Topher Payne’s heartfelt ‘Tokens of Affection’

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imageOne of Atlanta’s most prolific gay columnists is also a longtime local playwright. We chat with Topher Payne about his new play, why his husband inspired it, and how he and his writing have grown.

The world premiere of Payne’s “Tokens of Affection,” which opens Thursday at Georgia Ensemble Theatre and continues through Jan. 23, represents several changes for the playwright (top photo). Not only is it Payne’s first time as director of a play he wrote himself, but it also represents a shift in his thinking over the last several years, a desire to honor his partnership and an exploration of what makes lasting relationships work.

“I love that this is a romantic comedy with smart people,” Payne says, noting that he enjoyed the genre better in its ‘60s heyday.

“These days, gay or straight, characters in romantic comedies act like they’re in junior high,” he says. “Everyone is lost until they find their perfect partner, and consistently, the point of the whole thing is saying ‘I love you’ for the first time. The idea that you find your soul mate and then you’re done.

“But what happens after that? My idea is you find your ‘soul mate,’ but you’re already leading an interesting life, and then a whole different level of work begins,” he continues. “You learn empathy, compromise, and in my experience, that stuff’s hysterical. You screw up constantly.”

imageSpeaking of compromise, Payne learned to endure sitting through modern-formula romantic comedies for one reason.

“My husband loves romantic comedies,” he says. “I have seen the whole Kathrine Heigl canon. So basically, I wanted to write a romantic comedy for my husband that I wasn’t intellectually insulted by.”

“Tokens of Affection” explores the empty nest syndrome, complications of long-term romance and general family dysfunction when a wife of 37 years (Judy Leavell, second photo right)) announces she’s leaving her husband (John Stephens, left). Each partner seeks solace at the homes of their grown children, and hilarity ensues.

So what’s so gay about that? Plenty, Payne explains.

“There’s no wacky gay neighbor or gay best friend or anything,” he laughs. “All of that coming out of my head is gay enough. It’s like Marc Cherry writing ‘Desperate Housewives.’ You don’t need the gay neighbors.”

Every type of audience can relate to the ins and outs, ups and downs of relationships, Payne says.

“The core conflict of the show is recognizing that finding someone with whom to build a life is a really dicey proposition,” he asserts. “And if you manage to find that, no matter what that looks like, it’s worth celebrating.”

Fans of Payne’s slice-of-life columns in local gay media already know that as he grows and circumstances change, his subject matter goes along for the ride—with his wry sense of humor in tact as the common thread. Some readers have followed religiously as Payne’s single-and-dating life in the weekly Necessary Luxuries in David magazine from 2005-2009 morphed tellingly into Domestically Disturbed this year in the GA Voice. He also writes Downsizing, a fitness column for the non-athletically inclined, on Project Q Atlanta.

His plays have made a similar shift over time. Early plays staged in Atlanta sprang from Payne’s perceptions about finding himself, facing his own inner demons and real-life challenges, or from his place as the offspring of a family, not as one of two heads of household.

“You spend your 20s really believing it’s all about you,” he says. “I think that’s healthy because you’re defining who you are. The writing I did in my 20s was reflective of trying to understand myself. That job certainly isn’t done, but what motivates me now is to understand what motivates other people and appreciate other points of view.”

In that vein, “Tokens of Affection” isn’t just a title. It’s a gift to Payne’s partner, their commitment, and even a sort of self-therapy-through-comedy about what the future holds.

“The whole thing was inspired by me getting ready to get married, and I get anxious about renewing my cell phone plan for two years, much less committing six or seven decades to this person,” he says. “I really wanted to explore what that looks like 20, 30 years down the road.”

The outcome?

“You will leave this show feeling so good,” Payne says. “I’ve never written with that goal, but I really believe we reached that point where the audience will recognize and appreciate the people they love. And we will make you laugh. If we accomplish nothing else, I promise you will laugh.”

“Tokens of Affection” runs Wednesdays to Sundays through Jan. 23. Tickets and more information available at Georgia Ensemble Theatre.


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