Backstage Graffiti
by Marvin Payne

Amazingly, I soon found myself, early in the week, looking for things to write about in order to fill the “weekly” part of the commitment. Then I found myself actually creating things to write about.

Hi, my name is Marvin Payne, and the editors of Meridian Magazine have asked me to write you a column. I’m calling it, for now, “Backstage Graffiti” (see bold type above).

Why me? I suppose it’s because I work in what the book “Dress For Success” calls a “glamour profession.” (I’d picked up the book to find out how to find fame and fortune through the magic of draping fabric on myself, only to find it repeated over and over, in parentheses, “If you’re in a glamour profession, you are the exception to this particular rule.” Meaning you can wear pretty much whatever you want.) I’m a professional actor, writer, songsmith, and recording artist. Glamour stuff. It also includes hairdressers, which I decidedly am not–I haven’t enough hair of my own to be credible.

Despite having hungrily thumbed “Dress For Success,” most of my clothes still come from Deseret Industries. (This is the only subject upon which Hugh Nibley and I can confer as genuine peers.) That D.I. detail, against the fact that my guitars are from C.F. Martin, should give you the clearest glimpse into my material priorities.

As per resume: I have released a dozen albums of original songs and have written on some widely-produced plays, including “The Planemaker,” which is a one-man show, and “Charlie’s Monument,” in which I was Charlie. I wrote the lyrics for the final version of the show “UTAH” at Tuacahn. The one they don’t do anymore, having opted to make money instead with any Broadway show into which one can insert a flood. (You’d be surprised where they’ve put them!) I’ve done everything from Shakespeare to “Phantom,” but I usually get recognized in the mall as the guy behind daddy’s nose in “Saturday’s Warrior.” (Also at public parks, credit unions, and international border-crossings. I have sometimes been tempted to will my entire fortune to anyone who accosts me in McDonald’s and says, “Wow, you did great in Shenandoah.”)

I play my own great-great-grandfather in “The Trail of Dreams” about the Mormon Trail, which I wrote with James Arrington and Steven Kapp Perry, and last year premiered the two-player musical “Wedlocked,” which I wrote, again with Steve Perry. The other player is my wife, not Steven Kapp Perry, fine performer though he is.

Favorite roles I didn’t write include Sweeney Todd and El Gallo the Bandit. (I’m actually very good at bad guys. I have found tenderness even in Neo-Nazis, and right now I’m having a great time onstage as a Scottish werewolf.)

In the film “Man’s Search For Happiness,” I am the Man Who Searches. (A good guy.)

For kids, I play a talking dog named Boo who likes to act out the scriptures, a wordy tortoise named Theo, a rhinoceros named Lou, and a scruffy critter named Lorenzo who has a magic songbook. (I never act with the same degree of abandon and authenticity as when I am portraying someone from another species.)

If I am remembered by history, it will be because I am my children’s father. They are songwriters, singing actresses, theatrical designers, and monster jazz guitarists playing in New York subways.

I live in a cabin in Alpine, Utah, with my lovely wife Laurie and daughter Caitlin Willow, three guitars, a banjo, and a cardboard moon from “The Fantasticks.” I am fond of Winnie-the-Pooh, sopranos, oceans, mountaintops, and anything involving tortillas.

For fun, I ramble long distances along the Wasatch mountains rehearsing lines to vast audiences of bewildered squirrels.

I told the editors that I thought it would be fun to field questions (like on the radio) and open this up to what you want to talk or hear about. There are (I went back and counted) forty-seven things so far that we could dive more deeply into, or dive from into something else entirely. So please write, or I’ll be kind of embarrassed about having imagined you would find this stuff interesting. Plus the next column will be about five sentences long.

THE ACTUAL COLUMN, FIRST INSTALLMENT: There is, in fact, a kind of emphasis at the foundation of what I’d like to share. Twenty-three years ago, on a rainy highway in Georgia, while Guy Randle, my writing partner in those days, was driving the van to the next concert location in Athens, I began writing a journal.

This I did primarily out of guilt. Spencer W. Kimball had said to do it and I had not done it. Now I was doing it. My tolerance for guilt is so high that I didn’t write in it again until fourteen weeks later, then again twelve weeks after that. Then, having wakened the sleeping giant of conscience, I decided I would write something weekly. So, on numerous late Saturday nights (on what some Mormon playwrights might call “The Saturday Night” of the week) I would find myself writing things like “Boy, what a week!” and then go to bed. But there was an occasional Wednesday, or even Monday, when something quite noteworthy would happen, say, a forest fire threatening my home, or the birth of one of my children, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’d think, first, “I should write this down!” and then, quickly after writing, “Hey look! I’ve done my writing for the week! I’m free!”

Amazingly, I soon found myself, early in the week, looking for things to write about in order to fill the “weekly” part of the commitment. Then I found myself actually creating things to write about. By “creating” I don’t mean starting forest fires or conceiving children or overthrowing Communism. I mean noticing things I hadn’t noticed before, something about how frost looks on the black blade-edges of newly turned earth in a really big field, something about unexpected beauty in the profile of a friend in a car window.

I found myself paying more attention to what I asked in prayer, because I had a growing feeling that I should keep track of the answers. Suddenly, part of the appeal of accepting a cannery assignment was that I could let my posterity know that I had, and that I learned something there. (Last time I went, last week, all I learned as I did my solo job of mopping up and hauling out piles of pear debris is that if you only know the first half of the chorus to Woodie Guthrie’s “The Union Maid,” the song can become quite tiresome after about two hours, so you should learn the whole thing.) But the grand surprise was that I gradually came to realize that if you know that someone is writing a book about your life, you are likely to live it differently. Probably better.

I feel three large reasons for me to keep a journal. The first, and most important, reason I am saving for the next column. (Go ahead and guess what it is. You may say it much better than I will.) The second reason is the one above: the heroes and heroines of books live better (at least, more interesting) lives. The third reason is brand new. I want to respond to your thoughts primarily with entries from my journals. I’ve used them as a resource for song lyrics, script elements (even dialogue), numberless talks, and even the content of gifts for family and friends. (“How do I love you? Let me count the ways, starting with April 22nd, 1983.”) All of this suddenly sounds pretty smarty-pants, but the fact is that in my odd little career I live my every day against these words of Flaubert, “None of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt stars.” Let’s make some music and see how warm it gets.

I’m calling this meeting place “Backstage Graffiti” because an awful lot of my own is written, quite literally, backstage. You would be amazed at how much time can click by on the west shore of Utah Lake early in the morning, just waiting for the moment to be Lehi for a few frames. Emile deBeque may be the Leading Man in South Pacific, but I wrote in my journal an entire, fairly-detailed, last will and testament during one performance just waiting for Nellie Forbush to finish washing me right out of her hair. Also it’s “backstage” because living is what we do under the lights, in front of the curtain, or while the camera is running. Not writing about it.

But still we write. Let’s talk more about why. And maybe what. And for whom. This could be fun.

Send your thoughts to [email protected].


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