Native finds, scripts light in darkness

Ryan Vaughan holds fast to one of the most important pieces of advice he ever received at Maryville College in Tennessee.

It came by way of Dr. Terry Simpson, who taught secondary education at Maryville for 28 years prior to his retirement in 2018. Vaughan, who graduated with a degree in developmental psychology and elementary education, said it’s something he’ll never forget.

“He taught us that one should never say ‘I disagree’ until one can say ‘I understand,’” Vaughan said. “And that’s how I try to go about life.”

Ryan Vaughan

Now Vaughan — who received theater, choir and chapel scholarships as an undergraduate — is working to help others understand, specifically, mental illness. He’s written a one-act play titled “Stay,” built around his personal experiences with suicidal ideation. The virtual production, which will debut online on May 1, comes with a trigger warning due to discussions of suicide and miscarriage, but it’s ultimately about hope, he said.

Like the 25% of Americans who suffer from a mental health disorder, Vaughan’s journey has been lifelong. He was 12 when he was first diagnosed with major depression and anxiety, but it wasn’t until November 2020, six years after graduating from Maryville, that he began experiencing suicidal ideation, triggered by the death of his adoptive mother three months earlier.

“I was actually hospitalized after coming off a suicide attempt, and when I was finally able to break out of that fog that was around me, I started thinking about how I could move past it, not only for me but for others around me,” he said. “That’s when it hit me like a load of bricks: Life is going to give you a lot of reasons to leave, but we need to focus on the reasons to stay, even when we might not want to.

“So (the play is) going to hit on my struggles with mental illness, but it doesn’t only look at the mental health side of things. Ultimately, there are a lot of reasons you can find to stay, whether it’s because of memories or to spread a message and tell your story. My reasons to stay aren’t going to be the same as anyone else’s, but we all have some. There’s something in each human being that’s worth sticking around for.”

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Vaughan came to Maryville at the behest of a family friend who was a graduate. Located in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200 students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Vaughan began pursuing theater in middle school, and through high school, he was involved in stage productions at his alma mater and in the local community.

“Coming into Maryville, that was my first opportunity to have a shot at theater that meant something,” he said. “With community and high school theater, they like to keep it family-friendly, to tow a certain line and not push a lot of buttons. Heather (McMahon, a theater professor who is now the College’s assistant dean for academic success) was not like that.”

McMahon’s bold directorial choices helped Vaughan find a purpose, and his membership in the Maryville College Concert Choir and its smaller ensembles such as Off Kilter led him to become a more polished performer, he added. With roles in everything from traditional fare like “Taming of the Shrew” to the light-hearted musical “Legally Blonde,” Vaughan laid a foundation for a return to community theater in Cincinnati.

“Heather pushed us outside of what we thought we could do, and that was a completely new level of performing for me,” he said. “Since I’ve come home, I’ve gotten to do more stuff like that.”

Initially, he went to work teaching at an elementary school before switching jobs and becoming a pediatric behavioral health specialist. Today, he’s stepped away to focus on his own well-being and works in front of house at a Cincinnati restaurant.

“At the same time, I’m holding on to what Maryville taught me,” he said. “There’s something to be said about learning how to be a whole person in addition to the academics, and that’s a lot of what Maryville College taught me.”

A whole person whose struggle and subsequent comeback are the foundation stones of his first one-act play in which he also stars. The subject matter may be heavy, he added, but the message is meant to inspire. And, he added, there’s even a reference to his time with the Maryville College Concert Choir.

“I talk about my first appearance with the choir, and how Stacey introduced us to Off Kilter, and how from the very beginning I wanted to be a part of that because it’s directed in such a way that the music really speaks to your soul,” he said. “One of the songs we did that I really connected to was ‘MLK’ by U2 — the idea that all humans have dreams, and even though the rain is going to come, you have to keep pushing until you realize you have those dreams.

“That’s the final moment of the play, that those two things are certain: The rain is going to come, but you’re able to push through it if you believe.”

Tickets for the digital production are $10 and are currently on sale through the Eventbrite website at www.eventbrite.com/e/stay-a-one-act-play-premiere-tickets-558050643497. A portion of ticket revenue will be donated directly to the psychiatry department at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where Vaughan worked for more than three years.