Portraying strong female characters doesn’t intimidate actors Topher Payne and DeWayne Morgan. The two played the Sugarbaker sisters in the popular “Designing Women Live” shows at OnStage Atlanta, and now they’re tackling The Process Theatre’s production of “Auntie Mame” with Topher in the title role and DeWayne as Vera Charles.
The gender-bending thespians spoke with Fenuxe about their unique addition to Atlanta’s theater scene.
Fenuxe: What interests you about playing female roles?
DM: Because you change everything about yourself. The way you look, walk, the way you talk. It’s as far from yourself as you can possibly get.
TP: And that level of concentration makes for such good habits in any other role. I studied to play David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” the same way I prepped to play Julia Sugarbaker—picking apart every little detail of how they speak, how they move. Performing is all about experiencing the world in someone else’s shoes. For us, those shoes are often high heels.
Fenuxe: What’s the biggest challenge of playing a female role?
TP: Oh god, take your pick. Making people forget they’re watching a 200-pound man who’s 6’6” in heels. Vocally, I’m a pretty deep baritone, so particularly with someone like Mame I have to find a way to hit the pitch of the voice and still be able to breathe. And in real life, I have a heavy, lumbering gait—I literally stomp around. So becoming graceful, finding that gentle economy of movement, takes real concentration.
DM: The undergarments are extremely uncomfortable at first, but they really do help you carry yourself more like a woman. It keeps you aware of your posture and your movement.
TP: The overall challenge lies in playing a character who happens to be female, not playing it as a drag queen. Being a drag queen is an entirely different skill set that I’ve never had the opportunity to learn. I don’t think I could lip synch to save my life.
Fenuxe: Why did you choose to be in “Auntie Mame”?
TP: The story of Auntie Mame is such a celebration of individuality, and the right to live life on your own terms. Mame Dennis can accept anything you bring to the table, except hypocrisy or judgment. She has no tolerance for the intolerant. These concepts are still on the table in 2012. Picture how revolutionary she was sixty years ago.
DM: Mame’s an amazing character, but she wasn’t the one who I fell in love with. That was Vera. Mame had to deal with the kid and the money problems, while Vera’s just off having a cocktail tossing off one-liners. That’s my kinda gal. But Mame and Vera share that love of adventure, who the hell cares what people think?
TP: And what better way to honor this show’s unapologetic celebration of life than to let a couple of small-town Southern boys grow up to be glamorous divas?
Fenuxe: Which aspect of the show do you like the most?
DM: I cannot wait to do the theater scene with Topher. Vera gets Mame a small part in one of her plays and all hell breaks loose. It’s so over-the-top, all this physical comedy. We are having a ball doing it, and I cannot wait for the audience to see it.
TP: Mama and my Aunt Merry Ellen are coming from Mississippi to see it. Merry Ellen was my Auntie Mame growing up, and there are little aspects of my performance that I lifted directly from her. Getting to play the lead in one of their favorite stories for them is so exciting for me, and the fact that they’re so excited about it shows how far we’ve come as a family, you know?
DM: Your answer was so much sweeter than mine. Damn you.
TP: Well, tell your mama to come, and then you can have a sweet story too.
DM: Oh, I will. And everyone will say my story is the sweetest story they ever heard.
TP: You are such a bitch.
Fenuxe: If you could play a female role in any stage play which show would it be and why?
TP: I’d be Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”
DM: But you can’t sing.
TP: I sing with you in “Auntie Mame.”
DM: Yes. That’s how I know you can’t sing.
TP: Fine, who would you be?
DM: Ouiser in “Steel Magnolias.” I would be great in that part.
TP: You should be; you play her every damn day of your life.
DM: You are a pig from hell.
TP: Aw, DeWayne, you know I love ya more than my luggage.
The Process Theatre’s “Auntie Mame”
Where: OnStage Atlanta
When: Now through May 4
Check out the review of “Auntie Mame” by our new theatre critics, GlitterBomb, by clicking here.