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“And now you ’bout to see this Southern playa serve,” Outkast once said. The same could be uttered of Atlanta-based playwright Topher Payne, 33, whose full-length play about a gay spouse-swap of sorts set in 1950s D.C., A Perfect Arrangement, makes its debut Thursday at Source Festival.
Recently Payne and I chatted about his first D.C. production (he’s also had work produced in New York and will be in Edinburgh this summer), about growing up in a tiny Mississippi town, and about why Southern people freaking love Crimes of the Heart so much.
Washington City Paper: How’d you get connected with the Source Festival?
Topher Payne: The source festival has a brilliant setup with the alumni playwrights. They solicit recommendations from them. They did something by Gabriel Jason Dean last year, Qualities of Starlight, and I had known him when he used to live in Atlanta and we’ve kept up over the years.
WCP: What’s the story behind A Perfect Arrangement?
TP: I workshopped it about four years ago and had set it aside… you know, you have the right story but it’s not the right time for it. When I was contacted by Source, it was the first play that jumped to my head because it’s set in D.C. in the ‘50s. It’s such a tremendous opportunity to develop a play where it’s set, and the authenticity that a group of D.C. artists are going to bring to the project. I felt like it would be a perfect fit.
WCP: Why did you set the play aside for so long?
TP: I had a tendency early on to be terrified that people weren’t going to get the point that I was trying to make, so my solution was to make sure that every character in the play made that point at some time. A Perfect Arrangement was always an amazing story with a lot of potential. [But] it felt like a series of overwritten ideas. The first step in submitting the script was just stripping away as much of that as possible. I didn’t want it to feel like the history lesson that the original felt like. I wanted it to come from a much more character-driven place.
WCP: What attracted you to this particular setting and storyline?
TP: The more I found out about how people were losing their jobs under suspicion of “moral turpitude,” and the complete disconnect between what was in the paper and what was on TV, the more I wanted to create this Frankenstein monster between early 1950s Washington taking place in the world of I Love Lucy.
WCP: How did you first find out about this period in American history?
TP: I have a really extensive and oddly specific knowledge base because I didn’t finish the 10th grade. I stopped formal education fairly early on. Everything I know comes from, ‘Oh that sounds interesting.’ And then I’ll end up spending a year studying something. I want to say [I came across this subject in] a documentary about America before Stonewall. And there was this maybe 45-second passage on what happened in Washington and what happened particularly in the U.S. State Department, and I just gleaned onto that and kept seeking out more and more information on it.
WCP: What was your research process like? What resources did you find?
TP: There’s a tremendous amount of oral history on the period, which we’re so lucky to have because, really, recorded history of gay Americans only goes back to about the late 1940s. And prior to that, unfortunately people died off before they were living in a society where they could share their experiences. Washington had this tremendous underground gay community. It’s one of those horrible negatives that became a positive, because with all these people being fired for the same reason at the same time, you had a legion of well-educated homosexuals who had been branded unemployable because of this “mental illness,” who had nothing to lose and banded together.
WCP: Let’s talk about the characters themselves…
TP: The character of Bob holds a fairly significant position on the security force of the State Department. Norma was his secretary. Eventually the arrangement is made to marry each other’s partners. I loved the idea of a gay couple and a lesbian couple marrying each other in order to create this perfect cover—-[their homes are] connected by a closet, so they have to go into and come out of in order to switch. Which I swear to God, I didn’t even think about ‘the closet.’ They’re consciously trying to create this universe inside their house for anyone who comes by, putting on a show not just for houseguests but for the milkman, you know. The lead couple and their wacky neighbors. Fred and Ethel!
WCP: Had you been to D.C. much before you started this play?
TP: I hadn’t been to D.C. since I was in ninth grade. I had written the play looking at a map of D.C. in 1952. So I had developed a pretty solid knowledge base of 1952 D.C. and part of it was a time-traveling culture shock. There are so many beautiful neighborhoods that in many ways have not changed in the last half-century. I was there about three days and spent a lot of time walking around with my headphones on listening to Rosemary Clooney. Also, having locals working on the production is so handy. Just for the tiniest things. There’s a line when Bob makes a reference to taking the train home, and there was no train to Georgetown. [Ed. note: Payne later clarifies, “What I should have said was, ‘Bob makes a reference to taking the train home, but in 1950 his options for commuting would have been limited to bus or streetcar. Which is awesome, because who doesn’t love a streetcar reference?'”]
WCP: Did you grow up watching these shows? Like Leave it to Beaver?
TP: I was a fat kid in a Mississippi small town, and this was during the ‘80s, when they were showing Nick at Nite. So I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver—-that was my jam. And when you’re a kid you don’t know any better. When you say “’50s,” June Cleaver vacuuming pops into your head before the Korean War does. I assumed that’s what America was in the ‘50s. This perfectly white-washed nuclear family and everyone “ra ra” loves America. That wasn’t the reality then any more than it is today.
WCP: So where is this small town in Mississippi where you grew up?
TP: Kosciusko. It’s the hometown of Oprah Winfrey. Two hours south of Memphis.
WCP: How big is it?
TP: About 7,000 [residents].
WCP: Why did you drop out of high school?
TP: I was a really weird kid. The world didn’t make sense until I put the world down on paper. I didn’t play sports; I didn’t play a musical instrument. So any of the conventional means that you’d use to fit in just weren’t at my disposal.
WCP: Were there any places you could go where you felt you had an outlet?
TP: Growing up in the Methodist church in that town really was just divine intervention. I don’t know how I would have turned out otherwise. (It was the) one place where it was really drilled into my head that I was embraced and accepted and welcomed. Would that have been the case if I had had a real understanding of my sexual identity? I don’t know. But when I was 12 and I felt like I needed to belong, there was that. And I have these fantastic memories of old ladies. All of my friends were over 70. I was hanging out at the beauty parlor with my grandma, ’cause she went every Wednesday to get her hair set.
WCP: Did you read and write a lot as a kid?
TP: Every summer I was in the library. I had nothing else to do. So I grew to have this tremendous love for the Southern literary tradition that I don’t know I would have developed otherwise.
WCP: Yeah, I was going to ask you about how you felt you fit in with all the Southern writers, and in the Southern literary scene.
TP: I am definitely a Southern writer. My work is not exclusively Southern work. I have been fortunate enough to travel well beyond the red dirt I grew out of. And so the stories I tell reflect that. They are no more nailed to the ground here than I am. But in terms of form and format and what I find interesting, yeah, I’m very Southern. And I feel like I’m part of a rising generation of writers that take ownership of that again. The South suffers from such a checkered past, as well as a well-deserved reputation for being the section of the country that drags its feet on everything. And to be from the state that’s known for being from the least progressive state in the least progressive region, and then a small town within that, everything about my upbringing would seem to predispose me toward a very narrow mindset, and instead it had the opposite effect where I was constantly aware that there was a bigger world outside of what I was experiencing. And I just knew I wanted to be a part of it.
WCP: What’s the first play that you remember loving? What got you into theater?
TP: Our church every year did an outdoor passion play, which sounds like the hokiest thing in the world. But when I was little, we’re talking—-Michael Bay special effects. They were using fake blood and they’d have to put on makeup.
WCP: What else?
TP: My aunt is a doctor and she had a conference in D.C. and took me to the Kennedy Center and we saw Guys and Dolls with Lorna Luft. You know: Judy Garland’s other daughter. And she wanted me to see what live theater could really be, because she knew how much I loved it, and that I was voraciously reading plays. It was so beyond my comprehension. This was my first non-Jesus story in a big house. I took a guy from a very small town in England to Sam’s Club and it was a similar experience for him.
WCP: How old were you when you started getting plays produced, and how?
TP: So when I was 17, I had my first one-act produced when I was working as an intern at the one Equity house in Mississippi. I had long arms and I wasn’t afraid of heights and I became the electric intern. Then they had space with enough room to put in platforms. I asked for permission to put up one of my shows after the main stage show, and that worked, and then I have had something produced every year since.
WCP: How old are you now, if you don’t mind?
TP: 33. I wouldn’t say it was easy. I just didn’t have Plan B.
WCP: What are the best new plays you’ve seen recently?
TP: Steve Yockey’s “Wolves.” I was so amazed by how complete a story could be that was so exacting in its details. And just the imagery of that show was amazing.
WCP: Great, what else?
TP: “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Aurora [Theatre] did it [in Atlanta], and they killed it. I walked into it not knowing anything about it, and it was exhilarating, I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun at a show. And you don’t feel for a moment that your intelligence is being insulted. It’s one of the few shows that I’ve had no involvement with and saw for the second time. If it were still running, I’d probably go again.
WCP: What is the play that sticks with you the most while you’re writing?
TP: Beth Henley was the first living playwright from Mississippi that I was aware of. So long before I ever saw a Beth Henley play, I had read her collected works up to 1993. Crimes of the Heart is not as overdone as Steel Magnolias, but my God they love producing that play in the South. I think one of the things that intrigues me so much is that Beth Henley has gotten so much better in the 25 years [since Crimes of the Heart]. Her voice has gotten so razor sharp and she’s so damn good at her job now. And there’s not a mass audience connected to her voice. So I’m constantly intrigued by the career of Beth Henley because of that.
Photo by Bo Shell