From her early work singing back-up for Roberta Flack to a career as one of Washington’s leading musical theatre actors, Helen Hayes Award recipient Nova Payton has always been an audience favorite. This week’s Art of the Actor finds her playing multiple roles in the Imagination Stage production of A Year with Frog and Toad, running through January 10.
What do you enjoy most about acting?
First of all, I think it’s so cool that, as actors, we get these scripts and we have to sometimes come up with our own background story. Some of the scripts we get come with characters and their background and where they came from, and then you get some scripts where you basically have to make all that information up because you only know a little bit about the character.
As actors, we have to have a complete journey to help us complete our job. So say, for example, in a show you have a character but your character has no family; you have to figure out what happened to your family, or what your family does, even though your character’s family is never mentioned in the show. That helps us realize why you are the type of person that you are in the script. So I think that’s fun: coming up with backstories.
Another thing I enjoy a lot is meeting different people in production. You get to meet people whose work you admire from afar but hadn’t gotten a chance to work with yet. You get to create this beautiful piece of work with people who love doing the same thing you love to do.
Tell us about this character and what excites you about this role?
In Frog and Toad I play multiple characters. I’m seen as a bird in the beginning, talking about flying South for the winter, and then I’m seen as a mouse who shows up in Toad’s house—but before I join turtle and lizard making fun of Toad and how funny he looks in a bathing suit—and then I get to play a mole, and then I get to play young frog.
It’s pretty cool because it’s the first time I’ve done children’s theatre, and children’s theatre is hard work! It’s not easy at all. It’s so satisfying, though, once you’ve completed the task of actually getting the piece under your belt. There are a lot of things we had to figure out in the rehearsal process about how these characters move and look—to really build these characters.
The best thing about doing Frog and Toad is that I don’t have to play just one character, which is what I’m used to doing. This time I get to broaden my horizons and actually use my character voices, which I love—I someday hope that I get the chance to do voice overs—so I get to do that in Frog and Toad and figure out what that is.
What do you consider the most challenging aspect of acting?
Having to actually take yourself out of yourself and become whoever this character is. A lot of times that means you have to step outside of your comfort zone, and sometimes that’s the hardest thing because we are our worst critics. We might think, “Oh my gosh, I feel so foolish doing this,” but we, as actors, have to commit, and that can be the most challenging thing. But once we do it, it’s the most satisfying thing because we overcome something difficult—an obstacle that’s been placed in front of us. That’s our job: to overcome it.
What is “the art of the actor?”
The art of the actor is being able to process the task that has been given to you and, from that, to create your own process to get the task done. Every actor processes differently—some actors sit down and write down how they’re feeling for each line, and for some, it takes them a minute to figure it out in rehearsal. The process—the art of it—is actually grabbing on to whatever the task is and being able to commit and create from that task, that process.
Frog and Toad is great. It’s sold as a family show and it is truthfully a family show. We find that adults enjoy it as much as the kids because they understand a lot of the jokes. Kids see and visualize, but adults can hear and actually get the jokes. That’s the difference between the field trip shows and the weekend shows where parents take the kids—the things we think are hilarious, the parents find hilarious too. Everybody will enjoy the show.