by Mary Frances Cavallaro
“Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears…” If you are a budding playwright who wants to improve your work in concert with experienced professionals, a non-profit organization based on West Evergreen Avenue in Chestnut Hill may just be the playpen you need to roll around in.
The organization, known as PlayPenn, is, according to its mission statement, “an artist-driven organization dedicated to improving the way in which new plays are developed. Employing an ever-evolving process, PlayPenn creates a relaxed tension within which playwrights can engage in risk-taking, boundary-pushing work free from the pressures of commercial consideration.”
According to its artistic director, Paul Mesheijan, who formed PlayPenn in 2004, “I had been working as an actor and company member at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern since 1989, as well as at most of the other major theaters in Philadelphia. I began to realize that in the very rich landscape of Philadelphia theater, there was no organization devoted to the development of new work. That was the thought behind the genesis of the idea. From there, it was a matter of formulating the shape and function of the organization and beginning to raise the funds that would allow us to do our work.”
PlayPenn dedicates its time and attention to playwrights from around the nation whose work forms the basis of a developmental workshop environment. While they do not produce shows themselves, each summer since 2005 PlayPenn has invited writers to a two-week conference in Philadelphia, where they can work on their plays at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. Some of the local playwrights PlayPenn has invited include Peter Bonilla (“A Human Equation”), Aaron Cromie (“Carlo vs. Carlo”), Quinn Eli (“Chasing Waves”), Thomas Gibbons (“Uncanny Valley”) and Jacqueline Goldfinger (“Slip/Shot”).
Professional actors, directors, designers, etc., are provided for the conference in order to encourage active revision, rewriting and improving the plays. Throughout the two weeks, there are staged readings, which are presented to members of the local, regional and national professional theater communities and to the community at large. PlayPenn likes to think of what they do as “development heaven.”
Mesheijan explained, “…because we are devoted to a constantly evolving process — and each year we openly accept applications from across the country from 600 playwrights — we are in a state of continual change. We work constantly to reevaluate our process so we may offer the most productive experience for the writers we invite to the conference.
While PlayPenn has won no awards, we are recognized nationally as one of five or six organizations of our type to be among the best places for playwrights to bring their work for development.”
Since its first conference in the summer of 2005, PlayPenn has helped to shepherd 57 new plays from infancy to a state closer to production readiness. While high-profile productions of the plays workshopped at PlayPenn are not their primary goal, they are nevertheless proud that several of their plays have gone on to future life in the U.S., Great Britain and elsewhere around the world, including the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival for New American Plays, the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and several New York theaters including the Atlantic Theatre, Second Stage and the Roundabout Theatre and Lincoln Center Theatre. PlayPenn playwrights and plays have received several prestigious awards, publication and recognition.
PlayPenn is 90% reliant on contributed income; therefore, they spend a lot of time fundraising for the work they do. The remaining 10% comes in the form of income from playwriting classes that PlayPenn offers. According to Mesheijan, “The balance of our work is the selection process — reading and assessing the work that is sent to us and working our way through what we feel to be a fair evaluative process toward inviting the best six plays to the conference. Because we don’t produce plays, our work does not include designing sets, lights, sound, costumes or props.”
The 2014 Conference will take place July 6-27 with public readings throughout those weeks. The exact dates and times of those readings will be announced in the near future.
Mesheijan commented, “We are extremely fortunate to work with some of the finest talent in the American theater. That includes the playwrights we invite to the conference, the directors, dramaturgs and designers who support the writers and the actors who are almost entirely cast from the extraordinarily talented Philadelphia theatre community.”