By Clark Groome
When Chestnut Hill resident Paul Meshejian attends the June 11 Tony Awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall, he won’t be there just for the glitz and glamour. No, Meshejian, the founder and artistic director of the Philadelphia-based play development program PlayPenn, will be there because one of the plays PlayPenn helped develop, J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo,” is one of four nominated for best play.
Since its founding in 2005, PlayPenn has held an annual conference in Philadelphia during the summer at which six plays are developed in a workshop format that allows playwrights the opportunity to work with actors, directors, dramaturges and designers. They have the time and freedom to revise and develop their work.
The process for selection is lengthy. The plays submitted are given to a group of readers without the playwright’s name attached. The list is gradually pared down. This year there were 800 plays received, and then the final six are selected.
All of the readers, actors (most of them local), directors, dramaturges and designers are paid. All of the playwrights’ expenses when at the conference are also covered. The money for the endeavor is all contributed, some by individuals but mostly by foundations. This year’s budget is approaching $500,000.
In talking about his program Meshejian, 67, said, “Playwrights need to have power … We have a real commitment to text being the foundation of good theater. In the world of text-based theater, the playwright is supreme.”
“Oslo” was part of the 2015 conference. It was J.T. Rogers’ third play developed at PlayPenn, following his “The Overwhelming” in 2005 and “Blood and Gifts” in 2009.
Commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, the play tells a somewhat fictionalized version of the behind-the-scenes negotiations leading up to the 1993 Oslo Israel/Palestine Liberation Organization Accords.
After its time at PlayPenn, it was produced at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater Off-Broadway in July, 2016, moving upstairs to Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on April 13 of this year.
The play was greeted at both venues with unanimously positive reviews. In the past few weeks it has won the Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding play; the 2017 Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding new Broadway play; The New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play; and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play.
In addition to its Tony nomination for best play, “Oslo” also has six other Tony nominations: best leading actor in a play; best leading actress in a play; best featured actor in a play; best direction of a play; best scenic design of a play; and best lighting design of a play. (The Tonys can be seen on June 11 from 8-11 p.m. on CBS.)
In describing PlayPenn’s role in the process, playwright Rogers, 48, said, “It has been invaluable. It’s a place [where the playwright is] given the freedom to be a grownup and be in charge of your own play and do what you want … I’m both indebted and wedded to PlayPenn.”
The play selection process, of which he has been the beneficiary three times, is “unique, or close to it, in that everything is read blind. Even for my third time there, I had to go through a blind submission process. There’s no favoritism.”
“Oslo,” which is scheduled to run through June, may well extend if it wins the Tony, as most prognosticators believe it will. But as wonderful as that would be, Meshejian is actually more excited that 60% of the 100 plays that have been part of their conferences have gone on to about 300 professional productions, a large number of them in major regional theaters all over the country and, like Rogers’ other work, in London, where “Oslo” will appear this fall.
Meshejian said that while PlayPenn has no financial relationship with any of its plays, it does contractually require that the sentence “(Name of play) was developed with the support off PlayPenn, Paul Meshejian, artistic director” be included in each production’s program.
In describing how he feels about what constitutes success for PlayPenn, Meshejian quotes a Major League hitter (he thinks it’s long-time left fielder Matt Holliday, now a New York Yankee): “I don’t try to hit home runs. I try to hit line drives. Sometimes they leave the park.”
“Oslo” is the home run. All those other plays are like Holliday’s line drives. The difference is that Holliday’s lifetime batting average is .302, and PlayPenn’s is .600.
Clark Groome is a long-time theater reviewer for the Local. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org