Q&A with Jayme McGhan, incoming GTA Artistic/Managing Director and UNG Theatre Chair

GTA is thrilled to introduce our new Artistic/Managing Director and UNG Theatre Chair, Jayme McGhan. McGhan replaces 30-year GTA veteran Jim Hammond. Mr. McGhan is a playwright, theatre artist, and educator from Minneapolis, who received his BA in Theatre at Southwest (Minnesota) State University and his MFA in Playwriting from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has held the Head of Theatre position at both Ridgewater College and Concordia University, Chicago, was the Director of the School of Stage and Screen at Western Carolina University, and most recently was the Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Houston Baptist University. Jayme is an avid backpacker, runner, snowboarder, skateboarder, music lover, beer connoisseur, reader, poker player, amateur theologian, and die-hard Minnesota Twins fan.

What drew you to University of North Georgia and Gainesville Theatre Alliance?

I served as the Director of the School of Stage and Screen at Western Carolina University, just an hour and a half North of Gainesville, for almost four years. I was well aware of GTA’s reputation, especially considering the fact that WCU was a regional competitor for student talent, but I never could quite figure out how the program worked. Two universities? Two departments? How does that function? More importantly, how does that function well? The fact that the Alliance has been as successful as it has for forty years speaks a great deal to the faculty’s willingness to pivot and collaborate. And that’s a big draw for someone like me who loves the collaborative spirit and process. I’ve served as a Dean for the last year and a half and have found that the kind of collaborative processes that I’m able to contribute to are on a much higher level, but that the impact isn’t as immediate, direct, or gratifying as working with colleagues and students to tell stories on the stage. I’ve missed that a great deal. And I’m thrilled that I get the opportunity to step into that space once more.

How did you first get involved in theatre and what keeps you involved?

I’m a first-generation college student from a blue-collared family in Minneapolis, so the arts were never really a part of our lives. But, as my folks tell it, I was constantly telling stories. It came naturally to me. I played sports growing up (and am still a huge sports fan—sorry about ’91 Braves fans—I still have my Twins World Series homer hanky), but was never given an access point to harness that significant part of who I was. Not until high school, when I joined the speech team. Speech was a sort of hybrid form of acting in so many ways, although often quite unnatural in form and presentation. But it was a sort of gateway into theatre. I didn’t start doing theatre until I made my way to University. I auditioned on a whim and was cast as Bo Decker in William Inge’s Bus Stop, and that pretty much altered my path and pushed me towards a career and life as a theatrical storyteller. Although my focus was on acting and directing in undergrad, I was also extremely interested in playwriting, design, construction, lighting, and dramaturgy. I spent a great deal of time messing around with script ideas, building, hanging, painting, you name it. Really, I just loved the process of making theatre. That hasn’t changed for me. Opening night, the run, closing night—that’s all certainly enjoyable, but they don’t hold a candle to the process of creation. For me, that’s where all the fun happens. I’m still a generalist, meaning that my focus is broad. I direct, design, build, produce, etc. But most of my professional focus has been on writing plays. Hearing the initial draft of a new play read aloud for the first time is one of the most magical moments any theatrical practitioner can experience. It’s a birth in so many ways. And seeing a new play get on its feet for the first time in production, taking its first step, well—that’s a little slice of heaven for me.

What is a memorable theatre project you have worked on that you felt made a great impact or moved you in a significant way?

There are so many. I can say that the older I get, the more I’m interested in redemptive narratives—honest, powerful, beautiful stories of human beings connecting, reconnecting, and finding hope once more. Those are the narratives I’m drawn to the most. When I think back on the 250+ productions that I’ve been involved with over the years, I tend to gravitate to those particular productions as standouts. But, really, every production has its own inherent value. Even the occasional flop is worth a great deal to the artistic process—probably more so than knock down drag out hits. You learn so much from those moments. I tell my students all the time that failure is not an option, it’s a requirement. My plays have received glowing reviews from some of the biggest theatre critics in the country. They’ve also been categorically panned by others. There’s nothing like opening the Chicago Tribune or the Times and seeing the thing you’ve poured yourself in to for years get brutally thrashed around in print. It’s a big ol’ slice of humble pie, especially when they’re mostly right. But, frankly, humble pie still tastes pretty good to me. Because it means that at least I have a place at the table and a fork to eat with.

What are your first steps to prepare for your new position with GTA?

Moving my family from Houston to Georgia in the middle of a pandemic. That’s certainly not been an easy task. I’m also busy winding down my time as Dean here at HBU and helping the School of Fine Arts and the rest of the University prepare for the Fall semester. Houston is a wonderful city and we’re going to miss it.

I’m mostly trying to listen right now. I know my counterpart at Brenau, Tracey Brent-Chessum (who is wonderful by the way), is doing the same. And I expect that that will last for a few months before that preparation season winds down and the future course starts to clarify. If I’m doing my job correctly, I should be listening in perpetuity. There’s a lot of voices that have gone unheard for a long time in the theatre community. Significant and justifiable anger has built up because of personal violations and systemic biases and bigotries that have been maintained in our art. The theatre has been very good at turning a blind eye on these things for quite some time, but it’s starting to wake up. I’m trying to figure out on a personal level how I’ve either explicitly or inadvertently maintained these practices and systems so that I don’t perpetuate them. The only way to do that is to listen, try to understand as much as I am able, and, finally, to act.

What are your long-term goals for Gainesville Theatre Alliance and the UNG Theatre Department?

GTA has come so far in its forty years. It’s really quite impressive. I think the faculty will want to continue to honor the history of the Alliance while keeping a very keen eye to the future. I’d like to see us become the premier undergraduate theatre training program in the South in ten years’ time; even eclipsing storied institutions like the NC School of the Arts. I’d like to see GTA students all over Broadway, the West End, Regional Theatre, and moving seamlessly on to the big screen. Atlanta is in our backyard. Let’s harness it. Moreover, I’d like to see GTA students becoming exceptional educators, advocates, and leaders—helping to usher the next generation of students on to the stage to share their stories with the world. I’d like us to double down on the creation of new plays and musicals for the American stage, world-premiering at least one new play or musical every season and pushing towards a much larger summer festival of new works that will bring students and professionals from across the country to Gainesville. The way we’re going to do all of this is through exceptional training and curriculum, fantastic productions that challenge, move, and inspire, celebrating diverse voices and stories, substantial new initiatives, and keeping the community involved and engaged. How that looks at this juncture is anyone’s guess. But it will, no doubt, prove to be extremely exciting.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance students?

I’m truly honored to help lead the GTA into its next chapter. I can’t wait to make incredible theatre with all of you. Remember, your voice matters. You will help shape what Gainesville Theatre Alliance will become. Speak up. Take agency. Don’t be shy. I’ve been working in theatre for over two decades and in higher-ed for sixteen years. I can handle criticism. In the midst of all of that, please be kind to each other during this time. It’s a really wild world right now. Show a little grace, mercy, and understanding. It will go a very long way. Finally, my door is always open. Always. Except when I’m in the bathroom. Please leave me alone in there.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance patrons?

Thank you for your support. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your support. Stay tuned. Big things to come.

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