By Brianne McConnell
He’s an animated third grader whose recently discovered passion has landed him in the spotlight on one of the most well known stages in our region.
“You are you for your life and then when you are on stage, you’re a whole new person and when you memorize stuff it’s just in your head so it’s like it’s just you speaking to the audience,” nine-year-old Clarence Michael Payne said in a recent interview.
Payne is one of the youngest actors in “The Winter’s Tale,” the first production back at Washington, D.C.’s Folger Theatre after an almost four-year renovation project. Payne plays dual roles as Mamillius and Time in the play.
However, prior to auditioning for this role, Payne had never been on a big stage or auditioned for anything. Payne said for as long as he can remember, he’s had an interest in singing and dancing, but it was just over a year ago that he was formally introduced to musical theater – with just one week of musical theater camp back in 2022.
“Last summer we said, ‘Let’s get him into musical theater camp,’ and from the first day he came home, he was researching the songs and was just into it the whole week. We’d never seen him happier. [My wife and I said], ‘Oh my gosh we have to do more,’” Kenny Payne, Clarence’s father, said.
So this summer, Clarence’s parents signed him up for a two-week camp at Camp Arena Stage in the District.
“The thought process was: after this summer camp, let’s look around for something else like this rather than waiting for another camp in summer 2024,” according to Gladys Payne, Clarence’s mother.
That’s when opportunity came knocking. In August, a couple of months after camp ended, a teacher from the Arena Stage Camp emailed the family asking if Clarence would be interested in auditioning for a part in a play at the Folger Theatre.
“To be honest, we didn’t know what a big deal it was at first,” Gladys Payne said.
One week after reading a poem, memorizing dialogue on the spot and signing a song for his audition, Payne was offered the role.
Weeks later, he began the month-long run of rehearsals. And earlier this month, Payne made his official debut on the Folger Theatre stage.
Payne, who said he doesn’t get nervous for performances, revealed that his ritual before going on stage includes his vocal warm ups and a pep talk.
“A stage is a stage, let’s do this thing!” Payne said he tells himself.
Payne shares his roles in “The Winter’s Tale” with another young boy, a District resident, Richard Bradford. Folger Theatre Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels – who’s also the Folger’s director of programming – said these two boys bring something special to the cast both on and off stage.
“I think to see how joyful they have been, how much they are learning … but I think they teach everyone else,” Daniels said. “I think Clarence and Richard have allowed play and reminded us to keep that thing about being a child, which is the ability to play.”
While both boys are making their Folger Theatre debut in these roles, the play itself is a bit of a reprise for the theater. “The Winter’s Tale” is the first show back in the theater with audiences since 2020, when the Folger’s planned closure for renovations was lengthened by effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think what it means to be inside the theater as someone who arrived during the pandemic and during the renovations – to finally be in the start putting in place the dreams we’ve been building for two years – I don’t even know if I have a word for it,” Daniels said.
The Shakespearean play “The Winter’s Tale” follows two rival kings, King Leontes and King Polixenes, along a journey with complex relationships woven into a story of jealousy, love, hope and resurrection.
Daniels said she’s known for two years this was the play she wanted to reopen with and said it has felt like a renewal all around.
“I think everybody who has worked on this production has really been generous with one another,” Daniels said.
Payne’s family expressed a similar sentiment. They said while their son had no prior experience on stage, that didn’t matter to the seasoned cast, the members of which have made the entire Payne family feel like they are right where they are supposed to be.
“It’s been a great experience for Clarence and for us and we’re just proud,” Kenny Payne said. “It’s a lot of hard work and we’re so proud of all the work he has put in without complaint and we know he just loves what he is doing.”
When he is not on the stage, Clarence is being silly with friends at St. Stephens and St. Agnes School in Alexandria where he is in third grade. His parents say having to balance school and late nights at the theater has brought out a new level of maturity in their young boy.
“The Winter’s Tale” is set to close December 17. With just over two weeks of performances left, Clarence Payne is already wanting to do more.
When asked if he had been bitten by the acting bug, Clarence had just one word: “Yes!”