Amy Morton, an ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, first met actor Monica Payne in 1999, when Payne was her student in Steppenwolf’s summer training intensive. Payne was six years out of undergrad, doing her best to navigate the Chicago theatre scene. “I just knew she had a whole lot of talent,” remembers Morton. The following year, Payne got her first taste of an Equity-theatre rehearsal process as Morton’s assistant director for Steppenwolf’s production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir. Morton also cast Payne as an understudy in the show, which proved a stepping-stone to future roles at Steppenwolf. Since then, alongside the friendship that has grown between them, Morton has continued to mentor Payne, both in her acting career and in the art of teaching acting. Next summer, while Morton rehearses a new show, Payne will take over her Meisner class at the School at Steppenwolf, after having spent nine weeks this past summer shadowing her as a teacher.
AMY MORTON: You tend to gravitate toward the people in this business who are in it for the same reasons you are. It was never a formal mentorship—things would just happen. Like [artistic director Martha Lavey] would say, do you want an A.D. for this show you’re directing? And I’d go: Oh, maybe that’s something Monica would like to do.
MONICA PAYNE: Amy and I have similar processes and a similar aesthetic, and we just sort of click as people, as well. There’s definitely a generosity of spirit on Amy’s part, because even if she thought I was a good student, she could have just said: Okay, see you later, little birdie. But she’s let me learn from her for more than six years now. If I ask her to coach me, she’ll drop everything and set aside a night for coaching. Also, I’ve had the opportunity to go see her as an actor, time and time again. I learn about my craft from watching her perform, and being in rehearsal, because she’s such a fantastic actor.
MORTON: Acting really is a journeyman trade, requiring a very Old World, guild type of mentoring and learning. So the challenge is time, because time allotment is not the same as it used to be many years ago. Another challenge is to be able to find someone to whom I could say: I would love for you to take over my class next year, but you have to be at every class this year to watch. It really, really is a commitment, and that’s hard to come by these days.
PAYNE: Amy’s willingness, when I came out of the Steppenwolf school, to call me in for The Weir was a big step. In my class, out of 24 students, there were 2 of us who ended up getting cast at Steppenwolf. She was instrumental in saying: I think you should give Monica a chance. And she has certainly helped me figure out how to handle the professional side of my career. I can call her and say: Someone is offering me this role—do you think I should take it? And I have very few people who are in-the-know enough for me to be able to trust their decision. I can ask my mom, but she doesn’t know. I need someone who is ahead of me in the career process, who can help figure that out.
MORTON: I think we relate much more as friends than as: I’m your older mentor. When I called her about this article, I said: I don’t even know if I am a mentor to you. And she said: Um, yeah, you are. I’ve never set myself up to be a mentor. It just happens that class will be over, and somebody will e-mail me and say: If you ever need an assistant director or anything…. And so these relationships form in that way.
I have to say, I probably get more out of it than [the people I’ve mentored] do. It makes me put into words what I do, and it also gives me a fresh perspective. This business is really hard, and nobody makes a lot of money, so I know a lot of people who get really bitter. The practice of mentoring saves you from that fate, because you’re constantly looking at this business through fresh eyes. To be able to see somebody get excited about something that you’ve taken for granted is humbling and really good for you.
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