Theater Review - Topher Payne takes his shows on the road

Award-winning Atlanta playwright brings his original productions to Chicago and Alaska

The rest of the country’s knowledge of great Southern playwrights may begin and end with Tennessee Williams, but writers like Atlanta’s Topher Payne are working hard to change that perception. This month, a production of his play Angry Fags opened at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and he is taking another of his plays, Perfect Arrangement, all the way to Alaska. Meanwhile, he continues to direct and appear onstage in Atlanta, and he is collaborating with other local playwrights on a new work to premiere next year. Oh, and there’s a Christmas special in the works, too.

Angry Fags premiered in Atlanta in February 2013, and it immediately garnered national attention for Payne’s ability to handle activism with a comedic touch. Speaking of the production, shortly before its premiere in Chicago, Payne laughed over some slight differences from the original.

“Well, it’s shorter! It’s the nature of the beast with how Atlanta develops and premieres new work,” Payne says. “We unfortunately don’t have the set-up for being able to do extensive previews, and kind of the final step for developing a new script is really the mentorship of the audience. In Atlanta, the typical run is three weeks and you may get one or two previews before you open, so there really isn’t the opportunity to develop the work in previews.”

So, while the Atlanta version of Angry Fags may have been the extended, uncut version, Chicago audiences are seeing a somewhat condensed story. Of course, one challenge of the new production was ensuring that the Chicago actors developed the appropriate Atlanta dialect. On the first night of rehearsals, Payne enjoyed half-hour meetings with each of the cast members to discuss the script. He realized later that “while they were of course listening to what I was saying, they were also paying attention to how I was saying it,” as they developed their ears for our local tones. He has also enjoyed the different energy brought by the improv backgrounds of the actors, and they have continued to make changes through two weeks of preview performances. The play will run at Steppenwolf through April 26, part of the Garage series, presented by Pride Films and Plays.

Before the month is over, Payne will head to Anchorage, Alaska, to debut his work Perfect Arrangement. Then he will return in time to appear as Julia Sugarbaker in the annual Onstage Atlanta production of Designing Women.

On the local front, Payne has been working with fellow playwrights Johnny Drago and Suehyla El-Attar on The Kim Basinger Project, set to premiere at Aurora Theatre in May 2016. This play will discuss Basinger’s purchase of the town of Braselton, Ga., in 1990, and her subsequent loss of the town through bankruptcy after a lawsuit. As Payne notes, “She bought it with the Batman money and lost it with the Boxing Helena money.” Basinger herself is not a character in the play, as Payne and his co-writers wanted to tell the story from the residents’ perspective, exploring their emotions as they learn both that their town can be bought, and later, that it apparently has no value. Payne describes the production as funny, sad, and very specific to the state, and the City of Atlanta, more specifically, “this concept of rebuilding the New South and the idea that everything is a commodity,” he says.

When asked how he stays on top of all of these productions, Payne laughs it off. “It’s all I know how to do,” adding that from a very young age, he began writing stories and making other children act them out. “When you are having a career as a working artist, you’re like any other small business. If you’re not open for business that day, then no money is coming in. If you’re really going to make a go of it, you have to be prepared for there to be several pots on the stove at any given time.”

And while he loves laughter and comedy, Payne clearly takes his responsibilities seriously.

“Anytime an Atlanta artist is picked up out of town, you get that opportunity to be a cultural representative of the work that we do here,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of a generation of writers who are taking ownership of the beautifully complicated identity of being an Atlantan and being a Southern artist.”