Everything you always wanted to know about PlayPenn, but were afraid to ask: Interview with founder Paul Meshejian, Part 2

According to its promotional materials, “PlayPenn is a new play development conference,which provides professional actors, directors, designers, and dramaturgs with space, technical and administrative resources, and ample time to use them.” The annual conference includes a series of staged readings featuring Philadelphia actors, providing a unique first look at new plays by major contemporary playwrights. This year’s conference runs July 7-26. Visit playpenn.org for more details.

PlayPenn was founded by local actor and director Paul Meshejian. “We are aware that many theatres have an interest in new works that come to their attention but feel some reluctance in programming those plays into their seasons because of perceived risks to success.” Meshejian told American Theatre Magazine (Nov 10, 2014). “One of those risks often has to do with the ‘production-readiness’ of any given new play, which we are addressing by offering support in the final phase of development.”  In this, the second in a three-part interview with Paul Meshejian, he tells Phindie more about the organization, how it began, and what it strives to do. Read part one here and part three here.

Paul Meshejian at PlayPenn.
Paul Meshejian at PlayPenn.

Paul Meshejian, feeling disaffected as an actor

Eger: Having acted and directed, and done a lot of other things in the theater world, you became one of the key people in Philadelphia to nurture playwrights through the PlayPenn experience. How did that organization come into being?

Meshejian: I was feeling disaffected as an actor. As I tried to imagine what I might like to do next, it occurred to me that one of the more engaging periods of my life had been during my time in the twin cities working with The Playwrights Center.

It was a kind of lightning bolt moment when I realized that although Philadelphia was a prolific production community with five LORT theaters*, a growing number of Equity and non-Equity actors, as well as directors and designers, there was no professional organization devoted exclusively to developing new plays. I personally knew dozens of playwrights of quality whose voices were not known to this community. So I went about talking about my idea everywhere I went.

PlayPenn, beginnings and development

Eger: How did PlayPenn fare in those early days?

Meshejian: I was fortunate to have been able to raise the money to get it off the ground. Our first year, 2005, saw three of the four plays we invited to PlayPenn go on to multiple productions around the world at various theaters of note. Those three playwrights were Jordan Harrison, Sheila Callahan, and J.T. Rogers. That stroke of luck put us on the map.

Eger: What distinguishes PlayPenn from similar programs in other cities in North America?

Meshejian: I believe I can say with certainty that PlayPenn is the only new play development organization in the country that, from the beginning, has given each playwright who has come to Philadelphia the opportunity to work with a director of their choice and to cast their own actors. The process itself is 29 hours of rehearsal and stage reading time over a period of three weeks.

Eger: PlayPenn also offers a wide range of successful workshops for Philadelphia playwrights throughout the whole year with nationally known playwrights.

Meshejian: A few years ago, it occurred to us that no one in Philadelphia was offering classes for playwrights. To serve the local playwriting community, we decided to offer a class to see what the response would be. Since we began, we have had nearly full enrollment in all of our offerings, which have included classes by local writers like Bruce Graham, Michael Hollinger, Thomas Gibbons, Jacqueline Goldfinger, and others, along with nationally recognized playwrights like Jeffrey Hatcher, Craig Lucas, Paula Vogel, Erik Ehn, Lisa Krohn, Sam Hunter, and more.

We are now offering from 10-12 classes each year, covering a range of topics of interest to playwrights and artists interested in writing, directing, and dramaturging new plays.

The nitty-gritty of running PlayPenn, perfect teamwork

Eger: You run this important organization single-handedly out of your home office.

Meshejian: Yes, I do run PlayPenn out of a home office, but I don’t run it alone. Not at all. I have the most skilled, intelligent, passionate, devoted staff—all of whom work part time, to one degree or another—that someone in my position could want. I think of them as partners in the enterprise, along with my board of directors, which I consider one of the better non-profit boards in the city.

Eger: Tell us about the range of things you and your collaborators do.

Meshejian: In addition to reading a lot of plays and working to advance the lives of the 80 plays we have developed over the past 10 years, I take care of general administrative responsibilities, including accounting and payroll. Michele Volansky, who has been an artistic partner from the beginning, has been a steady collaborator in addressing both philosophical and practical questions that arise regularly as we work to hew close to our original purpose.

We are continuing to entertain new possibilities as we evolve as people and artists who are open to new understandings and perspectives. Karyn Lyman, our Consulting Director of Development, and I work very closely together with regard to grant proposals and fundraising in general. And then there are ongoing relationships with our Education Director, Jacqueline Goldfinger; our Marketing Director, Leigh Goldenberg; and our Production and Company Manager, Tom Shotkin.

Eger: You have put together a great team.

Meshejian: This is a group of devoted professionals and first rate human beings who are doing such terrific work in bringing our mission into reality in every area of our organizational programming. We all work together so harmoniously that there are times I feel as if we share office space.

The future of PlayPenn

Eger: What would you say is one of your major goals?

Meshejian: I would like to develop a large enough audience for new work through the readings that we present. Such a move could lead to a change in perspective among producing organizations about the willingness of audiences to buy tickets to new plays. If producing theaters can see hard evidence that there is an appetite for new plays, perhaps they might find it easier to make decisions when crafting their seasons.

I am always looking for ways to encourage new play production across the country, in the region, and most especially here in Philadelphia.

Eger: That sounds wonderful—but, of course, not everything can be perfect. What is the greatest stumbling block for PlayPenn?

Meshejian: Not to be glib, but money is a constant stumbling block. I would like to be able to pay every single person that works for PlayPenn more money, from the staff to directors, dramaturgs, designers, stage managers, actors, and interns. But that is true for all of us making theater.

Eger: What plans do you have to make the overall goals a reality?

Meshejian: Next year (summer 2016) will be the first Conference that takes place at the Drake [1512 Spruce St., Philadelphia]. While InterAct Theatre is the principal tenant at the Drake, there are four other partners who will inhabit and use the space regularly: Azuka, Inis Nua, Simpatico, and PlayPenn. Each of these organizations is engaged in producing new plays, and we believe the shared space will create a kind of synergy around the idea of new play production that may, hopefully, filter out into the larger community.

Eger: What a great concept. Apparently, you and your team want to strengthen PlayPenn even further.

Meshejian: We are constantly re-examining what we do, how we do it, and with whom. In my view, nothing could be more deadly to the theater as an art form than institutionalization. We have just held a very exciting staff retreat that, when combined with an upcoming organizational strategic planning process, will, we believe, lead to changes in the what, how, and who questions and take us buoyantly into the next ten years of our work.

Is there life outside PlayPenn?

Eger: Congratulations. What else would you like to do as an actor, director, PlayPenn founder, and as a person who may have interests outside the theater as well?

Meshejian: I am deeply engaged, always stimulated and personally happy with the work I’m doing now. In some ways, I think the desire to make this organization and do this work was a function of a desire to nurture. I find the work I’m doing fulfilling in that way.

I enjoy traveling, something I wasn’t really able to do when I was younger, so I’m finding opportunities to do just that. And probably not very surprisingly, I love to read literature, which I’m finding a naturally complementary activity to reading plays.

* LORT: “The League of Resident Theatres is the largest professional theater association of its kind in the United States […] LORT Theaters collectively issue more Equity contracts to actors than Broadway and commercial tours combined” (Wikipedia).

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