Spotlight: Topher Payne

Topher Payne

Topher Payne, our “man in Atlanta,” is a celebrated author and man about town. He has won multiple awards including BEST LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT Creative Loafing Reader’s Choice Awards, 2010; BEST LOCAL WRITER The GA Voice Reader’s Choice Awards, 2010; BEST LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT The Sunday Paper, 2010, WINNER, BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR Metropolitan Atlanta Theatre Awards, 2009.and was recently the Grand Marshall of Atlanta’s Gay Pride Parade.

What are you working on right now?

I’m in the midst of playing with genres lately- I’m loving the experience of seeing what develops when I immerse myself in a wholly unfamiliar world.  This year I wrote my first romantic comedy, “Tokens of Affection.”  It  premiered at Georgia Ensemble back in January, with Flying Carpet company member John Stephens.  Then I tried my hand at farce with “Lakebottom Proper” at the Springer Opera House, with Flying Carpet company  member Jo Howarth. (I try to take a company member with me everywhere I go.)  Right now I’m developing a script with Pinch n’ Ouch Theatre, who were just named Best Emerging Theatre Company by Creative  Loafing.  I wanted to do something with a lot of sex and violence, but that’s also sort of witty and charming.  Like if Oscar Wilde had written “Fight Club.”  And in January, I’m playing David Frost in “Frost/Nixon,”  which is a dream role.  I’m really over the moon about it.

What has your experience at Flying Carpet been like?

Flying Carpet challenges me to grow beyond the limits of my own imagination.  The experience has taught me so much about collaboration, and the collective spirit of performance.  It’s asking a lot of a group of artists to put ego aside and let the best idea win.  But if you can embrace that, you carry it into every other endeavor.

Who do you look to for inspiration?

I don’t look for it, I just stay open to it finding me.  News stories, things my mother leaves on my voicemail, dreams, surreal nuggets of history…  I eavesdrop unapologetically and let imagination take over from there.  Last week I saw an old roommate for the first time in years, and he responded to a criticism with “Don’t you judge me.”  That’s a catchphrase one of the characters in “Lakebottom Proper,” and until I heard him say it I really thought I’d come up with that on my own.

Please finish this sentence: Flying Carpet Theatre is a great creative outlet because ______

You’re really all in this together, and you succeed or fail based solely on your willingness to take responsibility for everyone else in the room.

If you could go back in time to visit any era where would you go and why?

Okay, maybe I’m just a killjoy, but until the 20th century people were still getting cholera from drinking water.  And sewage systems were draining into rivers and lakes in all major cities until the 1940s.  Which means they stank to high heaven.  So I believe I’d stay right here, thank you very much.  But if I’m taking that way too literally, then I’d go back to 1931 and try to play with the Group Theatre. I would, however, bring my own water.

Topher Payne

What are the highlights of your career thus far?

Theatre critics are generally pleasant to me in reviews, but not particularly effusive.  But in 2010 I was voted Reader’s Choice for Best Playwright in three different publications, and in 2011 I won the award twice again.  It was such a great reminder, you know?  The people who buy the tickets, who support theatre in this city, believe in my work.  That was humbling and fortifying.

Seeing “Lakebottom Proper” at the Springer Opera House, on the same stage that had hosted Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, and Franklin Roosevelt.  That was a good day.

But the moment to end all moments was the first read-through for “Tokens of Affection” at Georgia Ensemble Theatre.  It was the first time I premiered a script at an Equity house, and the first time I’d directed my own work.  I hadn’t worked with any of them before, but I was a fan of their work.  A goofy, awestruck fan.  And now I was expected to lead them into this uncharted territory.  I sat at the table as the producer, actors, design team, and staff assembled, and there were so many dang people in that room- literally several hundred years of combined theatrical experience coming together for a script I’d written as a love letter to my husband.  I just kept thinking, “If this thing fails, I got no one to blame but me.”

Which Flying Carpet show was your favorite to work on, and why?

You’d think I’d say “Medicine Showdown,” because after years of stage managing for the company I was finally getting to write.  And that was extraordinary.  But it’ll always be the marvelous Chinese conjurer.  The productions of “Chung Ling Soo” in Atlanta, then Scotland, then Ireland, represent a period of tremendous growth for me as a person, and as an artist.  I feel like I grew up on those productions.

How do you and Tommy balance family life and the life of an artist?

That would be a better question for Tommy, since I believe most of the compromises are his.  You learn from mistakes.  Last year I was in tech for a show on my first wedding anniversary.  I’d forgotten to list it as a conflict when I was cast, because I wasn’t yet accustomed to having a wedding anniversary.  I was actually more upset about it than he was.  Now I know: October 16th-18th are blackout dates.  Without exception.  It’s a tricky thing, isn’t it?  I don’t get overtime pay for writing a script.  And I can go twelve hours at my desk, forget to eat, ignore the phone, because I’m playing with my imaginary friends.  Wow.  The more I think about this the more I wonder how my husband would answer this.  Best not to ask him.  If he’s not questioning it, no reason to start now.

How does your normal Atlanta theater work compare with FCT?

My own theatre work starts in a very solitary place, and doesn’t involve other artists until after the first draft is complete.  This can take weeks, months, some take years.  But with Flying Carpet, we don’t start with a draft.  We start with an idea, and we build.  So the messy part I usually keep concealed from view is right there in the open.  It’s like swimming naked.  Unnerving and oddly liberating.

I get ideas for stories now that I would have dismissed before, because my scripts tend to be traditional in format: single setting, dialogue-driven, realistic in presentation and concept.  Those wackos at FCT opened me up to possibilities I’d never attempt alone, but seem feasible in the group-manufactured madness.  I end up making notes like:

Ask Adam how a 50-year old woman would go over Niagara Falls in a barrel on stage.

What is your dream writing assignment?

I wanna write a smart horror movie.  They’re so rare, and horror is the only genre that can’t be reproduced on stage, because its success is entirely dependent upon the audience feeling unsafe, if only for an instant.  If an audience felt unsafe at a play, they’d leave.  Or maybe not.

Ask Adam how to do a really scary horror story on stage without people leaving.