Playwright and writer Topher Payne

I’m really into bricks lately. The gateway drug was tearing the wooden steps off the back of our house and building the new ones myself. Standing at the base of my beautiful brick steps, I felt a surge of pride not unlike what the Egyptians must have felt when they completed that first pyramid.

“Ah, yes,” they/I thought. “Here is a thing I did which will last the test of time. Now, let us see what Cleopatra is up to.” Only when they said that last part, they meant the real Cleopatra, not obsessively Googling for more leaked images of Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, which is what I meant. But I can assure you, our devotion is identical in every way.

Anyhoo, the back steps led to a retaining wall, which then caused drainage problems requiring a second retaining wall to reroute the flow. And now there are plans for a patio. I can only haul a certain number of bricks in my car at one time, so I make lots of little trips to Home Depot, stopping by after work to pick up a load like one would grab a gallon of milk — only much, much heavier.

And I gotta tell ya: A brick habit can add up over time. My husband Preppy, who already carries the lion’s share of household expenses, informed me I will need to find alternative funding if I insist on re-enacting “Pillars of the Earth” in our backyard. This is tricky, because I always have trouble rounding up cash. I’m good at a whole bunch of stuff, just not things people want to pay much money for.

“I came up with a great way to make some extra cash,” I tell my pal Mandy on the phone.  “Preppy went to massage school, years ago. He’s still got the table and all the supplies up in the attic. I could be a traveling massage therapist! Spend my day going to houses, helping folks release their tension.”

“Topher. You have to be accredited to do massage therapy.  Even on Craig’s List you gotta put your license information in the ad.”

“That’s only if you’re claiming to be a certified therapist. I think they call it something else if you’re not certified.”

“Yes. Prostitution.”

So I did what every person with zero marketable skills does when times are desperate: I emailed my agent. When I signed with her a few months ago, I explained that I’m primarily a writer, I don’t expect to be a movie star, so there was no need to submit me for work as an extra in a courtroom scene on “Drop Dead Diva.”

Same went for commercials. I have plays to write, I don’t have time to sell fried chicken. So my phone isn’t ringing off the hook with auditions, but when I get one it’s usually for something really interesting.

But one cannot purchase bricks with artistic integrity. I have tried. As a payment method, artistic integrity is as useless as a Discover card. This humbling realization led to me becoming available as a commercial actor for the first time. And let me tell you, it is a whole other world out there.

In the last two weeks, I’ve auditioned as two different geeky IT guys, a transgender prostitute, and for a series of instructional videos explaining the world’s most complex remote control.

The instructional video gig required memorizing two paragraphs of information from an instruction manual. It felt like karmic retribution for every booklet I’ve thrown away unread and ended up with twenty IKEA parts left over. But that gig paid more than I make in three months.

I didn’t get the job, or any of the others, but I’m okay with that for the moment. I’m learning. Now that I’m in the game, I wanna play to win. When I see the salary offer on each casting call, I mentally convert that from dollars to bricks. After all these years of Preppy bringing home the paycheck, it turns out I have the potential to contribute something substantial.

And I intend to do that. Brick by brick.


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.

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