‘The play always gets up on its feet’: McGhan’s creations coming to life on stages across US

Jayme McGhan

Sometimes the stars dance, and at other times they align just right, such as when Jayme McGhan, as a young boy, fell in love with the classic shark movie “Jaws” and was thus inspired to delve into books about the tragic sinking of a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Indianapolis, during World War II.

McGhan, director of Western Carolina University’s School of Stage and Screen since 2015, says he became a “Jaws” fan mainly because he was mesmerized by a monologue delivered by the movie’s character Quint, played by Robert Shaw. In the movie, Quint gives a fictional account of his experiences in shark-infested waters as a survivor of the Indianapolis.

The historical record shows that in July 1945, near the end of the war, the ship was hit by two Japanese torpedoes. About 300 crewmen were lost as the vessel sank, leaving 900 others to drift helplessly in the Pacific. Only 316 survivors were found in the ocean when rescuers arrived five days later. Although some of the details in Quint’s movie account are not historically accurate, the performance by Shaw “still strikes me as the best piece of film acting I’ve ever seen – absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking,” McGhan said recently.

Several decades after he first saw “Jaws” and read about the Indianapolis, McGhan was a productive playwright and artistic director for the theater program at Concordia University Chicago when he had an idea for a play based on the ship’s sinking and the sad ending of its captain, Charles B. McVay III. McVay survived the disaster, but was court-martialed by a Navy tribunal for failure to zig-zag to avoid enemy fire. In 1968, after 22 years of dealing with haunting memories and guilt, he put a gun to his head and took his own life. Thirty-two years later, McVay was posthumously exonerated by Congress and President Bill Clinton.

McGhan invited his friend and faculty colleague at Concordia, Andy Pederson, to collaborate with him in writing the play. “I brought it to him one day and said, ‘What do you think about writing a play about sharks?’” McGhan recalled.

The work was titled “In the Soundless Awe,” and it centers on the imagined last day of McVay’s life. Plans were hatched to stage the ocean scenes in Concordia’s indoor pool. “The idea was to have audience members put their legs in the water as they sat around the edge – and safety divers in case someone fell in,” McGhan said. But the campus pool was closed down three months before rehearsals began, so McGhan and Pederson built a shallow pool on a stage to carry out the production.

Since then, “In the Soundless Awe” has come to life at numerous theaters around the country, including WCU’s Hoey Auditorium. The November 2016 show on campus involved construction of a pool made out of thick rubber membrane that was filled with a couple of inches of water “to invoke a sense of the seemingly endless ocean for the audience,” McGhan said.

One theater group that has presented “In the Soundless Awe” is the Saltbox Theatre Collective of Chicago, and that group’s production will be remounted at the 73rd annual reunion for the survivors of the Indianapolis that is set for July 19-22 in Indianapolis, Indiana. As of April, only 16 of the ship’s survivors were still alive. McGhan plans to attend that show. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said.

22 plays and counting…

Including his co-writing project with Pederson, McGhan’s playwrighting resume includes authoring 22 full-length plays, with all but four brought to life on stage by theater groups ranging from off-Broadway to regional theater, and university theater programs. A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, McGhan says he was bitten by the writing bug as a child, scribbling poems and short stories. As an undergraduate at Southwest State University in Minnesota, his intention was to make a career in ichthyology – the study of fish – but he auditioned for and received a role in a campus production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” something he now says changed the trajectory of his life.

“Once I started doing theater, I found that I could take my love of writing and transfer it into script writing and become a playwright,” McGhan said. He wrote his first full-length play during his sophomore year of college, and by the time he graduated from Southwest State he had directed productions of three plays he had authored. During his senior year, he was invited to participate in the American College Theater Festival, which involved spending two weeks at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., learning at the feet of top playwrights from around the world. “That was enough to kick me into wanting to pursue playwrighting in graduate school,” McGhan said. He received his master of fine arts degree in playwrighting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and began his career working in academics and composing plays on the side.

McGhan says he was a “social justice warrior” as a young man, and his first dozen or so plays revolved around topics such as workers’ rights and unions, but in recent years the themes he deals with have often involved the concepts of joy, redemption, surprise and intrigue. He said his writing has been heavily influenced by his Christian faith and his voracious reading that ranges from philosophy to science. Although he looks up to playwrighting icons such as George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen and Conor McPherson, he said he is inspired daily by “a bunch of friends and peers who are playwrights.”

Among the four of his plays that haven’t seen the light of day is one titled “Red Rock,” a treatise on American finance – specifically hedge funds, McGhan said. “It’s incredibly complex,” he said. “It took me a year-and-a-half of research to get my mind around it, and no theater will touch it because they can’t understand it. They make finance intentionally complicated for a reason. It’s frustrating for lay people to try and navigate that.”

‘Still Dance the Stars’

On the other hand, McGhan said he is thrilled that as many as seven productions of his plays have been staged across the nation just in the past year. As two or three such productions annually is the norm for him, having that many shows going on constitutes a “really good year,” he said. One of his plays that is much more intensely personal that the others and based on his life experiences, “Still Dance the Stars,” is currently being premiered during a April 13-May 13 run by the Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, Minnesota, and it will be produced by the Cockroach Theatre in Las Vegas beginning May 13 and continuing through June 3.

McGhan wrote “Still Dance the Stars” after he and wife Julie lost their baby girl Eliana, who was stillborn in 2013. Concerning the struggles of love in the face of unfathomable loss, the play revolves around a couple, James and Anne, who became an internet sensation after his videoed marriage proposal to her goes viral. Six years later, a news personality is coming to visit their home to do a follow-up report, but the marriage has fallen upon hard times. The night before the interview, the couple debates for and against their marriage with the use of a box of stuffed animals won at carnivals they’ve attended, with the animals taking on the identities of symbolic characters in their lives.

But not all of McGhan’s creations are serious drama. He also has written comedies, thrillers and plays based on the historical record, such as the sinking of the Indianapolis. After its premiere by the New Light Theatre Project in New York City in November 2015, “In the Soundless Awe” received a highly coveted “#1 Show to See” rating in the NY Theatre Guide.

These days, McGhan said he plans to continue developing new plays out of love for that process while maintaining a busy lifestyle that also revolves around his duties as a university administrator and teacher, and his desire to spend quality time with his wife and son Levi, born in 2014. He also enjoys traveling around the nation to see many of the productions of his plays.

“It used to be terrifying for me, but now it’s just exciting to go see a production,” he said. “People are devoting themselves to words you created, and that’s pretty neat.”

Staging a play anywhere is always full of potential pitfalls, but “at the end of the day, the play always gets up on its feet, and it’s always a joy to have birthed that,” McGhan said. “Even here at Western Carolina, there’s always problems, but when everybody grabs hands and makes it happen, it’s great.”