The play’s the thing for McPhee

By Morris Sun Tribune Staff Today at 8:24 a.m. Members of the cast of the play “Metal Sands” in one of the scenes. File photo/Sun Tribune
Writing plays for Morris Area High School students is a way for Thomas McPhee to repay the happiness high school theater gave him.
McPhee, a 2012 MAHS graduate, wrote the play “Metal Sands” for the high school’s one-act play competition. Students will perform the play in regional competition today, Feb. 4.
“Growing up, the MAHS drama department, and theater in general, were what made me happiest,” McPhee said in an email interview. McPhee’s high school theater directors were Dave Johnson and the current director Seth Kelly. He and Kelly stayed in touch after McPhee graduated. McPhee has written three one-act play for MAHS.
Writing a play for high school one-act competition requires him to follow some definite guidelines.
“They have strict rules about how long the plays can be,” McPhee said. “I aim for somewhere between 25 and 30 minutes.”
“I’d say I think of it in terms of thirds.Ten minutes to set up and introduction, 10 minutes for deepening (the) context, conflict and 10 minutes for resolution and growth,” McPhee said.
He tries to write plays with many characters to maximize the number of students involved. “I always try to include big roles and small roles,” McPhee said.
“As for subject matter, while I’m writing for a younger audience and that puts important limits on language and what topics or conflicts might be on or off the table, I don’t use that as an excuse to shy away from important themes.”
High school students aren’t sealed off from the larger world, McPhee said. They’ve experienced loss and other emotional issues, he said. Often, the struggles he’s dealt with or he’s seen other deal with are are sources of his plots and characters, McPhee said.
Cast members said in a prior story in the Sun Tribune that “Metal Sands” had multiple layers that audience members could relate to, yet, individual members of the audience may interpret the play differently.
“I think the ideas in the play, the conflict of the known versus the unknown, the desire to make your own fate, and the moralistic argument over what responsibility we owe as creators and artists both for and to the things we create, are already pretty mature,” McPhee said.
He had the opportunity to work with powerful and difficult subject matter while in high school. McPhee wants to provide a similar opportunity with his plays.
While “Metal Sands” was written for high school performers, McPhee said, it is ready for more mature actors. “…I don’t think there’s anything to gain by adding ‘stronger’ language or more ‘mature’ themes,” McPhee said.
Although McPhee has been writing one-act plays, he is now refining a full-length historical drama called “Babel, Booze, Bootleggers” based on the 1930 Jonesboro Church War in Jonesboro, Arkansas. And he’s working on an even shorter play, a 10 minute play called “The Destinies of Meteors.” Plus, he plans to compile a book of his three one-act plays performed by MAHS.