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Topher Payne wins national playwright award

Atlanta playwright Topher Payne has won one of the nation’s top honors for emerging playwrights. The American Theatre Critics Association announced that Topher Payne won its 2014 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for his work “Perfect Arrangement,” which premiered last June in Washington, D.C.

Established in 1993 to honor the memory of Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre play editor M. Elizabeth Osborn, the award recognizes the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature.

Payne’s most recent work in the Atlanta area was “The Only Light in Reno,” produced at Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre in January. But his prolific output has included productions such as “Swell Party” at Georgia Ensemble in 2013, “Angry Fags” at 7 Stages in 2013 and “Evelyn in Purgatory” at Essential Theatre in 2012. His most produced play, “Beached Wails,” about sisters who sit out a hurricane at a beach house in Gulf Shores, Miss., had its world premiere with Atlanta Classical Theatre at 14th Street Playhouse in 2002.

The Washington, D.C. production of “Perfect Arrangement” was his first in a major market outside Atlanta. The play is about two same-sex couples — one male, one female — who work for the State Department during the Pink Scare of the 1950s during which “sexual deviants” were purged from government offices. They hide their sexual identities by arranging to appear as two heterosexual couples. The play had an initial workshop at Atlanta’s Process Theatre before its world premiere at D.C.’s Source Festival.

“Anything that gets people talking about your work is a big step forward for an unpublished playwright,” says Payne, 34. The award, which includes a $1000 prize, will be presented at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., on April 5. Payne says he will use the opportunity to speak about the opportunities for playwrights to thrive in non-traditional markets.

“This is proof that it’s possible for playwrights to have an impact without basing their careers in New York or Chicago.”

Next up for Payne is the Atlanta premiere of his new play “Lake Bottom Prime,” at OnStage Atlanta April 25-May 17. Set in the mid-1920s, it’s about the draining of the lake in Wildwood Park in Columbus.

The award represents a tremendous step forward for the playwright — within hours of the announcement, Payne was receiving calls from New York theaters — but he says there are major theaters right here that have yet to produce his work that he still has his eye on.

“It just shows I’m still emerging,” he says. “There are ‘new markets’ on my to-do list that are right here in my own backyard.”

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