How to Get Accepted into PlayPenn: Interview with founder Paul Meshejian, Part 3

In a recent Phindie interview, James Ijames, a prominent young Philadelphia playwright who has been chosen to participate in the PlayPenn experience twice (2013 and 2015), had this to say about the PlayPenn founder: “Paul Meshejian is a miracle. What he does with PlayPenn is so important to the American theater. His taste is impeccable, and he has created a development format that really allows a play and a playwright to grow. I can’t thank him enough for including my play.” 

In this, the third of a three-part interview with Paul Meshejian, he gives Phindie the low-down about how a play comes to be accepted to the annual play development conference. July 7-26, 2015;

Read parts one and two

Paul Meshejian, Michelle Volansky, Eric Pfeffinger,  at PlayPenn 2015
Paul Meshejian, Michelle Volansky, and Eric Pfeffinger, at PlayPenn 2015

How do playwrights get accepted?

Eger: PlayPenn receives hundreds of scripts every year. Fewer than 1% make it to the final round. Could you describe the selection process to whittle down the scripts to the top six?

Meshejian: Our evaluation process was designed to take the burden off any single reader in helping to identify plays we consider in the final round of consideration. Each play is read and evaluated by three different theatre professionals. Everyone reads blindly. Any effort is made to assure that each threesome is made up of a diverse group of individuals coming from every point of view. It’s never all men, all women, all young, all old, all actors, all white, all African American, all Asian, and so forth.

It’s not about not offending anyone. It’s about the widest range of views that will guide us toward looking carefully at work that may only recommend itself to one out of the three people who have evaluated a particular play. PlayPenn’s record, in that regard, speaks for itself.

PlayPenn readers read for us out of a sense of community pride and responsibility that Philadelphia has an organization committed to this kind of substantive work and that its results are observable. They participate with a curiosity for what’s being written and how it’s being written. The readers participate with a sense of their individual and community responsibility to the profession and a pride in the results.

Our process of evaluation is ever-evolving and this coming year we will exercise a new structure toward achieving our goals of identifying plays we feel have potential to come to fruition as fully produced plays on stages across the country.

Eger: Todd Ristau* once asked you, “What are you looking for in the first ten pages?”

Meshejian: “I’m interested in having my attention grabbed. All I want is to want to know more. I want to be intrigued. I want to know more about the people. I want to know more about the story. I want to know more about the language. I mean, all you have to do is hold me for ten pages. [. . .] If you can’t keep [the audience] for ten minutes, you’re not going to keep them for two hours.”

Eger: He also asked you, “How do you know if a writer is a good match for PlayPenn?”

Meshejian: “Intuition. I’m not always correct, but I explain what we’re about, and listen to playwrights’ responses, and what they want to accomplish. I ask people for ten pages up front, and from those ten pages I decide if I want to see the whole play or not.”

Eger: At what stage do you stop “blind readings” and look at a playwright’s bio?

Meshejian: To date, all evaluations have remained blind until we get down to thirty semi-finalists. At that point in the process, we are employing theatre professionals from across the country, many of whom read enough to be able to recognize either the play they’re reading or the voice of the writer. The professionalism of our finalist panelists is beyond question, making the knowledge of play or writer just another element in the process of evaluations—sometimes working for and sometime against a given play’s advancement to the finalist list.

Once we achieve a list of finalists numbering 12-15 plays, it becomes a question of diversity of thought, theatricality, language, culture, geographic representation, and so forth. Early on, we decided that if a playwright has work [he or she] wants to bring to us for development, that playwright has to be considered an artist who is mature, a grown-up. We are essentially working to select a group of writers whose work will make up an interesting community of playwrights to participate in the close interaction and creative environment that we foster during the Conference.

Inside a PlayPenn Conference

Eger: Could you walk us through the PlayPenn Conference?

Meshejian: We begin the Conference with a three day roundtable that allows playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, designers, and interns to get to know each other in a relaxed environment. During those three days, each of the six Conference plays is read by the artists in the room, which does not include actors. The purpose is for all of the principal Conference artists to begin to become familiar with all the Conference plays, as well as one another.

Actors arrive on the fourth day. Rehearsals begin with time off in between to allow for playwrights to think, reflect, and revise. Along the way, there are meetings with designers that allow playwrights to hear design responses from scenic, lighting, sound, and costume perspectives.

Last year, we added a second public reading of each play—midway through the process—to give the playwright the opportunity to learn from an audience about the work as it had progressed to that point. Then it’s back into the room for more rehearsal and revision, leading up to the final public reading where writers can begin to evaluate the efficacy of the work they’ve done over the three week period.

Eger: Looking at the wide range of playwrights that went through the PlayPenn experience, what would be the three things they all have in common?

Meshejian: They are all driven to learn from what they write, all driven to have their stories told, and all courageous when it comes to their willingness to fall down publicly, get back up, and fall down again.

Eger: What advice do you have for young playwrights who want to make major breakthroughs?

Meshejian: Keep reading, keep writing, and go to the theater.

*Todd Ristau, “Guest Profile: Paul Meshejian.” Lab Report 2.2, Hollins University, July 2008.

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