BWW Interview: Topher Payne Talks Hats and McCarthyism in PERFECT ARRANGEMENT

BWW Interview: Topher Payne Talks Hats and McCarthyism in PERFECT ARRANGEMENT

One of Atlanta's local playwrights is bringing his published work home for the first time.

Collaborating with friends in a town he actively contributes to artistically on a regular basis, Topher Payne's PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is the product of years of rewrites and has now been performed across the country. On February 22, the play will begin performances at our own Theatrical Outfit and run through March 18. In the conversation below, check out what Payne has to say about the significance of and inspiration for his latest Atlanta premiere.

Will you tell our readers a little about PERFECT ARRANGEMENT?

It's the story of Bob and Norma, two State Department employees in 1950 who are both closeted homosexuals. They marry each other's respective partners and buy a duplex in Georgetown as a seemingly flawless cover. So they're able to enjoy their private home life while presenting a picture-perfect public life. And then someone starts to figure out what they're up to, which causes some trouble.

The press release says you based this piece on 'McCarthy-era social survival.' Will you expand on that?

There's a temptation to stand outside of the circumstances, nearly seventy years later, and see the act of hiding as an act of cowardice. But we're talking about a period when these relationships were considered criminal. Their own government was hunting them down. So you have to ask, if you were similarly under siege, what hoops you'd be willing to jump through to protect the people you love. I think of the arrangement in the play in terms of a lifeboat. They know they're not in a position to save everybody, but they can keep these four people afloat, so that's where their focus is: Just trying to stay afloat. But then, what happens when someone in the arrangement decides that's not good enough?

Where did you get your inspiration for this show?

I knew about McCarthyism and the Red Scare, of course, but I hadn't heard about the period that followed when there was a purge of other government employees who were considered vulnerable to blackmail. By their standard, that included drunkards, "loose women," and homosexuals.

I wanted to spark a conversation about that period in American history and tell a story about the farce of maintaining a public face. And while the Martindales and the Baxters might be an extreme version of that, it's a choice we all make every day- how authentic you're going to be in a given moment, and what the consequences might be. Also I wanted to write something where people wore awesome hats. That's really a lost art.

How long has this piece been in the works, and what has its production history looked like up to now?

I developed the piece with The Process Theatre here in Atlanta in 2009, and then set it aside for a bit- sometimes I find I've got the right story, but it's not time for me to tell it yet. Like I need a little more life experience under my belt, maybe? I can't quite articulate the impulse, but I've learned to trust it. I came back to the script in 2012, did a pretty significant rewrite, and we were off to the races. We premiered it at Source in Washington DC in 2013, and the following year it got an award from the American Theatre Critics Association. It went Off-Broadway in 2015, was published in 2016, and now we're up to about twenty productions, everywhere from Anchorage to Miami.

What are you most excited about for this run at Theatrical Outfit?

So many milestones. It's the first production of one of my published works in Atlanta. My first time working at Theatrical Outfit. Courtney Patterson, who plays Norma, was one of the very first people I met when I moved here- this is my first time working with her since I was twenty years old. But the thing I'm proudest of is how aligned my hopes for what the story conveys are with what Theatrical Outfit sets out to do in Atlanta. Their vision calls for a compassionate, joyful, and just community, and that's exactly what this play explores. So it's really a- I almost said the title, but I won't because that'd be too d*mn corny. It's... an ideal partnership.

Anything else you want our readers to know?

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll love the hats.

Click here for more information and tickets to PERFECT ARRANGEMENT.

Topher Payne has premiered fifteen plays at Atlanta theatres since 2002, including Morningside, The Only Light in Reno, Swell Party, and Evelyn in Purgatory. Perfect Arrangement was originally developed by The Process Theatre in Atlanta, and premiered in 2013 at The Source in Washington DC. It was awarded the 2014 American Theatre Critics Association M. Elizabeth Osborn Prize for Best Play, was subsequently produced Off-Broadway in 2015, and has since been seen in nineteen states.

Topher has scripted four films for The Hallmark Channel: My Summer Prince, Broadcasting Christmas, A Gift to Remember, and the upcoming Sleigh Bell Sweethearts.

He is a three-time winner of The Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award, and was a 2017 Lambda Literary Award nominee for Perfect Arrangement. Topher has been named Atlanta's Best Local Playwright by readers of Creative Loafing seven times, was named as one of "10 Playwrights You Should Know" by Southern Theatre Magazine, and received the 2016 Suzi Bass Award for Outstanding World Premiere for the holiday comedy Let Nothing You Dismay. Topher is a member The Dramatists Guild of America and both the Canadian and American Writer's Guilds. He is published by Samuel French and represented by The Gersh Agency. He lives in Cabbagetown with his fella Daniel, plus a cat named Fred and a beagle named Daisy.

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