Critic's Notebook: Topher Payne has a 'Funny Story'

Image We like being right almost as much as we like great theater, which is one of the reasons we've been enjoying watching the career trajectory of Atlanta playwright Topher Payne this year. At the beginning of 2014, we predicted that this would be a big year for Payne by naming him as one of our 20 People to Watch in 2014. Not long after his play Only Light in Reno had its world premiere in January, Payne's Perfect Arrangement won the Osborn Award, one of the nation's most prestigious prizes for emerging playwrights. That alone would have been enough to make our prediction seem accurate, but Payne obviously decided to work double overtime to make sure we look great.

This past week saw the publication of Payne's first audiobook Funny Story, not to mention, Perfect Arrangement is having its Atlanta premiere with Decatur's Process Theatre. Adding to Payne's string of success, the nation's most esteemed theater for new work, Chicago's Steppenwolf, announced they would present a production of his play Angry Fags as part of their annual Garage Rep. After Payne finished performing as Father Flynn in a production of Doubt at Out of Box Theater in Marietta, and before he steps on stage in Atlanta playwright Suehyla El-Attar's The Devil, the Doctor and My Dad at 7 Stages Theatre, we caught up with the playwright to chat about the new book and his busy, busy, banner year.

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How did the recording of Funny Story come about?
ListenUp Audiobooks had been planning to produce original content for a while, and I was approached a few months ago about the possibility of recording a collection of my essays. I already work as a narrator for them, so it felt like a natural fit as a first project for everybody. But I have a pretty decent catalog of unpublished plays — content that’s meant to be heard rather than read. So, I pitched the idea of doing something that took advantage of the audio book format; a collection of scenes, monologues, old columns, a few readings recorded in front of an audience, a little bit of everything. It’s sort of a variety show, with a cast of seven actors, so nobody has to listen to me talk for four hours. ListenUp loved the idea, and we got the gang in studio.

<img src="https://media1.fdncms.com/atlanta/imager/playtime-topher-payne-was-one-of-creative/u/original/12243333/1410959742-payne-mag.jpg" alt="PLAYTIME: Topher Payne was one of Creative Loafing's 20 People to Watch in 2014." title="PLAYTIME: Topher Payne was one of Creative Loafing's 20 People to Watch in 2014. width="350" height="527" />

  • PLAYTIME: Topher Payne was one of Creative Loafing's 20 People to Watch in 2014.

Tell us a little more about the process of selecting what went on the recording. Are these personal favorites? Are they thematically connected?
There were a couple of things I knew I absolutely wanted for my own selfish gratification, like getting Johnny Drago and Jacob York back together to do the opening scene of Angry Fags, just to have the actors who originated the roles record it for posterity. And then I’ve got a bunch of shorts and scenes that I’ve never known quite what to do with, but when you string them all together you get something pretty interesting. So I just started pinning index cards to my project board until it took shape. It’s divided into four parts: The Right Words at the Wrong Time, Never Work with Kids or Animals, And Now for the Sex and Violence, and Matters of Life and Death. I would advise my Mama to skip the Sex and Violence section altogether. As far as the essays go, I started pulling stuff for the book six weeks into the process of my divorce, and so much of my personal writing for the last seven years has been about married life. It’s a little humbling and bizarre how a single life event can recontextualize tens of thousands of words, and then you’ve gotta sift through all of it, and then record it. That was tricky. But I’m really proud of the stories I decided to bring back from that time in my life.

Readers have plenty of ways to listen to an audiobook nowadays whether that's on headphones, in the car, on a work computer, etc. Describe the best way to enjoy Funny Story.
We wanted to create something listeners could consume in bite-sized portions because people have busy lives and also have commitment issues. I’m not asking you to stick with me for a sprawling epic. You can come and go as you need to — there’s about forty stories in Funny Story, each one’s about ten minutes long. So it’s perfect for a morning commute, or folding laundry, or if there’s some yard work you’ve been putting off. So, in general it makes mundane tasks more pleasurable.

Cool. Well, congrats on all your hard work and success, especially at the Steppenwolf which I just heard about! Does success like that make things (as in your daily life, your work routine, etc.) feel totally different? Or is it more of a quiet thing?
This has been a big year, but it’s been a tough one. For a little while, I got a bit too optimistic — things are really moving, maybe I’ll get an agent, maybe I’ll get published — and when none of that happened, it just flat-out sucked. But then I got back to the business of selling my work on my own, the way I always have. Sometimes that’s hard, because it’s like running a store where you’re the only employee. If you take a day off, nothing gets done, no money comes in. The hustle never, ever stops. I do it because I believe I’ve got stories worth telling, and I’ve met some great people this year who seem to agree and are willing to put money behind that. Shit, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’m not. I am humbled and delighted, and there are plenty of other deserving writers who would happily trade places with me. But I’ve certainly learned that the wider the net you cast, the harder you have to throw.

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