Founding director of Philly theater group resigns after racism, harassment allegations

PlayPenn artistic director Paul Meshejian

PlayPenn artistic director Paul Meshejian in a playwrights' session at the 2017 New Play Development conference. (Credit: John Flak)

The founding artistic director of PlayPenn, a playwright development conference in Philadelphia, has resigned.

Paul Meshejian had come under fire from former staff and conference participants over what they say is a white bias within the organization and allegations of sexual harassment by a former board member.

The PlayPenn board issued a statement Monday announcing Meshejian’s resignation and the termination of Associate Artistic Director Michele Volansky.

“As a result of recent allegations of wrongdoing that members of our community have made against the organization, the PlayPenn Board of Directors decided that it was in the best interests of PlayPenn for Paul and Michele to leave their positions,” read the statement. “We will continue our investigation into those recent allegations.”

Founded 16 years ago, PlayPenn’s mission is to identify promising playwrights and scripts in progress, and offer support to develop plays into final drafts and onto the stage. The organization’s annual conference presents new works as staged readings by professional actors to give playwrights a chance to assess their work in performance.

It has a reputation of championing experimental work by emerging writers. But PlayPenn’s leadership recently faced sharp criticism and calls to step down from playwrights who claim the organization is less supportive of Black writers. At least two former staff members have also come forward to accuse former board member Victor Keen of sexual harassment. Keen has called the allegations “shattering” and apologized to anyone who found his behavior inappropriate.

In a previous statement, the board said it has hired a law firm to conduct an investigation into the allegations.

“Starting with COVID-19, these past few months have been the most difficult of PlayPenn’s 16-year existence,” read the board’s latest announcement. “There is no question that the coming weeks and months will bring with them a challenging but necessary period of change for our organization.”

In response to the statement, New York-based playwright Sarah Mantell, who told WHYY News she was harassed by Keen, but leaders dismissed her complaint, urged the organization to reach out to the affected artists.

“PlayPenn, now you ask your artists and community what it takes for PlayPenn to heal, rebuild, and move forward,” she said. “Ask us. This is the part where you ask.”

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