PlayPenn 2017 defies the economics of nonprofit theater

Playwright C.A. Johnson's 'Thirst' comes to PlayPenn this year. (Photo courtesy of PlayPenn.)

For C.A. Johnson, a playwright originally from Louisiana who now lives in Queens, the opportunity to find a place to nurture and develop her new play Thirst is an incredible gift. “In New York, it’s not easy to find the space or money needed to develop new work,” she laments. “The economics of nonprofit theater aren’t simple or easy, and I was hungry for the chance to work on this play.”

Johnson submitted her draft of Thirst, a full-length play, to Philadelphia’s PlayPenn conference with the hope of getting the opportunity to develop it there. Thirst, which Johnson started writing in early 2016, is about two women who live in a clearing in the woods with their son. When he returns home one day without their water rations, the women face a new outside conflict.  As Johnson puts it, “Set in a tense segregated society, Thirst is a complex look at race and love in wartime.”

Six out of hundreds

It was one of over 800 plays submitted to PlayPenn this year — and one of the six plays that were accepted for this year’s conference. Johnson and the other five playwrights will develop their plays through in-depth workshops with directors, dramaturgs, designers, and professional actors from the local theater community. Ample rehearsal time is interspersed with significant amounts of time for writing and for meetings — both formal and informal — between the writers and their creative teams. Each of the six plays is given two free public readings at Philadelphia’s Drake Theater, one at the conference midpoint and the other at the end of the development period.

The 2017 PlayPenn conference runs July 11 through July 30; readings of the new plays are free and open to the public. Check out PlayPenn’s website for a calendar and reservation information. Reservations are essential, emphasizes artistic director Paul Meshejian, who has seen audiences grow over the conference’s 13 years. Now PlayPenn has a waiting list for most of its public readings (if you reserve a seat but find yourself unable to attend, be sure to call — people are eager to attend).

Philly excited to give new work a chance

“People want the experience of live theater and seeing new work,” Meshejian says. “But they may be skittish to spend $60 for a play that they have never heard of... With PlayPenn, it’s free and they get to see the play at its beginning, which is very exciting.” Meshejian notes that since the founding of PlayPenn in 2005, 60 percent of the plays workshopped there have gone on to full productions.

He notes that the impact of the PlayPenn experience is not only on the playwrights, but also on the Philadelphia theater community. “There’s a larger consciousness in the city about developing new plays,” he observes. “Philadelphia actors have learned more about the process of developing new work. And clearly the audiences are excited.”

PlayPenn now also offer classes in play writing and related topics, both locally and online, and will also feature additional readings of up to two works in progress, forums for artists, and a presentation of monologues written by past conference playwrights during this year’s conference.

The PlayPenn 2017 conference runs July 11 through July 30, with a variety of public readings onstage at the Drake Theater, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. Check online for the full event schedule.

Above: A huddle from the 2016 conference. (Photo by John Flak.)