Paul Meshejian (right) with “Oslo” playwright J.T . Rogers holding his (Rogers’) Tony Award for “Best Play of 2017.” Meshejian, a Chestnut Hill resident, is the 2018 Barrymore Awards Lifetime Achievement winner. (Photo courtesy of Paul Meshejian)

by Clark Groome

Since 2004, Chestnut Hill resident Paul Meshejian has been the founding producing artistic director of PlayPenn, a nationally recognized program that gives playwrights an opportunity to develop their work. Before that he was an active and successful director and actor in Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country. The local theater community will honor Meshejian, 69, with the Barrymore Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award at its ceremony on Monday, Nov. 5, at the Bok Building, 800 Mifflin St. in South Philadelphia.

A native Philadelphian, Paul grew up in Overbrook, graduating from Central High School in 1966. Meshejian wasn’t one of those kids who grew up loving theater, His only early experience was when he and his family went to see the Broadway production of “Oliver” with Davey Jones cast as the Artful Dodger. He wanted to wait at the stage door to get Jones’ autograph, but his father would not allow it to happen. Paul says that he thinks his father was concerned that his son would become involved in a life that wouldn’t provide significant financial stability.

After Central, he went to Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, to begin an academic career that, he says, had its ups and downs, including some time at Temple, Penn State and Susquehanna University. He was a General Studies major who ultimately minored in philosophy. In the late 1960s he moved to Colorado, where he was drafted into the army, serving for two years, one in Vietnam.

Returning to Iowa and to Parsons after his discharge, he met Sydney Howard Spayed, the man who interested him in theater. Spayed, he said in a recent interview, served as his mentor and taught him a great deal about the theater. “He told me to build sets [at my first theater job]; I really loved it,” he said.

He really loved directing, acting not so much. In his first role, as a Puerto Rican waiter in a production of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” he was so nervous he almost couldn’t deliver his one line. When Parsons closed in 1972, he went to the University of Iowa. As he was graduating from college, he heard that there was a theater in Ottumwa, Iowa, that was looking for an artistic director. “I wanted to direct plays. I didn’t want anything to do with acting; nothing to do with acting. I didn’t want to be in front of people.” In order to support himself, he also worked writing ad copy at the local TV station, KTVO. For the next few years he moved around, working at theaters in Iowa and Michigan and even spending a year in New York City. Along the way he met Michal Moses McCall, whom he married in 1978. She had a PhD, and when she got a job at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., the year after their wedding, they moved to the Twin Cities.

During their time there, Paul directed and acted. When, about a decade later, “I wasn’t working,” he became a member of the resident company at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, commuting to Minnesota when he wasn’t involved with a production. The Meshejians moved to Birchrunville, Chester County, full time in 1995. But because of Michal’s failing health, the desire to reduce the work necessary to maintain their farm and the need to be closer to the city and public transportation, they decided to look for an apartment. During their search they fell in love with Chestnut Hill, where they happily settled in 2007. During his time as a member of the company at People’s Light, he directed there and at many other theaters. His acting could be seen on stages at People’s Light, the Walnut, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, InterAct the Wilma Theater, the Arden Theatre and Cheltenham Playhouse.

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays are seen in the Lincoln Center production of J.T . Rogers’ “Oslo,”a play that started its life at PlayPenn in 2010 and won the 2017 Tony Award for best play. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In 2004, he finally had become, he said, “disaffected with acting. I wasn’t comfortable in front of people ever. If you’re an actor, if that’s how you make your money, you have to do stuff you don’t want to do, and you have to audition all the time. Applause didn’t mean enough to me.”

With all the directorial and acting assignments on his resume, Meshejian decided to start a place that would nurture and encourage new work by established and emerging playwrights. So over several months he raised money and talked to local theater people about establishing PlayPenn. Fifteen years later it is still going strong. “I wanted to build a writing community here. There wasn’t one. I thought there was only one way to attract writers and that was if you have something to offer them.”

Playwrights from all over the country are invited to submit plays to PlayPenn for consideration for inclusion in their annual summer conference. At the conference the plays are workshopped with the playwrights who work with actors, directors, designers, etc., to rehearse, revise and develop new scripts. All of the playwrights’ expenses are covered by PlayPenn, whose annual budgets have risen from $57,000 the first year to just about $500,000 this year, all donated by individuals and foundations.

Some of the playwrights who have been part of PlayPenn’s conferences include local writers James Christy, Thomas Gibbons, Bruce Graham, Michael Hollinger and James Ijames. Also notable are MacArthur Fellowship recipient Samuel D. Hunter and J.T . Rogers, whose “Oslo” was part of the 2010 conference and went on to win the 2017 Tony Award for best play.

Over PlayPenn’s 15-year history, it has helped develop 140 plays that have had more than 350 professional productions. While PlayPenn does not produce plays or receive compensation for those that get produced, it is contractually agreed that the sentence “(Name of play) was developed with the support of PlayPenn, Paul Meshejian, artistic director” be included in each production’s program.

Meshejian is pleased with the Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award, but he says, “I don’t know why I’m getting the award. I really feel honored … Without my intending to do this, we now have a national reputation.”

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