A.D. Players debut new leadership plus a World Premiere

Cast of A.D. Players’ World Premiere production of “Apollo 8” by Jayme McGhan / Photo by Joey Watkins

Jayme McGhan says he no longer wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat out of sheer nerves before a premiere – as he once did early in his career.

The veteran playwright, arts manager, and educator takes the helm this month as the A.D. Players’ new Executive Artistic Director, while his play, Apollo 8, makes its World Premiere at the George Theater, May 4 – June 5.

“Opening a new play is always exciting, but the fear of failure and the pressure to deliver has subsided over the years and has been replaced with joy of process and acceptance of the end product, whatever it may be,” said McGhan.

Streamed as an online production in 2021 but delayed as a full stage production by the pandemic until now, Apollo 8 is the company’s second-ever commission and considered one of the largest projects in its history.

Although he admits there is “a bit of added pressure,” McGhan calls the timing of his new play combined with his new role as Executive Artistic Director “serendipitous.”

His position, announced in February following a six-month national search and effective May 1, is part of a leadership transition within the company. Current Executive Director Jake Speck will leave in June to accept a position in Nashville, as Artistic Director Kevin Dean becomes Artistic Producer, “working alongside McGhan on overall artistic vision, mainstage programming, and new works,” according to a press release.

One of Houston’s largest resident theater companies, A.D. Players was founded in 1967 by the late Jeannette Clift George, a pioneer of Christian theater, a Golden Globe-nominated actor, and the company’s former long-time Artistic Director.

“There are very few theaters in this country that intersect high-level professional production with a Christian worldview like A.D. Players,” said McGhan in a statement. “I look forward to telling beautiful and engaging stories of redemption and reconciliation at the George Theater for many years to come.”

A widely produced playwright with numerous professional directing and design credits, McGhan has served as Dean, Director, and Chair at five universities, including Chair of Theatre at the University of North Georgia and Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Houston Baptist University.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Jayme McGhan for the following interview:

What is “Apollo 8” about, and what inspired you to write it?

I was approached a few years ago by Jake Speck and Kevin Dean to look at the possibility of dramatizing the story of the Apollo 8 – the courageous and borderline audacious mission to break earth’s orbit and circle the moon in 1968.

Upon starting my research, I was struck by the very human experience that coincided with the mission–one of collectively seeing our home in the cosmos from a distance for the first time – a divine glimpse, as it were. 

What most folks remember about the Apollo 8 mission was the reading of the first verses of the book of Genesis by the crew while orbiting the moon on Christmas eve, along with the iconic “earthrise” photo that was a substantial eye-opener for the world at large. 

But the guts and determination it took to get to that moment, from literally hundreds of thousands of Americans who worked on the mission, amidst some of the most tumultuous times this country has ever experienced, is truly jaw-dropping and inspiring …

Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders / Public domain

When I began writing the play a few years ago, I had no idea that 2022 would look a lot more like 1968 than anyone could imagine – a deeply divided country, global unrest, the onset of a new cold war, amongst numerous other mirrored realities. 

The Apollo 8 mission was, at its very essence, a pause for the world – a chance to see ourselves from the celestial bodies and realize that we all share the same reality – that we will grow old, love more deeply than we ever thought possible, suffer equally unfathomable loss, all the while trying to better understand our place as we float through the seemingly endlessness of space on the same shared rock.  I think we need to see that again.  We need to be reminded of who we are and who we were created to be.  We need connection.  I hope Apollo 8 does just that.    

How would you describe your vision as Executive Artistic Director? Do you have any specific plans for the company?

The work that the company has accomplished in relation to increasing production value, solidifying processes and procedures, and growing the audience base over the last five years is pretty fantastic. 

Had it not been for the pandemic, A.D. Players would have continued to grow exponentially and at lightning speed.  Part of the initial vision as I take the helm will be to strategize how we get that momentum back as soon as possible.  Audiences are really starting to come back now, which is wonderful.  But we can’t wait until it all starts humming at full-speed again soon.  

It will take a bit of time and lots of listening before I can really formulate a long-term vision for the theater.  But I can tell you that two aspects that drew me to the position is the relatively new focus on developing and producing new plays and musicals, and increasing our educational footprint by working with underserved communities here in Houston. 

Jayme McGhan / Courtesy of A.D. Players

I’m interested in bringing new stories to the George Theater that celebrate and explore the tension between the corporeal and the divine through the expansion of the Metzler New Works Series

Our new R.A.I.S.S.E initiative is also extremely exciting – not only educating the students who choose to enter our Academy, but also going out into the community and serving students who have little or no connection to the theater world. 

As the father of a little girl with Down Syndrome, the Arts for All program, an internal company that celebrates neuro-divergent artists, is also a huge inspiration and point of excitement for me.

What does it mean to intersect faith and theater to you? And how does inclusivity fit into that vision or approach?

A.D. Players exists to tell stories from a Christian worldview.  That doesn’t mean that we always tell explicit stories of faith, and it certainly doesn’t mean that what we do is always evangelical in nature.  But we are interested in telling stories of joy, reconciliation, and redemption, which is ultimately how the meta-narrative of the Christian faith is shaped. 

A.D. Players has always been ecumenical in nature and practice.  Jeannette Clift George, our founder, set it up with that mindset at the forefront.  All are welcome in our theater.  We have staff members who are committed Christians, we have staff members who are not.  We employ artists of every possible type you can imagine.  And we hope, at the end of the day, that we are known for the way we treat those folks – with deep and genuine love and respect.

I’ve spent the last 20 years intersecting my personal faith in Jesus and my work as a theater professional through my writing.  Out of the 22 full-length plays I’ve written to this juncture, I can only think of two that didn’t somehow deal with that aforementioned tension between the corporeal and the divine.  In many ways, arriving at A.D. Players is like coming home to a home I never knew I had. 

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