Photo by Johnny Knight
If Stage Left Theatre’s mission is to develop plays that raise debate around political and social issues, they’ve found their ideal playwright in Jayme McGhan. His new play, The Fisherman was inspired by “sweeping job losses in Minnesota after a high-profile airline bankruptcy.” As such, it takes a hard look at the economy’s impact on the life of a desperate everyman. McGhan spoke with Our Town about the show’s origin and the exhilaration of seeing characters come to life onstage.
Our Town Why playwriting?
Jayme McGhan There are far less frustrating and certainly more financially lucrative ways to tell stories. The moment I stop being wholly enamored with storytelling in live performance I’ll go be a park ranger or snowboard bum [but] I’m deeply committed to the theatre and the people who populate it. A good play, to me, demands thought. It entertains, informs, and posits huge questions. If a play is really doing a knockout job, it provokes--it sees the button on the wall that says “do not push” and it chucks a brick at it…then grins and covers its ears.
OT What’s it like for you to see characters who existed only in your mind, brought to life?
JM I used to feel either completely exhilarated or completely petrified by the process. But now it just seems natural. I’ve come to find that, for me, the words are nothing more than the skeletal frame. My job is to put the bones together, to give the body form and function. The actors, director, designers--they put flesh on the bones, give the frame its heart and lungs. If we’re blessed and everyone has done their job right, we collectively put a soul into that bad boy.
OT Any issues giving up control of a show as it moves into production?
JM Nah. Being in the rehearsal environment early on establishes those much-needed relationships and avenues of communication between the writer and the production team. But if you’re a writer hanging on tightly come late in the rehearsal process then you probably have more problems than just a flawed script. It’s theatre. Crap happens. Frequently. At some point you have to let go and have faith that you’ve done your work and that everyone else is doing theirs.
OT What’s your writing practice like?
JM Writing a play is definitely a committed relationship. I have a rule where, if I think of an idea for a play, I won’t write it down. If it’s still with me after three months, then I get a little crush on it and I’ll jot it in a notebook. If it’s still there after six months, things are getting a little more serious and I’ll start playing with it in my head. If it’s still there after a year, I generally put a ring on it. If you try to marry an idea prematurely it turns out bad for all parties involved. You’ve got to buy the idea ice cream, take it on vacation, and meet its parents first.
OT What inspired The Fisherman?
JM I wrote the play, initially, out of anger for systemic injustice and collusion in the corporate world, labor unions, and the United States government. But this was 2006 when everything was hunky-dory and they were still giving out half a million dollar mortgages to custodians. In its first public readings in 2008, I think audiences looked at the play as a bit of a dystopian exploration, as in, “Oh, I’m glad things like that aren’t actually happening!” Although the play hasn’t changed much, the audience’s view of it has changed immensely since the worldwide economic depression (recession if you’re an optimist). The events in the play that used to be a hypothetical are now a very real possibility, even probability. There’s only so much load you can throw on a horses back before it either breaks its legs or it bucks the rider off. The Fisherman is a bucking story. I sometimes hate that I wrote it. It will make me sick to my stomach if I think about it too much. I’m a committed Christian and the play goes against much of what I believe in: actively loving your enemy, turning your cheek, non-violent confrontation. But there’s an undeniable undercurrent of rage in America right now. It’s an anger that people don’t know what to do with. And that story is worth telling.
OT What do you hope audiences take from it?
JM I can’t answer that with any degree of certainty. I’m severely conflicted about the events in the play on an emotional, political, and spiritual level…and I friggin’ wrote the thing. The fact that I so thoroughly confused even myself is probably a good sign. The only thing I can say with confidence is that audiences will have a great deal to talk about after the house lights come up.
OT What are you working on now?
JM I’ve been working on a play called Autonomy, directed by Vance Smith, Artistic Director of Stage Left. [It] will receive its first public reading at Chicago Dramatists on March 17th. It’s the story of a famed Nobel Prize winning Physicist who has written a self-described “End-all-be-all argument against the existence of God.” It’s been a lot of fun to write and I think it’s got some great legs so we’ll see what happens. I’m also working on making a baby with my wife. That’s been a lot more enjoyable than writing.
"The Fisherman" runs February 18 through April 1. Purchase tickets here.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez and Facebook.