Playwright Jonathan Payne’s day job is as a social worker, supporting people with mental health issues who want to go back to college. Through his work he met an unlikely couple, D and A (names withheld for privacy). They were homeless and A struggled with schizophrenia.
“I am working on the fringes of society and relationships are a little bit different there than I imagine them. There were romances and friendships that didn’t really make sense to me. From my privileged lifestyle, me and my co-workers would look at people and wonder why they were together,” Payne recalled.
Payne asked D how her relationship with A worked. “Basically (A) didn’t talk to anyone. He was really quiet. And one day, unprofessionally of me, I asked, ‘what is up with you and A? How is this is a functioning thing?’ And (D) told me that the day before she was really sick with the flu and that A went to the drugstore and with the last of his money bought her medicine, brought it back to her and gave it to her … a lot of people in the community ignored her, but A gave her this attention. It made sense to me,” Payne said.
These unique people, combined with a NYU classroom exercise challenging writers to create a piece with no scene breaks and the film of a Czech fairy tale in which a root is treated as a baby, inspired his new play Poor Edward, part of Long Wharf Theatre’s Contemporary American Voices Festival.
As night descends around Opal and Eddie’s hovel, they grapple to find a way to forge a new life, Poor Edward tells a darkly theatrical story of intimacy and survival, and the seductive power of hope. “I am thinking of people on the fringes of society who don’t have access to things,” Payne said.
Payne’s inspiration as a writer are the works of August Wilson, and has drawn comparisons to Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, and Bertholt Brecht. Heady company for a person who started their time in the theatre as an actor.
Payne grew up a quiet and shy kid, and struggled with depression. Auditioning for a play in high school – the musical Gypsy, as he recalls – opened him up and gave him a place for friends and self-expression. He embarked on a career as an actor, but had also been writing for a long time. Finally, he took up writing full time. Payne is currently starting his second year at Julliard and is hoping that he can write for both stage and screen. “I want to merge classic theatre with modern themes,” he said.