Local gay playwright Topher Payne explores long-term commitment

“It really got me to thinking about what that commitment looks like two or three decades later,” he says. “(It) led to many great conversations with people who have partnerships I admire, including my own parents. The play is a vehicle for a lot of those stories, and my own experiences in sharing a life with another person.”

Payne describes another of his inspirations as “those breezy 1960s New York romantic comedies — ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ ‘Barefoot in the Park,’ ‘Sunday in New York’ — set in a best-case scenario version of the city where everyone dresses well and has a fabulous apartment.”

“They’re about people with intelligence and wit, who actually seem like adults you’d want to be friends with,” he says. “I wondered what the 2011 version would look like.”
Directing this production has added an extra level of responsibility for the always-busy playwright.

“I’ve directed staged readings and small productions of my work, but nothing on this scale,” Payne says. “When the production manager sent out the contact sheet with 30 names on it, I realized I was gonna need my big-boy pants for this one.

“My greatest joy has been the level of involvement with the design team. I’ve never had this much input or control in one of my own works,” Payne says. “But as I’ve said all along, I wrote it, I cast it, I directed. If the show doesn’t work, I got nobody to blame but me.”

He is especially excited to be working with a new theatre.  He submitted the script to Georgia Ensemble Theatre and didn’t hear back for a while.

“That’s not surprising when you consider (they) hadn’t done an original work in 15 years, and they’d just gotten a script from a guy best known for impersonating Dixie Carter and writing columns about gay bars,” Payne says.

It all worked out, however. It helped that he has a good relationship with actress Judy Leavell, who has worked with GET a number of times. He sent her the script, she liked it and lobbied on his behalf.

“It was an act of kindness that paid off for her, too,” he says. “She’s playing the mom.”

Reaching a new audience with this work is also a goal.

“A good portion of [GET’s] subscribers won’t have any previous experience with my work, and that’s kind of exciting,” Payne says. “I’m hoping the Midtown crowd will make the drive out for this one, and that the Roswell audiences will make the drive in next time I’m produced in Atlanta.”

“Tokens of Affection” contains no gay content, but Payne still hopes LGBT audiences will see it.

“The only gay theme in this joint is me, but I play my theme pretty loud,” he admits. “I’d hope that LGBT audiences would learn the same thing from this play that straight audiences would: Finding a partner, building a life, it’s a tricky, beautiful, constantly evolving thing. But if you manage to find that partnership, no matter what it looks like, it’s absolutely worth celebrating.”

‘Beast’ is back

Next week, the national tour of “Beauty and the Beast” returns to Atlanta. It’s based on the Oscar-winning movie with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, who was gay.

Gay actor Anthony Fett is a part of the ensemble, as well as the understudy for the characters of Lumiere and the Beast. He has been with the musical since it kicked off its latest tour last January, and feels audiences still love the tale of the outsider Beast, as well as the music.

Fett admits his favorite number is “Be Our Guest,” which is even more elaborate onstage, with teacups and all sorts of utensils cavorting around the stage.

“I grew up watching all those Disney movies as a kid, singing all the songs,” he says. “I never really dreamed that I would be part of a show like this.”

To get ready for the major roles in case he has to go on as either character, he rehearses religiously.

“You have to be ready,” he says. “You study as if you were playing the roles full-time.” He actually performed onstage as the Beast four times in Tucson last year.
Fett says that obvious parallels can be drawn between the Beast and LGBT audiences.

“I can relate to the Beast,” he says. “He is having an internal struggle, feeling misunderstood. I think we can all understand that kind of feeling.”


Top photo: Gay people can relate to themes of being misunderstood in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ according to gay actor Anthony Fett (not pictured). (Courtesy Theatre of the Stars)