of conversations with the playwright or director.

But "because he's a longtime understudy and he's a badass and he doesn't complain and he's hardworking and honourable," Shapiro said, he did it anyway. And he did it without the hope that he'd win the role.

"I was way past the whole mythology of the understudy getting the part," Payne said.

Shapiro was in talks with other actors to replace him. But Lee, as well as Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, the actors who play Ed's sons, came to her and told her that they wanted Payne to have the role - for keeps.

Sure, a name would have been nice, but as Shapiro said, speaking by telephone from Chicago, the play "had enough names". And do all-star casts ever work anyway?

"Once the decision got made, it just felt inevitable," she said.

"We had a few different dads," Hammer said. "But Stephen is our perfect choice."

What's funny is that Payne doesn't think he's right for Ed. He plays edgy characters, outsider characters, not retired engineers who wear L.L. Bean sweaters. Payne shuddered even pronouncing "L.L. Bean". He's still searching for Ed's motivations.

But, as Lee wrote in an e-mail, from the moment Payne first acted opposite the actors playing his sons, "They just seemed like a family."

So his wish has been granted. Is it as good as he'd hoped?

"Yes," he said. "Greater joy I have never had. Maybe when my daughter was born or, you know, when I got married. But yeah."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2018, with the headline 'From moving pianos to moving audiences'. Print Edition | Subscribe