Former Hampton Roads resident and LGBT playwright Matthew Payton-Downey is quite a mess. He lays it all out in his semi-autobiographical comedy “Xandria Wylde’s Hot Mess eXpress” which runs through October 24 at Zeiders American Dream Theater We sat down with him to explore the experiences he examines in his work: coming out, a strict evangelical upbringing, resolution, and redemption.
Outwire757: Thanks for taking time out of your crazy busy schedule to have a sit down with us tonight. How are rehearsals going?
Payton-Downing: I am having so much fun. I keep having to pinch myself, is this real? I’ve loved theater my whole life. I’m so used to doing it at the community theater level, volunteer level. And now that I’m getting paid for this, I’m like what?
Outwire757: I read the play today and devoured it. We all know all those characters. As I read it, I also felt some textures of The Odd Couple, La Cage Aux Folles, and Harvey.
Payton-Downing: Yes sir, that was intentional. A little back story on the piece itself. I initially wrote it in grad school. It was originally series of short films that we made in 2011, and I hated it. It felt inauthentic to me. And this was before I came out.
A couple of years ago, my husband encouraged me to start writing again, so I dug up the script, and I was working on a draft that originally centered on a woman who had a doll or some sort of childhood toy. Then RuPaul’s Drag Race popped up, and I said dammit, there she (Xandria) is.
Outwire757: One of the reasons we love partnering with Zeiders is, as you know, they offer emerging performers and writers a chance to workshop their work on a professional stage. And they love LGBTQ programming. What’s your connection with Zeiders and Hampton Roads?
Payton-Downing: I moved here for grad school at Regent University in 2009, it was still the middle of the recession, and my parents were still out in Washington State. I told them how great Virginia Beach was, and they moved out here. Then after I graduated, I spent a year in New York, and I hated it. I actually got booed off the stage. In Brooklyn of all places.
I learned about Zeiders through James Bryan in 2015 when he was hired as marketing director. So I went to a couple open mic nights with a few friends, I did stand up there once, and I have auditioned for Bart (Kuebler, Zeiders’ Music and Artistic Director ). This was all before I met and married my husband in 2017, and one night we were at The Z’s open mic night.
Now my husband is very reserved, and suddenly he leaps out of his chair and runs right towards Bart. They started hugging and chatting and laughing, and it turns out they served together in Army band ten years before. So there were multiple little connections that got this script workshopped and performed for the inaugural Proetus Festival in 2018. And people responded to it, people loved it, and they ate it up.
Outwire757: Tell me about your friend and collaborator, Matt Burchfield.
Payton-Downing: He’s my director, or as we refer to him in rehearsals, there’s Gay Matt and Straight Matt. Sean and I call him our heterosexual life partner. He’s the third.
Outwire757: I always ask this question of artists of any kind: how much of this piece is autobiographical?
Payton-Downing: Yes, you got it. I would say 70/30 mostly accurate. A lot of it based on reality. The character of Kevin is straight up based on my husband. The story in the script about getting drunk and climbing a tree is partially accurate. Sean and I had been dating for only two weeks, and we went to get lunch in Ghent. And my ADHD got the better of me, and I said, “Hey, there’s a tree! Let’s climb it!”
The character of Autumn is based on so many of the women who’ve been great friends over the years. The character of Geneva (Al’s mother in the script) is actually based on my father, and the character of Paul (Al’s stepfather) is my mother.
Outwire757: One takeaway from the show that every queer person will understand is that coming out is a continuous process. You’re never done with it.
Payton-Downing: Absolutely. Technically, in some ways, I really didn’t come out until the summer of 2020. I came from the evangelical world, a religious family, parents, brother. Now I call myself an Xvangelical. Last year, I had someone that I did a ministry internship with 15 years ago just start blowing up my Facebook about this is a sin, this is awful, turn or burn. I’m still working through some of that, and that’s thanks to my family who supports me. Now my parents are both ridiculous allies, and they went to Pride with us in 2019 with the Free Mom Hugs group.
This show has helped me understand so many in the community that I didn’t understand for the longest time. Transgender people, I couldn’t get my head around that for the longest time. Same with drag queens. Because I came from an evangelical background, I thought, oh they’re all horrible pedophiles and perverts.
But in writing this show, I realized that it’s easy to make a judgment call when there are no stakes attached to it. It takes your best friend who comes out or your cousin who announces that they’re trans. And suddenly you DO have stakes in the game. That’s why visibility is so important.
Outwire757: It sounds like you were brought up in a very dogmatic househeold. Tell me how you incorporate your personal faith coming from that place into your life now as an out gay men.
Payton-Downing: I was raised in world where everything is a sin. Sin. Sin, sin, sin. So from a very young age, I was aware of spirituality, but also aware of fear. You know, make one wrong move, and the ground will open beneath you, and you’ll just fall. I’ve been through three rounds of conversion therapy, and the third time is not a charm. It doesn’t work, and I’m still gay as a three-dollar bill.
Outwire757: I think there will be several people who come to this show who have had that same or similar experience. I mean, we are in the heart of Robertson-Falwell land.
Payton-Downing: I hope so. And I hope my experience as told through Al’s eyes, can have a positive impact on everyone. I want to be someone in my community who says give people a second chance. For lack of a better quote, I believe that love covers a multitude of sins.
WANT TO GO?
Outwire757’s Night Out at the Z
Friday, October 8, 7:30 PM
Outwire757’s Out Stories at the Z
An open mic night for the community to tell their coming out story
Thursday, October 15, 7:30 PM, open mic to follow the performance
Tickets here (for both performances, use discount code HMXOUT for 15% off