Philly's PlayPenn workshop has national acclaim - and its first Broadway play

J.T. Rogers (right), playwright, at a read-through of one of his plays at a PlayPenn New Play Development Conference workshop in 2015. Director Tyne Rafaeli gestures as PlayPenn intern Wil Kauffman takes notes.

It’s a good name, PlayPenn. What the theater folks at PlayPenn do is play, with plays. It’s a workshop that pulls in high-profile theater people from all over the country to help playwrights make plays better.

Participants in the group's annual New Play Development Conference read plays, discuss them, and have two rounds of full-cast staged readings at the Drake that are free and open to the public.  Out of 800 applicants across the country, only six playwrights are invited each year. This year's conference runs July 11-30, with the playwrights to be announced soon.

PlayPenn does not produce plays. It develops them. Since 2005, PlayPenn has helped along more than 100 plays, of which about 60 have gone on to more than 275 productions, says artistic director and founder Paul Meshejian.

Now, the conference can boast of its first fledgling to fly all the way to Broadway -- J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, a play concerning the Middle East peace process, through June 18 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Another PlayPenn fledgling, WHITE by Philadelphian James Ijames, will have its world premiere  April 27-May 21 at Philadelphia’s Theatre Horizon.

“When we first started,” says Meshejian, “I used to beg people, ‘Come and see what we’re doing.’ Then our reputation just exploded. We became known nationally and internationally before we became known here.”

High-profile playwrights who have been involved (some repeatedly) include Bruce Graham (Any Given Monday), Jacqueline Goldfinger (Slip/Shot), Aaron Posner (The Chosen), and Lauren Yee (A Man, His Wife, and His Hat). Directors include Edward Sobel (Superior Donuts), Bill Fennelly (Lion King national tour), and Tyne Rafaeli (Anna in the Tropics).

Meshejian, a longtime actor and director in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, started PlayPenn because he was jealous of what other towns had, such as the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco, PlayLabs in Minneapolis, and the Southern Writers Conference in Knoxville, Tenn. He started talking up the idea, got a donation from philanthropist Leonard C. Haas, and raised the rest himself. From there it, well, developed.

If you, lucky playwright, are selected for the New Play Development Conference, Meshejian says the first question you are asked is, “Who do you want to work with as a director?” PlayPenn tries hard to get him or her, or help you find somebody great. For the mammoth Oslo, Rafaeli came aboard.

Rogers, who's based in New York, said he liked the PlayPenn philosophy. “If you’re selected, it’s not, ‘Now we’re going to fix your play for you.’ It’s, ‘Here’s the keys to the car -- and it’s your car.’ ”

Playwrights and their staffs come to Philadelphia for three weeks. The first three days are a roundtable where everyone reads through all the plays aloud together, to get to know one another. No actors yet -- they come in on day four, and for the ensuing 2½ weeks, there are rehearsals, a public reading midway through, and then another reading at the very end.

“You know that hundreds of people will be hearing the play during the process,” says Rogers, “and Philly has such great actors, so very impressive. You need to hear the play, see it, fiddle with it, and repeat the process. That’s what I’ve gotten to do.”

Ijames, who lives in South Philly, gives the conference major credit for helping him not only with WHITE, but also with his playwriting in general. “By the time I came along in 2013 and 2015,” he says, “PlayPenn was very much a national entity. People from all over the country were coming in, and I got to reap the benefits of this national atmosphere.”

A Whiting Award-winning actor and a Villanova theater professor, Ijames (pronounced EYE-yums) developed WHITE with accomplished director Lucie Tiberghien, and he says Meshejian and artistic associate Michele Volansky “make sure we’re focusing on what’s the best thing for your play. I’ve learned a lot about the craft of playwriting from them. They’re just very smart about how to make a play work.”

“Other playwrights,” says Rogers, “come up to me and say, ‘You worked at PlayPenn?’ Playwrights have their own grapevine, and it has a wide reputation as a very desirable place to work.”

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