Interview with Broadway Performer Robyn Payne
BB: Can you tell us about your Broadway experience in The Lion King? How do you keep everything fresh in a long-running show? How do you stay fit and healthy working with intricate costumes/puppets?
RP: My experience in The Lion King was educational, to say the least. It was the first time that I was in a show for two years. Prior to that, the longest run I’d ever done was probably three months. It was also the first time I was in a show as a replacement. I joined the cast as Sarabi, right at the show's five year anniversary. With a production like this one, there isn’t much room for individuality. The show is based on a film and the story is told through the spectacle of the sets and puppetry, rather than the emotions and characterizations created by the actors.
For me, this show was a lesson in learning how to take a note from an assistant director and learn to marry it with what I felt my character’s journey was. This wasn’t always easy. As an actor, it is your job to portray the director or assistant director’s vision. However, it is You who is on the stage and it is You whose instrument has to facilitate telling the story. It is difficult to keep the ego out of it.
In training as an actor, we are taught to be fully in our bodies and our emotions, and learn to put so much of ourselves into a role. And the reality of being a working actor is that if you are not a star (the person bringing in a majority of the ticket sales) we find that this part of who we are is not as important to everyone else. And it’s true. With a musical stage production with a cast of 30-50, or a television show that shoots an episode in eight days, we actors play such a small part of the big picture, that we have to put our egos on the back burner.
This is easier than it sounds. We want to fulfill all of the work that we’ve done on a character. We want to protect these characters, and we want to nurture them my giving them the room to grow. And we’re actors, so we want to show the world what we can do through this character. This is our craft!
I think what it takes to be satisfied in these situations is to get our gratification from the preparation that we’ve done for a role. Much like a dramaturge, while the research is necessary, much of what went into a production may be lost upon or even unseen by the audience; but it is the part of our craft that sets us apart.
BB: Can you talk about the differences/similarities of doing big production shows regionally versus doing a show on Broadway?
RP: I’ve done two production contract shows (Broadway level productions.) I was in The Lion King and I was in the first national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie as Miss Flannery, where I also understudied Muzzy Van Hossmere and Mrs. Meers. In both of these productions, I was a replacement. My rehearsals for The Lion King lasted for a month. My rehearsals for Thoroughly Modern Millie were for two or three weeks. With big contracts like these, there is a lot of rehearsal time; however, you are usually rehearsing by yourself, with the musical director, dance captains, and assistant or resident directors on Broadway or stage managers on tour.
Generally in a regional production, the cast begins rehearsal at the same time with the original directors and choreographers. The rehearsal period is usually shorter and there are tech rehearsals. When you are a replacement, there is a “put in” rehearsal. This is your “sort of” tech rehearsal where you wear full make-up and costume, but everyone else in regular clothes. There are also no lighting cues and no orchestra.
BB: How would you say your acting process differs when you are working in front of the TV camera versus onstage?
RP: I’ve been working more in front of the camera over the last couple of years than I have on the stage. I got to work with the wonderful Louis CK on the FX hit, Louie, and this season I was on Golden Boy and Blue Bloods on CBS and I also got to act with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards on Netflix.
The thing about film and television is that the actor is truly a small piece of the puzzle. There are so many elements at work. And there is also a lot of lingo to get used to. If you are preparing to go on stage, you know EXACTLY when your cue will be. On camera, they can break down and re-set camera angles, you’re walking around talking, trying to seem relaxed and friendly, next thing you know, it’s time to shoot, and you’ve forgotten why you’re there.
I don’t think that most people have the luxury of staying in character, because you don’t know how long you’d have to maintain that. This is where you’ve got to really trust your process. People talk about “big” vs. “small” when comparing stage and on-camera work. I can’t speak for straight plays, but where musicals are concerned, it’s a matter of “larger than life” vs. “grounded” when comparing musical acting to screen. It is not necessary to “show” what you are feeling or even “feel” what you are feeling, for that matter. When you’re at a place where you can allow your instrument to react in ways you didn’t expect, that will show up on-camera and be more effective than if you plan it out, as if you are singing and dancing a song. There is little room for improvisation in a musical. There is more room for space on camera.
BB: Can you tell us about Indiana University? You had an individualized major in opera and musical theatre...how did that work and did you find that helpful in your pursuing the performing arts world? Would you recommend it to others and/or an individualized program to others?
RP: I went to Indiana University as an opera major in the School of Music. I eventually became involved in musicals. While the opera program put on musicals, it was with an operatic bent. I eventually began to gravitate to the Department of Theatre and Drama, where they also put on a big musical every year. There was no Musical Theatre program at the time. People who were interested in focusing on musicals had to get an Individualized Major through the Bachelors of Arts school. We had to get a sponsor; most of us had George Pinney (who has since created an official Musical Theatre program which he heads in the Department of Theatre and Drama) who directed the musicals in the theatre department and taught stage movement and combat.
BB: What are you working on now?
RP: Right now, I’m producing my first solo concert. It’s called Robyn Payne: Moving Forward and I’m calling it a “Journey Through Song”. I’ve got a band of seven musicians and three back-up singers and I’ll be singing songs by Oleta Adams, Sara Bareilles, Kenny Loggins, Basia, Sting, and many more. This show is a sort of journal of my emotional journey and growth over the last year and a half following the break-up of a long-term relationship and what happened to me in the relationships that followed. Read: Love Songs, happy and sad.
This is seriously the most challenging thing that I have ever done professionally in my life. People told me that the first time out, I should just do something with a piano. But I had this VISION, and I knew it was going to take a lot to put it together, so why not do it the way I wanted? I was able to raise more than $5000 to fund this project through a crowd-funding platform called Indiegogo.com. That, in and of itself, was a full-time job. I’m paying the musicians, I’m booking the rehearsal studios, I’ve booked the venue, I’ve gotten promo shots and postcards and posters. I’m directing the project, I suppose. And I have to make phone calls, send out post-cards, hit people up on Facebook, do interviews, etc. I’m basically the producer, advertising agent, director, talent, and whatever else that needs to be done. It’s nice to have the power and see the vision of your dream come alive. But there is SO much to do, that it’s difficult to focus on the artistic aspect, the way I’d like. So there’s the tradeoff: I’m the person with the control, but there is less freedom in that because there is so much to take care of.
I knew what I wanted this show to be a long time ago, and because I didn’t have a lot of money, I didn’t get a director, official music director, or transcriptionist. Now that I’ve raised the money, I don’t have a lot of time. I now understand why directors can seem distant. There is so much to think about. If the people in project don’t suck, you’re basically fine. It’s very difficult to get caught up in the details. And sometimes that’s a good thing.
BB: Any advice you can offer to fellow performers?
RP: One thing that I’ve learned in the past few years from an incredible business coach for actors and artists, named Dallas Travers (“The Tao of Show Business”), is that there is a team behind every successful person. I used to think that this meant agents, managers, and PR, but what it really means is friends, accountability partners, pastors, hairdressers, neighbors, etc. You’ve got to find the people who love and support you, offer them your love and support and go on a journey together. This is a very lonely business if you are trying to do it in your own power. Find someone to inspire and they will support you. Support someone and they will inspire you.
BB: What is one thing you wished you would have known before moving to New York about pursing the performing arts world here that you can impart to others?
RP: I wish I knew how to act before I got here. I thought I knew how to act and I was working, but I wasn’t able to book, or even be seen for the kind of work that I wanted to do. There are some good acting schools in this country, but the best are here in NY. I would have come to NY and found an exceptional acting class (not easy to do, everybody and their mama teaches acting in NY.) I am a firm believer in paying to meet casting directors at workshops; but if I could go back, I would have found a good class, BEFORE introducing myself to these people. I wouldn’t even recommend taking acting classes from casting directors, in the beginning. They are basically coaching you (what many acting teachers do.) Coaching assumes that there is a technique underneath, and many actors don’t have a technique. A technique is necessary for confidence. And confidence that is grounded from a technique keeps you from being tossed back and forth by the notes (opinions) you may get from casting directors, directors, and teachers. Everyone will have a different opinion about your work, so it is important to be able to separate yourself from your work, so that you don’t allow yourself to become wounded.