There wasn’t much on the stage at the Drake on Wednesday to suggest a run-down restaurant somewhere in Uganda. The staging was limited simply to three chairs and an accompanying trio of music stands, the actors clad casually in T-shirts and sneakers. Off to one side of the stage sat the voice actor Lori Felipe-Barkin, intermittently narrating stage directions to help envision the scene.
Someday, on another stage, the setting of Will Snider’s Strange Men may be more fully fleshed out. This week, in the first public reading of PlayPenn’s 15th annual New Play Development Conference, it was simply, in the words of PlayPenn founder/artistic director Paul Meshejian, “a snapshot in time of a play on its way to being what it wants to be.”
On that future stage, the TV on which Indian chef Harish (sensitively played by Imran W. Sheikh) furtively watches cooking shows will be more than an empty space in the distance. The bottles of wine with which Peace Corps volunteer Peter (a sly Keith Conallen) ingratiates himself will be poured, not mimed. Michael, a Ugandan (a devilishly charming DeLeon Dallas), will clean tables with more than an occasional flex of his elbow.
For now, the three gifted actors took the Drake audience a long way toward envisioning that near-empty samosa shop. For the time being, that’s as far as Snider, who lived and worked in East Africa for three years, needs the illusion to go. At this point in the process, he simply wants to know whether the story he’s telling, about a gay American Peace Corps volunteer and his disruptive effect on a solitary Indian immigrant and his Ugandan employee, works on the most basic level.
For the crowd that braved the heat for Wednesday’s free public reading, it certainly seemed to. Though not quite a full house, audience members met Snider’s play with well-timed laughter and an enthusiastic ovation. They also relished the chance to mingle with the playwright before the reading and afterward, over plastic cups of wine in the Drake’s lobby.
“The workshop process allows you to hear an audience’s reaction and really think through the text before you get into the pressures of production,” Snider explained before the reading. “We can focus on whether the backbone of the story makes fundamental sense without all the other questions that come up in production about costumes or lighting cues or design. I think about it like drafting and redrafting a novel and showing it to close friends.”
Meet the playwrights
Snider is one of six playwrights selected from a pool of more than 700 applicants for this year’s conference. The Washington, D.C., native is joined by Amy E. Witting from Queens; Dallas writer and cartoonist A. Emmanuel Leadon; 2017 Wall Street Journal Playwright of the Year Kate Hamill; Minneapolis-based playwright and screenwriter Whitney Rowland; and West Philly native Dave Harris. All will workshop new plays in varying stages of development through July.
PlayPenn’s structure differs from most development workshops in that it spans three weeks, allowing time for initial public readings (which kicked off with Strange Men on Wednesday) followed by additional revisions and rehearsals before a second run of performances at the end of the month. Wednesday’s public reading was the first of a dozen in the PlayPenn series this year, all free (with prior reservation).
In addition, the schedule includes a reading of a new work by Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists founding member Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters as part of the organization’s locally oriented Foundry program, a new piece by two-time PlayPenn alum Meghan Kennedy, and a program of 10-minute plays written by PlayPenn interns. The full schedule is at PlayPenn.org/events.
“PlayPenn’s unique in that it gives you a really extensive time to sit in one place with one set of people working on one piece,” says Dave Harris, whose Incendiary follows a black single mother’s quest to break her son out of prison.
PlayPenn’s success speaks for itself. Sixty percent of the more than 140 plays that have passed through the conference have gone on to be produced on stages across the country and around the world. The most notable PlayPenn alumnus is Oslo, J.T. Rogers’ Tony-winning smash dramatizing the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.
That success was inevitably accompanied by a raised profile for PlayPenn, but founder Meshejian is quick to temper any hope for a repeat. “I always tell people, ‘That is never going to happen again,’ ” he said by phone on Tuesday.
“Not that many straight plays get produced on Broadway, first of all, and then the chance that we would develop the one that gets there seems slim to none. Our job is to support writers whose work we believe in and do our best to see that those plays are produced as far and wide and as often as possible.”
That has been Meshejian’s goal since he founded PlayPenn in 2004. At the time, he recalls, the production of new plays was few and far between in Philadelphia. “I had this moment where I realized that there were multiple productions of the same Shakespeare play going on but very few new plays,” he says. “Our community was a burgeoning one at that time, but we didn’t really have a playwriting community here.”
To remedy that situation, he started PlayPenn during the summer months, when most local theaters were dark and both actors and backstage talent had time to spare. The program has since grown to include activities throughout the year, including workshops, classes, and professional services.
In 2016, PlayPenn also partnered with the Foundry, a local playwright support organization founded by Philadelphia-based playwrights and educators Quinn Eli, Jacqueline Goldfinger, and Michael Hollinger, absorbing that group’s mission into its own.
With support from the charitable Wyncote Foundation, this year’s playwrights also have been named Haas Fellows, a designation accompanied by additional budget for the writers as well as PlayPenn’s staff. “We’ve been able to almost triple the money we’re giving to playwrights and increase the money we’re giving to actors, directors, dramaturges, and everyone else,” Meshejian says. “It’s really been a gift to us, both literally and figuratively.”
For Harris, who grew up in West Philly but is now attending graduate school in San Diego, the support of organizations like PlayPenn help him to create new work inspired by contemporary influences. “I used to think about playwriting as responding to the plays I had read, and for a long time most of the plays I had read were written by old dead white people,” he says. “As I started to think about what specifically moved me, my work started pulling from all sorts of references."
Incendiary, for instance, is based on the formula of a video game, he said. "Anime will pop up in my work; hip-hop and rap music will pop up. For me this play is about finding the most fun way to [explore] something deep and troubling that I feel.”
Meshejian points to this year’s strong group of playwrights as indicative of the kinds of diverse and innovative voices that PlayPenn was founded to nurture.
“All six of these plays are about characters that are in a moral struggle of some kind," he said. "To us, that’s what makes the best theater: when you’re watching someone who is caught between one thing and another and there’s a moral component to the struggle. And they’re all plays that are written to be seen on a stage, not on a TV screen.”