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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Image above: Canterbury Tales Mural by Ezra Winter, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.
Image below: Wooden chapiter of the six pointed Star of Armenia, 9th century, Astvatsamayr Church, Araqeloc Monastery, Sevan History Museum of Armenia
- Read the first part of this three-part interview.
- Read the third part of this three-part interview.
- PlayPenn 2015. Get free tickets to staged readings with Philadelphia actors (July 14-26, 2015). Donations appreciated.
- Find more information on PlayPenn.
- Watch a short video bio with Paul Meshejian (2009).
For Part 1 of this interview, “A comfortable place for misfits”: Interview with PlayPenn founder Paul Meshejian, click this link.
For Part 3 of this interview, The secrets of getting a manuscript accepted: Paul Meshejian interview, click this link.
For Part 2, first published on Phindie, click here.