Gay terrorists, pop culture hoarders, and a McCarthy-era farce are a small taste of Atlanta playwright Topher Payne’s vast array of written work. He’s loud. He’s queer. And he’s changing how the theatre world sees new work being made in Atlanta. Following the successful off-Broadway premiere of his play Perfect Arrangement, Topher is bringing his subversive wit to Dunwoody’s Stage Door Players with his newest show, Let Nothing You Dismay—a fast-paced Christmas comedy centered around a couple adopting their first child.
We sat down with Topher to discuss his New York debut, his upcoming show, and the challenges he’s had to face as a queer artist.
Your play, Perfect Arrangement, recently made its off-Broadway debut and was met with rave reviews. How has the success of Perfect Arrangement changed people’s perspective about theatre being made in Atlanta?
That remains to be seen, I guess. Thank god the reviews were good and we found an audience, or the whole thing would’ve really been embarrassing. But because the show landed well, it led to me being given the chance to have some great conversations with theatre-makers in New York about the work we’re doing down here, building awareness, handing out scripts written by playwrights I love. And I got to observe a few things they do differently, which has in turn led to good conversations with artistic directors down here. I feel like I’m promoting some cultural exchange. I’m lucky to have that chance.
What inspired you to write Let Nothing You Dismay?
Both of my sister’s kids came into our family via open adoption, and there’s something so extraordinary about that experience. The birth mother and her family got to know my sister and her husband—it took so much mystery and fear out of the equation, and just became a beautiful exchange between these families, all seeking the best possible outcome for the child. I’ve never seen that story told in a comedy, and I really wanted to.
What distinguishes Let Nothing You Dismay from other holiday shows?
The family in it looks like my understanding of family—a mix of family of origin and family of choice. It’s a celebration of nontraditional bonds, and that makes me very happy.
Do you have any projects lined up after this show?
I’m working on a new script—we did a workshop of it in Massachusetts at Merrimack Repertory back in October. It’s a pansexual romantic comedy about people who follow jam bands. I’m digging some parts of it, still sorting through it. And then Designing Women Live comes back in the spring, and I might be doing a solo show right after that. Not one I wrote, just as an actor. But that’s, you know, horrifying and very exciting.
You’re an actor, director, writer, and producer. You’ve written plays, published newspaper columns, hosted the Suzi Bass Awards, and currently have a screenplay in development. Is there anything you haven’t tried that you’d like to give a go at?
I wanna work on a musical, because that scares the hell out of me. I’m getting the itch to start pursuing television writing, I think I’ve got a good voice for it. And that solo show I might be doing has me thinking a lot about physical transformation—if I’m the only person onstage then I kinda feel obligated to present the best version of myself that I can. I’ve been reading interviews with Carrie Fisher where she talks about coming back to Star Wars after spending decades as a writer. Since she was back on camera, she had to drop thirty-five pounds. And that’s twisted, but it makes sense. If you’re gonna be performing, visual appeal is a consideration. It’s another way to forge a connection with your audience. Plus, there’s a confidence that comes with getting in shape that would serve me well in a solo show. So then it’s like, goddamn it, I’ve got to memorize ninety minutes of text and do free weights?
But tackling the physical challenge of reshaping my body to suit a character—that sounds really hard, and therefore it intrigues me.
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers that you wish someone had told you?
You already have the right to write. I wish I’d believed in my own voice sooner. I didn’t have much education, I didn’t have any connections, and I let that psych me out for a long time. The only way to write something good is to write something bad and make it better. You focus on that, you can make magic happen.
How has your sexual and gender identity influenced your writing?
I’m always standing slightly on the outside, looking in. It’s made me value the stories of people who hide in plain sight.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a queer artist?
There’s a bullshit thing that happens when actors are up for a role—a straight cisgender actor is considered believable as gay or trans simply because the script says they are. No one questions if Jake Gyllenhaal is “credible” as a homosexual. But a queer or trans artist playing it straight? There are endless, pointless discussions about whether an audience will buy it. Like, the majority has to have these discussions about whether they believe Neil Patrick Harris can pass as one of them. It’s offensive. And when those conversations happen during casting on a show I wrote, I tend to get pretty strident. There are butch queers. There are limp-wristed heterosexuals. The conversation is ridiculous. Audiences believe me as Julia Fucking Sugarbaker, and you’re worried I can’t play some heterosexual doctor? Shut your stupid face.
For about five minutes, I thought I was gonna try and be a movie star. Did a role as a hairdresser in a Melissa McCarthy movie, and that was a totally positive experience. But after that, everything I was asked to audition for was some variant of sassy faggot. Now, there’s a way to tell an amazing, nuanced sassy faggot story, I’m just saying you’re not likely to find it in an Adam Sandler movie. And I’m not interested in lending my voice to stories I don’t believe in, nor in strangers defining who I am as a storyteller. So, I decided to stop trying to be a movie star.
What does the word WUSSY mean to you?
Well, mostly negative shit, right? Someone who’s afraid to stand on their own two feet, a perceived lack of guts. Meek. Doesn’t own their voice. At least that’s what I internalized from hearing it yelled at me while playing kickball. But even if it’s a label assigned by other people, it becomes a unifying thing because so many of us experienced it. Sissy, faggot, fairy, wussy. Those labels are common ground for us. And come on, I’m the author of “Angry Fags,” so I’m all about reclaiming a derogatory word. Bring it on.
Marry, Fuck, Kill: Kim Davis, Ann Coulter, and Carly Fiorina?
Well, in keeping with her beliefs, Kim Davis would be humble and subservient to her husband, so after I married her, I’d demand she quit her job. Problem solved. All those corporate CEOs are into some kinky stuff, so I’m totally banging Carly. And rather than kill Ann Coulter, I would chop off that bleached and fried mane of hers, which would make her die inside. It’s the source of her power, like Samson.
Let Nothing You Dismay is opening this Friday at the Stage Door Players, and will be performing until Sunday, December 20. Reserve your tickets now at www.stagedoorplayers.net.
If you’re interested to learn more about Topher Payne’s work, head over to his personal website.