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Atlanta's Payne Recognized as Emerging American Playwright

American Theatre Critics Association honors Atlanta playwright with distinguished award designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature.

Atlanta's Payne Recognized as Emerging American Playwright

Patch Staff Report

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) announced Friday that Atlanta's Topher Payne has won its 2014 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright. 

In the theater world, the award is rather big deal and is designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature. The award will be presented April 5 at the Humana Theater Festival at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.

The Osborn Award recognizes Payne’s play, Perfect Arrangement, which premiered in June 2013 at The Source Festival in Washington D.C., directed by Linda Lombardi.

While not well-known nationally, Payne is a fixture in the greater Atlanta theater community as an actor and as a playwright of a dozen works, especially for smaller progressive companies. The Decatur resident is an artistic associate with Atlanta’s Process Theatre Company and the Flying Carpet Theatre and is the executive producer of the Atlanta 24-Hour Plays for Working Title Playwrights.

In Perfect Arrangement, which shares its LGBT theme with much of Payne’s work, two married couples live side by side in a Georgetown duplex in 1950. Their life is depicted as a television sit-com, down to comical visits from their boss and his wife, and the play’s cast list likens them to characters from I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show. But they work for the U.S. State Department developing criteria for identifying employees with Communist tendencies and they have just been asked to identify “sexual deviants.”

The kicker is that both the husbands and wives are gay, joined in sham marriages so they can live with their loved ones. But the laughs evaporate as the quartet wrestle with the hypocrisy of their lives. Part nostalgic comedy, part social drama, the plot tracks the couples considering whether to scrap their comfortable middle-class Eisenhower existence for a life defined by pride and integrity.

Payne told The Washington Post, “It ends up being [about] how much you should disrupt your own existence for the sake of demanding something more. And that’s an argument we’re still having.”

Payne’s plays Swell Party and Angry Fags were both nominated for outstanding world premiere at the 2-13 Suzi Awards and the latter won the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award. The Georgia Ensemble Theatre premiered his comedy The Only Light in Reno last January.

He wrote about his life with, in his words, “humiliating candor” from 2005 to 2009 in his David Magazine column, Necessary Luxuries, which was compiled into a book of the same name. From 2010-13, he chronicled suburban life in his Domestically Disturbed column in The GA Voice, winning the 2012 National Newspaper Association award for Best Humor Column.

Last year the award went to Keri Healey for Torso. Previous winners have included Yussef El Guindi, Rebecca Gilman, Keith Gloverand Richard Kalinoski.

The Osborn Award was established in 1993 to honor the memory of Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre play editor M. Elizabeth Osborn. It carries a $1,000 prize, funded by the ATCA Foundation. Making the selection from plays nominated by ATCA members is its New Plays Committee, chaired by Wm. F. Hirschman. That committee also selects honorees for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.

The American Theatre Critics Association was founded in 1974 and works to raise critical standards and public awareness of critics’ functions and responsibilities. The only national association of professional theater critics, it has several hundred members who work for newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and websites across the United States. ATCA is a national section of the International Association of Theatre Critics, a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.

ATCA also presents the Francesca Primus Prize, honoring outstanding contributions to the American theater by female artists who have not yet achieved national prominence. Annually it makes a recommendation for the Regional Theater Tony Award and votes on inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.

For more information on ATCA, visit www.americantheatrecritics.org.

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