Topher Payne Explores the World of Teachers in Evelyn In Purgatory

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Topher Payne

Normally, teachers are enforcing the order and rules of a school, but what happens when a group of accused teachers are stuck in limbo and can’t do anything? That situation is what happens in Essential Theatre’s production of Topher Payne’s Evelyn in Purgatory, winner of the 2012 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award.

The play follows five teachers trapped in a New York City Department of Education’s “rubber room” after being accused of inappropriate conduct. In this room, teachers who have been removed from the classroom wait for their disciplinary hearings to determine whether they will be fired or not.

The controversial practice can take an extremely long time to complete. During this time, the teachers sit in a room unable to teach, quit or move on. While the idea seems like the setting of a gripping drama, Payne allows the audience to view the gloomy circumstances of the characters through humor.

“It’s a play about very funny people in a serious situation. I’ve always believed the best way to make people listen to a point is to make them laugh. Laughter makes people more empathetic,” Payne mentions. When I’m compelled to write about a subject that really matters to me, I’m always gonna look for the funny, so people pay attention.”

Despite being a comedy, the characters face grim situations and each one faces their own moral dilemma. Described as more of an ensemble piece than a play about a character named Evelyn, the focus is more on how her situation has changed the people in the room during that slice of time.

“Evelyn herself is a source of endless fascination for me. She’s a really warm, intelligent woman, who is living out her worst fears,” he describes. “The charge against her is far more serious than the others in the room. Because of the accusation against her, the content of her character has been called into question.”

“So she’s trying so hard to protect her reputation, fighting for her life, while being stuck in an environment where nothing ever happens. That’s terrifying, and it’s not necessarily going to bring out the best in people.”

To develop this plot line, Payne utilizes a cross section of teachers in this disciplinary no man’s land. Described by Payne as The Breakfast Club with teachers, the play explores how various teachers with different levels of experience react to situation they are facing.

“The genius of Hughes’ characters in The Breakfast Club was that by introducing each as a familiar type, the audience felt they were already acquainted with these kids. Then he stripped all that away and found common ground between them,” he explains. “In Evelyn in Purgatory, I use the teacher’s subject matter as the point of access. An art teacher, a football coach, a science geek, so on. But most of us only knew them as teachers, not as people. So, that’s where the discovery happens – seeing them for all their virtues and flaws.”

The cast of Atlanta's Essential Theatre Festival's production of Evelyn in Purgatory

The cast of Essential Theatre Festival's production of Evelyn in Purgatory. Photo courtesy of Essential Theatre Festival

Much like in the film, the play examines what happens when these people, who can do nothing else but sit in the room, start to open up with each other and reveal their struggles. With the teachers representing a wide range of experience and maturity, the results become interesting.

Payne states, “I think we all take comfort in knowing how much more complex we are as adults than we were as teenagers. It’s not really all that true, but the belief is a comfort. All it really takes to regress to adolescence is an absence of power and a little pressure.”

In order to get an accurate picture of these characters and how they would react, Payne, who is friends with teachers, spoke to a variety of teachers to hear their stories. One teacher in particular, though, was instrumental in providing firsthand experience with rubber rooms and the disciplinary process in New York City.

“A friend of a friend in New York put me in touch with a teacher who’d been through the process, which was invaluable – all the little details that make the world come to life. And This American Life did an amazing episode on it that I can’t recommend highly enough,” he says.

Writing a story about characters facing a moral dilemma was something that Payne wanted to accomplish, but he had not found the right story for it until he heard about the rubber rooms. That news story allowed him to find a vehicle to create the play.

“I love those mid-century plays where the primary conflict is ethical – Twelve Angry Men, Inherit the Wind, in particular The Crucible – there’s no shortage of action, but the core conflict is a war of ideas,” he mentions. “I’d been wanting to take a stab at that world, and then I heard an NPR story about the teachers awaiting hearings. I loved that idea, rooms full of the accused. The possibilities were just so damn intriguing.”

In addition to having his play produced at the Essential Theatre Festival, Payne will also star in another Essential Theatre production, Bat-Hamlet. This mash-up of sorts gives a new twist to the classic character by making him a super hero, and it is a role that Payne enjoys playing.

“Hamlet, as traditionally played, spends several hours on stage in existential crisis, before a final scene of tragic action. This Hamlet spends several minutes on stage in existential crisis, before dressing up in leather and spandex and kicking some ass. No offense to Mr. Shakespeare, but I think there’s something to be said for the more proactive prince,” he says.

But, it is his play that will receive the spotlight first, and it has already played to enthusiastic crowds. For those who are considering seeing the production, Payne has this to say:

“Did you love your teachers? Here’s a bunch of funny ones you’re gonna adore. Did you hate your teachers? I lock them in a room and subject them to a wide variety of indignities. Either way, you’ll have a good time.”

Evelyn in Purgatory runs in repertory with Bat-Hamlet and The Local at the Essential Theatre Festival. The festival runs through August 5 at Actor’s Express. For tickets and more information, visit the theater’s website.

By: Kenny Norton