“I’ve been working in the American theater, making my living, such as it is, for the past forty years. In all that time, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve never earned more than $45,000—and that was a year that included residuals from a major motion picture I was lucky enough to have had a role in. In Todd London and Ben Pesner’s book Outrageous Fortune, playwrights talk about the fact that they have to teach, edit, or write copy besides playwriting to make ends meet, and they say it as if it were an injustice. I have to say I find that astonishing” (HowlerRound, 2013).
Paul: This is your life
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paul Meshejian, listening to PlayPenn playwrights
and offering advice. Photo by John Flak.
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.
- Get free tickets to staged readings with Philadelphia actors at PlayPenn 2015.
- Find more information on PlayPenn,
- Watch a short video bio with Paul Meshejian (2009)
For Part 2 of this interview, Everything you always wanted to know about PlayPenn, but were afraid to ask: Paul Meshejian interview, click this link.
For Part 3 of this interview, The secrets of getting a manuscript accepted: Paul Meshejian interview, Part 3, click this link.
For Part 1, first published on Phindie, click here.