BY HOWARD POUSNER / AJC
Topher Payne is well known in Atlanta as one of the metro area’s most prolific and produced playwrights, but apparently less so elsewhere.
The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) announced Friday that Payne has won its 2014 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright.
Designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature, the award (which carries a $1,000 prize) will be presented April 5 at the Humana Theater Festival at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.
It recognizes Payne’s play, “Perfect Arrangement,” which premiered last June at the Source Festival in Washington.
Read AJC contributor Andrew Alexander’s interview with Payne on his honor on myajc.com (subscriber site).
And here is an AJC story on Payne that appeared in January, as his world premiere “The Only Light in Reno” was being mounted by Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre.
Topher Payne revisits making of ‘The Misfits’ in ‘Only Light in Reno’
BY CURT HOLMAN / FOR THE AJC
For an out-and-proud Atlanta actor and playwright, Topher Payne keeps in touch with his small-town roots.
His two worlds overlapped recently when he visited his parents in Bolton, Miss., for the holidays. Payne, 34, was excited about the possibility of a Chicago production of his confrontational new play, “Angry Fags, ” which debuted at 7 Stages in early 2013 and racked up a couple of Suzi Awards in the process.
“I was telling my parents about it, but we had two nephews under the age of 8 in the room at the time, ” recalled Payne. When his father asked Payne the name of the play, the playwright pointedly said, “Angry …” in a rare case of self-censorship.
“Angry” would seem like the opposite word to describe Payne, who exudes sunny, Southern charm in person while specializing in upbeat comedies full of snappy repartee. A seemingly tireless presence in the local theater scene since he arrived from Mississippi at age 19, he’s become a ubiquitous playwright in recent years, completing six world premieres in rapid succession.
“I was either in pre-production or production consistently for a little over two years, ” he said.
Payne’s latest play, “The Only Light in Reno, ” is his third world premiere at Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre (GET) since 2011.
The inspiration for it came while researching his previous GET premiere, 2013’s “Swell Party.” He read three sentences in James Goode’s book, “The Making of ‘The Misfits’ ” and declared, “Well, that’s a play!”
The action takes place in a Reno hotel room during the production of the 1961 drama “The Misfits, ” famed for the last screen appearances of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. As Payne described it, “There’s a citywide blackout in Reno, and all of these luminaries are in Marilyn’s hotel room because she had the only working light in the city.”
Striking comedic sparks between famous movie stars and their hangers-on, the production’s lineup includes Rachel Sorsa as Marilyn Monroe, Kate Donadio as Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Drago as Montgomery Clift, Shelly McCook as singer-turned activist Libby Holman, and Elizabeth Genge as Paula Strasberg, Monroe’s acting coach. Shannon Eubanks directs.
“The play is like a triangle between Monty, Libby and Elizabeth Taylor, with Liz as the angel on his shoulder, and Libby as the devil on the other, ” said Payne.
Payne admitted to feeling intimidated writing about the off-screen behavior of such famous people. “It took a long time for me to feel ownership of them as characters because they’re real people, ” he said. He discovered that making his own transcripts of vintage audio interviews helped reveal their voices.
Robert Farley, artistic director of Georgia Ensemble Theatre, has seen Payne’s work mature since GET staged the romantic comedy “Tokens of Affection” in 2011.
“His skill as a writer has become more economical and possesses a razor sharpness to his wit that is reminiscent of Neil Simon in his prime, ” said Farley.
Payne has written more than a dozen plays, mostly ensemble-driven Southern comedies, which have won such local honors as Essential Theatre’s Georgia Playwriting Award and the Gene Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award. In some ways, though, he’s his own best character. Living in Decatur with his husband, Tommy Nixon Payne, he writes an award-winning humor column for the Georgia Voice and frequently participates at Write Club and other live literary events.
Payne also performs as an audio book narrator and stage and screen actor, in roles as diverse as the title character in the Shakespeare/superhero mash-up “Bat-Hamlet” and as Joan Crawford in his own play, “Christina Darling.”
“I’ll always perform, because performing has made me a better writer, ” he said.
Payne took his highest-profile role to date as a hairdresser in a scene from the film “Identity Thief” opposite Melissa McCarthy. He landed the role by providing an audition tape of improvised one-liners off the prompt: Melissa McCarthy comes into the salon looking like the most tragic thing. He got the gig with the line, “Oh God, it’s like John Goodman and Kathy Bates had a baby and treated it badly.”
Although he is at work on a screenplay for a horror movie, Payne wants to devote more time to the professional development of the work he’s already written, inspired by such out-of-town successes as a production of his play “Perfect Arrangement” in Washington, D.C., last summer.
“It has reached a point of frustration that I don’t have an agent and not a single one of my plays is published, ” he said. “The reach of my plays has expanded over the last two years, but I’m not making a living at it. My goal for 2014 is to feel like it’s not just me — and my husband — trying to make ‘Topher Payne, Playwright’ happen.”
He’s also considering venturing into podcasting, but otherwise he doesn’t have a new play script currently in progress. “It’s terrifying!” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to be the next character to step forward and say ‘Now, I’m going to eat your life!’ “