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Tap Payne takes final bows in Morris

Tap Payne and his ventriloquist dummy, Benny Woodman, during the Mighty Variety Show 2005. There will be a retirement reception for Payne on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Tap Payne isn't a ventriloquist, but he's played one on the stage.

Payne and his dummy, Benny Woodman, have made regular appearances in the PlayRights' Mighty Variety Shows, but, fortunately, Payne has never had to finish his opening joke because the bit was always interrupted by a murder backstage or Benny's unfortunate beheading.

During his 33 years in Morris, Payne has been an integral part of both the University of Minnesota, Morris theatre department and supporting local theatre in the community with his wife, Margaret, who co-founded the PlayRights in 1992 with friend Shaune Wunder.

At the end of this semester, Payne will retire after spending his career at UMM. Over his tenure, Payne has been involved with the scene design, lighting and costumes for more than 100 UMM theatre productions along with maintaining a full teaching load and helping develop UMM's study abroad program.

Payne's path to the theatre began in college where he majored in theatre and journalism. After serving in the Marines after college, Payne returned to school to complete his MFA in scene design and stage lighting at the University of Oregon.

As he was finishing his degree, a friend suggested he apply for an open position at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Payne was already familiar with the school, thanks to the recognition and awards the recently-completed Humanities Fine Arts Building had received.

At the time, Payne expected to be in Morris for just a few years, until the "next best thing" came along. But a better opportunity never arose, and Payne and his wife, Margaret, soon discovered Morris was a great place to raise their kids.

"Margaret was well pregnant with our first child when we moved here, and I was thinking, 'Well, this will be a good place to start our family,'" said Payne. "I didn't really expect to be here 33 years, I don't think either one of us did ... this was always the next best thing."

Payne's first show at UMM was The World Of Sholom Aleichem, the show the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is based on. And although Payne doesn't normally get to choose his own shows - directors generally decide which shows to perform, in consultation with the rest of the theatre department staff - he has had the opportunity to design sets for some shows he has wanted to do, Anything Goes and Our Town, for example.

At the time Payne arrived at UMM, many of the 60 to 70 UMM faculty members had been part of founding the campus. During campus governance meetings, faculty from all disciplines would be involved in deciding which classes were taught.

"Everybody that was here had been an important part of the university to get it where it was and everybody cared about getting it to the next step," said Payne. "It was nice to work with people who had been here from the very, very beginning."

Although faculty and staff have changed over the last 33 years, Payne said the type of students that come to UMM have changed the least and remain the part of his work he will miss most.

"I am ready to retire, but that's the thing I'm least interested to give up is my contact with the students," said Payne.

In addition to theatre, Payne has been an important figure in developing the study abroad program at UMM and for the University of Minnesota as a whole.

Payne's interest in travel was piqued during a semester spent studying abroad in London with Margaret during graduate school. When he arrived at UMM, a fellow theatre faculty member was regularly taking students and Morris community members on yearly trips to New York. Soon, Payne began offering regular trips to London, and the two alternated taking trips for many years.

"All of a sudden, I became the person at the University of Minnesota with the most travel abroad experience," recalled Payne.

As traveling abroad became a more important part of the university experience, Payne worked to write grants to help minority students study abroad and facilitate trips to other countries through other universities in the region. In his tenure, Payne and Margaret have taken students on trips to Italy, Scotland and China.

For the last five years, Payne has been on a phased retirement, teaching in the fall and traveling with Margaret in the spring. They plan to make Arizona their home base starting this winter, while continuing to travel and remain involved in the theatre.

"If leaving here meant that we no longer did anything significant in our lives, that's not the kind of retirement we want," said Margaret.

"We've had a lot of fun, especially with the PlayRights," said Payne. "People from the community come to the campus all the time to see shows here as well. ... I can't tell you how many people have stopped Margaret and me in the grocery store and said how much they enjoyed the shows."

"The community has accepted all of the PlayRights silliness and experiments... I'm heartbroken that we can't do any more," Margaret said. "The reception makes it really hard to walk away from it."