A little known fact about Atlanta’s beloved playwright Topher Payne: he never went to college. He never even graduated high school. “I went as far as 10th grade,” Payne says. “I was a terrible student, unless it was something that I could see the end result from, and I could understand what the process was working toward and the benefit that I would receive from that — in that jerky way that teenagers think they know everything.”
By that time, he already knew what he wanted for his life, and he knew he wouldn’t have any help getting it at his small school in Mississippi where theatrical opportunities were slim. Payne was 12 when he saw his first professional theater production: Guys and Dolls at the Kennedy Center with Lorna Luft and Nathan Lane. And for him, the reaction was instantaneous: “Oh, this is what I’m gonna be doing.”
Cut to visions of teenagers everywhere using Payne as an excuse to quit school and follow their dreams. Because now, nearly two decades later, everything he’s spent his life working toward he’s now achieving — most recently, his name and play title printed in the Openings and Previews section of The New Yorker. This week marks the Off-Broadway debut of Perfect Arrangement at New York City’s Primary Stages — the comedy that won him the 2014 American Theater Critics Association’s Osborn New Play Award.
But despite all his hard work and subsequent success, he seems to care more about changing the reputation of Atlanta’s theater community than any personal accolades he’s acquired. At least that’s the end result Payne’s working toward next.
ArtsATL: How did you first get into playwriting?
Topher Payne: I’ve always written. It’s just how I always made sense of the world. I come from a deliriously extended family. When I was a kid, I would write “newspapers” on my grandfather’s Underwood typewriter telling family events. Then I’d cut and paste everything, take it to the library and make photocopies.
And as I got older, when something didn’t make sense to me, when I was grappling with something, that’s when I started using writing as my own training for being empathetic, training for being compassionate, considering another person’s perspective. I was a very serious child. I laugh a lot more now than I did then. So I guess the next natural evolution of that is once you make a discovery, once you see the world as a possibility in a different way, then you have an impulse to share that with other people.
I started picking up performing in church plays and stuff like that, and focused on acting for a while. When I was 17, I wrote my first one-act. After having the experience of an audience receiving something I had written, I was hooked, I was done. There wasn’t a chance I was going to pursue a legit career in anything else.
ArtsATL: You’ve had a weekly newspaper column and you’ve been working on a screenplay, but it’s clear that playwriting has always been at the forefront. What is it that you like about this form of writing as opposed to others?
Payne: It’s the audience. It’s born out of a storytelling tradition. And that I will claim as uniquely Southern. We tell our histories and form our moral identities based upon storytelling. A lot of that is steeped in Judeo-Christian tradition, a lot of that is steeped in gossip and cautionary tales of the girl who got knocked up on prom night.
If you can make someone laugh, they listen. They lean in and they want to hear more. Once you have that level of engagement, then you can start layering in a message that you want them to take away. You can do that in film. You can do that in a book. But the act of being in the same room with the storyteller is just fundamentally different. It lands differently. That’s where my impulse began and that’s where it stayed.
ArtsATL: Have you seen a difference in the Atlanta theater community in recent years with the growth of the film and television industry here?
Payne: Absolutely. We have a much broader, a much younger talent pool. And when those guys are out of work, then they’re crafting their own live stage projects. So we’re getting a lot younger theater, and an infusion of fresh ideas. We’re getting people from other regions of the country whose voices are complementing our own. All of that is fantastic.
ArtsATL: Do you think it’s helped your career, producing plays in Atlanta as opposed to elsewhere?
Payne: No. Atlanta theater gets no respect. The Alliance is a regional house that is based in Atlanta. It is not seen as an Atlanta theater. Which makes sense since the majority of talent appearing on stage at the Alliance is not Atlanta talent. I can only speak to this as a playwright. I enjoy performing, I love telling other people’s stories, but it’s not what I feel like I was put on this earth to do. That is playwriting. And as a playwright, there is a perception that Atlanta is a great place to build a resume and then move on to another market. And that’s what a lot of my contemporaries have done. Lauren Gunderson has certainly done very well. Gabriel Dean has done very well. Steve Yockey has done very well. All of us started writing at the same time. I was in Lauren’s first play.
I feel like, hopefully, Perfect Arrangement will be well-received and it will be a solid production that will generate some interest, and that will be wonderful. It’s been well-received in the other cities that it’s been done, so I feel like we have every reason to be hopeful that the people with their little notebooks will say nice things. But if the success of that does not translate into increased scrutiny of other Atlanta playwrights, then I’m going to feel a major fail out of that.
This is a big opportunity for me and I know that and I respect it and I recognize it, but I was doing perfectly fine before this happened. I look at the opportunity with the New York production of representing Atlanta-based playwrights. My job in the next few months as we’re promoting this show is to make it very clear that anything you like about this play, you like because it was written here. I write the way that I do because of where I live.
I have no delusions about the idea that I’m the best writer in town. I’m loud. I refuse to be ignored. There are writers who I admire immensely who I wish would be a little louder about their own work. And this is my opportunity to do everything that I can to turn that spotlight just a little bit.
With film, they’re pulling Atlanta crew now in droves. There are more jobs than there are people to fill them. Atlanta talent is no longer just background and featured extras; now, they’re getting solid supporting roles and they’re carving out a place for Atlanta actors in the L.A.-based production companies.
Writers have not made that leap yet. Most of our writers don’t know how to write for television because there’s no one to teach them. I had to learn from out of town. I’m like okay, I taught myself how to write plays, now I’ll teach myself how to write television and screenplays. I want those resources to be there.
I’m selling really, really promising writers who are now, god help me, 10 or 15 years younger than me, who came to Atlanta because it’s a resume town and it’s a great place to build it up and to build it up fast, and I’m having to sell them on the idea that you can stay here, you can make a career here. I don’t have nearly enough evidence to support that. So I’ve got to find a way, or we’re going to lose them. I want to see us build some retention. We’re doing that in a city that is, frankly, apathetic about the performing arts, from the Governor’s Office down. Because of that, it’s an uphill battle. But it’s still a battle, which means we still have the potential of winning.
ArtsATL: So is that your biggest obstacle right now? The city’s outlook on theater?
Payne: Oh, yeah. It just feels like every year we come back and beg them not to defund. And selling theater and dance, performing arts in general, selling it as a necessity: “Don’t you understand how much you need this?” You show the statistics of what happens when kids see theater. You show the statistics of what happens when adults see theater. You sit them down in the audience and two hours later, they will have been presented with the perspective of someone that they never would have given the time of day. They come out fundamentally changed. That’s how A Raisin in the Sun changed America. That’s how Angels in America changed the way people see things. And I feel like I tear my own hair out. There are plenty of times when I’m just like, “Oh, screw it.” But then I get some little exciting moment that says, no, no no, this is what it can be.
I finally got an agent this year. Only took me 16 years. And it was after the run of Angry Fags at Steppenwolf (in Chicago). I’ve been produced here every single season since 2002, but one show in Chicago and I get agencies calling. Which was wonderful, and also really frustrating. Having an agent helps immensely, because I feel like I’m not a one-man band as much anymore. But having the conversations with agencies, and talking about the possibility of moving into television and how to promote my works on a larger scale, led to a lot of conversations with a lot of really knowledgeable people who all said, “You have to move.” I think they’re wrong. I have no evidence to support that, and it was the moment of understanding: oh right, I’m supposed to stay here and help create that evidence.
I’m the first in my peer group to land representation as a playwright. And one of my first questions after I signed was, “How long do I have to work with you before I can start sending people to you?” And she said, “Well, let’s get you set, but if there’s somebody you really want me to see, then of course send them my way.” And I said, “No, no, see I would do that now. So you have to reign me in as much as you need to, but know that I’ve got a full posse behind me that I intend on dragging with me.”
ArtsATL: You’re so generous, wanting to support all of your peers in your industry. Do you ever think of anyone as competition?
Payne: God, no. We’re all in the trenches together. And anyone who sees it differently from that, I’ve been around long enough to see what happens when people try to pull a competitive edge in Atlanta.
ArtsATL: Do you think that’s a Southern thing? Or do you think it’s a theater thing, because theater is so dependent on the sense of community?
Payne: No, I think we’re fighting to stay alive. If a show fails at another theater and you take pleasure in that, fuck you. I’ve seen plenty of shows that I didn’t dig, and I’m sure plenty of people have seen my shows and didn’t dig them. But the idea is that we have enough to go around.
I studied up on Tyler Perry after the initial rise happened because I had heard about this playwright who was selling out the (Atlanta) Civic Center. But I didn’t know anything about what he was creating. I am not Tyler Perry’s audience. I don’t think he would disagree. But there’s a business model there that’s based entirely in, “Screw the critics, screw legit theatre, my relationship is with my audience.” And I just admire the hell out of that. Of course, he’s gonna make 100 million dollars off that idea. He’s going to own a good portion of Atlanta off that idea.
His job is to communicate with his audience. And that’s what he did. That’s what those terrible, faith-based movies do. That’s not to say that the idea of a faith-based movie is terrible. It’s that those movies, objectively, are terrible. Like the Kirk Cameron movies. They’re just really bad. But he found an audience that he felt was underserved, he found a way to communicate with them, and those things are bulletproof. There is no review that can take down a Tyler Perry movie because he’s not making it for them. He’s making it for an audience, and he knows how to speak to them. And he listens.
I absolutely do want to follow that model to a certain extent. I don’t think anybody sets out to write a bad play. I don’t think anybody sets out to write a bad movie. But, the important thing is, am I communicating? Are people receiving what I have to say? When people are listening, you have an obligation to say something.
There are so few silent spaces left. There are so few places left where people will actually sit and listen. Basically, you’ve got churches and theatre. And TedTalks. I think we as a culture are so hungry for connection, but we’re so accustomed to distraction and we don’t see the corollary there. We all feel so disconnected. So to be able to gather people into that space — if over the course of a run, 5,000 people hear the words that I’m putting out into the world — oh my god, what a platform.