PHILADELPHIA -- Despite its support of new work, Philadelphia lacked a professional new-play development organization until last year, when the need was filled by PlayPenn, a conference founded by Paul Meshejian, a local actor and director and a member of the People's Light & Theatre Company since 1989.
The goal of the conference, according to its website, includes "the advancement of new voices in the theatre both locally and nationally, and the cross-fertilization of writers, directors, dramaturges, and actors." PlayPenn runs July 13-16 this year and will feature staged readings at the Adrienne Theatre that are open to the public.
By almost any measure, the initial conference was a complete success. Playwright J.T. Rogers, who developed his drama The Overwhelming, called it "one of the best artistic experiences of my writing career." Jordan Harrison, whose comedy Act a Lady drew an SRO crowd, described it as "crucial to the subsequent life of my play." Indeed, both writers' plays moved on to high-profile world premieres: Act a Lady as part of the 2006 Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville and The Overwhelming at the National Theatre in London in May.
To select the four plays developed at the conference -- this year they are Gina Barnett's A Scream, Peter Morris' Bad for the Jews, Lucy Thurber's Scarcity, and Eric Pfeffinger's Malignance -- Meshejian asks artistic directors and literary managers around the country to nominate promising new works. Approximately 125 titles were submitted this year, from which Meshejian and a team of readers chose 10 semifinalists, later narrowed down to the final four. Each playwright brings a director of his or her choice, while the conference provides a trio of dramaturges as well as rehearsal and performance space, housing, and technical support. In addition, the 2006 conference will employ 25 actors, several in multiple roles.
Meshejian considers it important that PlayPenn provide opportunities for local actors, and Lois Kitz, casting director for the Philadelphia Theater Company, conducts annual auditions for the conference in Philadelphia. In fact, one of the main reasons PlayPenn takes place in July, Meshejian says, is because that's when more quality actors are typically available. But landing top performers can be a challenge, he adds, as many local actors teach at theatre camps this time of year, the city's theatres have been operating later into the summer, and the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's season further depletes the talent pool.
In order to lure more quality actors, the 2006 auditions were conducted in mid-June, a month later than last year. "If we cast too early, people get better-paying gigs and we lose them," Meshejian says. "On the other hand, by going later, I think some people we wanted to audition had taken jobs they may not have committed to if they had been cast by us. It's really hard to find a window where people are available to come in."
To ensure the plays are cast to the creators' specifications, PlayPenn pays the travel expenses of the selected playwrights and directors to come to the city and attend the auditions. This year's conference will feature several of Philadelphia's finest actors, including William Zielinski, Matt Pfeiffer, and Maggie Siff.