PlayPenn, Theater, and “A comfortable place for misfits”: Interview with founder Paul Meshejian, Part 1

Paul Meshejian is the founding artistic director of PlayPenn. A company member at People Light and Theatre Company since 1989, Meshejian founded PlayPenn in 2005 to provide support for development of new plays. Each summer, PlayPenn selects a handful of playwrights for a three-week development workshop, providing professional actors, directors, designers, and dramaturgs as well as space, technical and administrative resources and ample time to use them. The conference includes a series of staged readings open to the public. This years conference runs July 7-26, 2015. Visit playpenn.org for details.

In addition to his work with PlayPenn and People’s Light, Meshejian was the founding artistic director of Stage One: Collaboration, a professional theater in Minneapolis/St. Paul devoted to new and rarely produced works and serves on the board of directors of the International Institute for Theatre Research and is a member of LMDA, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. He was been nominated for numerous Barrymore Awards. In this, the first of a three-part interview, Henrik Eger talks to Paul about his life and work. (Read parts two and three.)

Paul Meshejian, PlayPenn 2

Paul Meshejian (standing) at a PlayPenn workshop

Henrik Eger: What was it in your childhood and adolescence that got you interested in theater arts?

Paul Meshejian: My parents took the family to see the Broadway production of Oliver! when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was captivated by the story, of course, but also by the stage craft and the performances. The boy who played the Artful Dodger was Davey Jones, later of the pop group, The Monkeys. I begged to wait for him at the stage door. That was my first exposure, and it stayed with me.

Later, while in high school, I found the drama club a comfortable place for misfits, of which I was one. After that it was a series of hit and miss experiences that eventually, after I came out of the Army, landed me firmly in a theater, spending all my free time learning the trade.

Eger: Your family comes from Armenia, a small country that has suffered endlessly, with over a million people killed brutally, ISIS style, by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. Later, Armenia was occupied by the Soviet Union, suppressing Armenian culture further. How did Armenian values and worldviews impact your life as an American?

Meshejian: I grew up thinking of myself as an Armenian, and not, in any way, as an American. It was the culture of my home life and of the church we attended. While we talked about ourselves as Armenians, socialized with Armenians, listened to Armenian music at home—as well as other kinds of music and art—as the first child and only son, I was expected to function outside the home and to succeed as an American. I always felt like the outsider and, in today’s terms, I would be considered “the other.” I never even thought of myself as white, until I began to be defined that way by the institutions in which I participated.

I think it was the mid-1960s when I filled out a college application and was asked what I “was.” The choices were White, Indian, Black, Oriental, and Other. I checked Other and filled in Caucasian. Because I am Caucasian. From the Caucasus. Lost on many but, at the time, meaningful to me.

Eger: It seems that you joined the professional world of theater almost by accident with several unexpected scenarios that opened doors for you. Could you share those serendipitous moments and the impact they had on your career?

Meshejian: Once I went to college, I kept stumbling into theaters, something to do, something to belong to, something to engage and occupy my curiosity. When I returned from my service in the Army, I went back to the first of several colleges I had attended before being drafted, essentially to get my grades in order and then transfer back to a school on the east coast. I was smoking a lot of pot and doing other things.

A guy I was hanging around with had a technical theater requirement and asked me to come along with him. I did and found the work to be therapeutic and satisfying.

Eger: Theater work—therapeutic and satisfying? Great. What happened next?

Meshejian: He quit showing up, but I kept going to work building scenery, scene painting, hanging lights, and so forth. After a few weeks I was told the head of the department wanted to see me. I was sure I was in some kind of trouble. He told me he’d noticed my passion for what I was doing and asked me if I would like to be paid for my work. This was an important day for me.

That man, Sydney Howard Spayde, became my friend and mentor. Eventually, when I’d finished my B.A. work, he took me in as a private student. I can honestly say that the training I received from Syd was more complete and had more depth and substance than I could have gotten at any graduate training program that might have been available to me.

Eger: How did this mentoring impact your career?

Meshejian: During that first summer, Syd put me in a play without even asking. I played a Puerto Rican waiter in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. I was terrible. I had to hand someone a check. My knees were weak and my hand was shaking so much the check literally flapped in the breeze. I was certain I’d never act again. For years that held true.

I immediately gravitated to directing plays, which is the work I did and how I earned a living for quite a few years thereafter. Because my wife’s work took us to Minneapolis-St. Paul in the early 1980s, I found myself in unknown territory. While I was trying to find my footing in the community, someone asked me to be in a play. That began a 25 year career of acting in the various media which eventually led me to join the company at People’s Light and Theatre, where I remained an active company member until I decided to start PlayPenn.

Eger: From a “misfit” to an established director and stage and movie actor, appearing in films like The Comeback; Equinox; Twelve Monkeys; Private Enemy, Public Eye; and The Final Patient; plus TV shows like Homicide: Life on the Street; and The Wire—what a great transformation. And somewhere in between, you even met the love of your life.

Meshejian: Had I not met my wife, Michal, there is no doubt I would have had a completely different life in the theater—if I would have even stayed in the theater at all. She was someone who believed in my passion for the work I did and wanted to do. When I announced my next crazy scheme, whatever that may have been, she was always the first person to support my choices.

Eger: You experienced the theater world from numerous perspectives, including teaching at Arcadia University and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. What were some of the best and worst moments, and what did you learn about yourself?

Meshejian: I don’t really know how to answer this question, Henrik. Perhaps, the best thing I can say is that every single experience I’ve had, professionally speaking, in and outside the theater, has been defined in one way or another by some element of extremity. Each experience has presented, even confronted me with an aspect of myself.

Eger: What would you say to the next generation of young people who want to enter the theater world?

Meshejian: It’s become a cliché, but it bears repeating. If you are passionate about expressing yourself and what you perceive about others—and if you are willing to do so at great cost to yourself—the theater may be the place for you. However, if you can think of something else to do, do it.

Eger: Anything else you would like to share?  

Meshejian: Like so many who enter this profession, it is notions of community, communication, communing and how we can learn from one another within those constructs that have been the driving aspects of my passion for the theater. The idea that is trumpeted regularly, that the theater is dead, seems to me unlikely and even preposterous as there is some human need that drives us to find a quiet focus around shared stories of who we are as human beings.

It’s unfashionable to suggest there’s such a thing as human nature, but as a number of anthropologists and sociologists have posited, we are “Homo narrans”—Man, the story teller. If that’s true, the theater will always be with us—as a sacred space.

 

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com