After 3 years, the new play conference PlayPenn re-emerges under new leadership

The conference for new play development was rocked by racist accusations. After three years down, it returns with new leadership and commitment to DEI.

Three people pose, smiling, in a theater.

Associate artistic director Susan Dalien, artistic director Che'Rae Adams, and associate artistic director Santiago Iacinti are the new creative leadership of PlayPenn, opening July 6 at the Drake Theatre. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY News)

The annual PlayPenn conference and showcase of new plays begins this week, for the first time in three years. It presents readings of new plays still in development, with professional actors and direction but without sets and costumes. Many of the performances are open to the public.

Like many theater organizations, the PlayPenn conference was put on hold for the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time the organization was rocked by accusations that it allowed a board member to engage in sexual harassment, and of systemically blocking inclusivity for participating artists.

The founding director of PlayPenn, Paul Meshejian, resigned in 2020.

PlayPenn has returned with a new artistic team who has no previous ties to the organization.

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The new artistic director, Che’Rae Adams of Los Angeles, is the producing artistic director of the L.A. Writers Center, where she has a track record of seeking out writers who are often marginalized. She recently produced readings series focused on responses to the murder of George Floyd, Asian voices addressing the rise in anti-Asian racism, and artists from Afghanistan.

Adams is tasked with transforming PlayPenn into a more equitable and inclusive engine of new theater.

“I remember being in a board meeting and the board going, ‘How will you get diverse voices?’” recalled Adams. “I said, ‘Look at the demographics of our community.’ That’s how we started. And by having the community read the plays. They chose plays that were their stories, ultimately.”

For her first PlayPenn conference, Adams will be presenting only plays written by Philadelphia playwrights. The readings will be produced and performed — as much as possible — by local talent. Adams said there will be about 60 actors, 13 dramaturgs, and nine directors involved in the 10 reading productions over the three-week period; all but a handful will be from Philly.

Che'Rae Adams is in the center of the photo, smiling, sitting in the audience seats of the Drake Theatre.
Che’Rae Adams is the new artistic director of PlayPenn. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY News)

Among PlayPenn’s six selected plays include a campus drama about a scandal involving Middle Eastern students (Fat Muslim Girls), a Korean immigrant mother in an American suburb beset by a ghost in her refrigerator (Whispers from My Sister), and a sci-fi apocalyptic comedy (The Pigeon).

The conference will also present four plays by participants in The Foundry, PlayPenn’s membership program fostering emerging playwrights with professional development assistance.

All plays are presented at the Drake Theatre, and are free with advanced registration. For safety, masks as well as COVID-19 vaccinations or a negative test result are also required.

One of the new policies Adams put into place was to match submitted plays with readers of a similar demographic background. The submission process is blind — as it always has been — regarding the name of the playwright, but PlayPenn asked the writers to include personal information like race, gender, and sexuality, then made sure the readers of the plays had a similar background.

“How do I push these plays through?” said Adams. “If somebody with the same background reads the play and relates to the play, the play will most likely pass through. Instead of a ‘No,’ we wanted that ‘Yes.’ We wanted the, ‘Let’s keep this one in consideration.’”

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Saying “yes” presented some difficulty down the road when it came time to whittle the 123 submitted plays to just six that will actually be presented at the conference. It was worth the challenge to Susan Dalien, one of PlayPenn’s new associate artistic directors.

“I’ve not heard of another new play development company selecting their plays this way,” said Dalien “It really worked. I mean, when we got down to 22 plays from 123, there was a really beautiful collection of very diverse plays to choose from. They were all really great. It made it very hard for us to choose.”

Adams created a community committee to help guide decisions about how PlayPenn will operate, which included a person with a long association with PlayPenn.

“I made sure that there was someone on the committee that was like a PlayPenn historian,” said Adams. “‘How has it been done in the past?’ Then she would tell us how it was done in the past, and we would all discuss that and what we think we should do in the future. It was very collaborative. We ended up changing a lot of policies and procedures.”

The changes as PlayPenn have not all been on Adams’ shoulders. The board has been expanded to add members of diverse backgrounds; a consulting firm was brought on, Davis Gay + Associates, specializing in diversity and inclusion initiatives; and the organization forged a partnership with an Indigenous theater company, Native Voices at Autry Museum of the American West, to develop new plays.

For the first time in its 17-year history, PlayPenn’s entire leadership team is female and nonbinary.

Another change made to the PlayPenn conference is the way the readings are cast by professional actors. In the past, the conference was criticized for so-called colorblind casting, meaning the race of the performer did not necessarily match the race of the character as the author intended.

The new iteration of PlayPenn is committed to finding actors who fit the playwright’s vision. That presents another logistical challenge: finding available actors with specific racial and ethnic qualities.

As of Friday, with five days before launch, Adams was still looking for an age-appropriate woman with a Middle Eastern background for one particular part, but was certain someone would be found in time.  She might go outside of Philly to find the right person.

“The casting was challenging but we’re determined because we want the stories to be told,” she said.

Casting “absolutely matters” to Santiago Iacinti, another new associate artistic director at PlayPenn.

“I’m nonbinary. I’m gay. I’m an immigrant. I’m a person of color. Those intersections were not something that I saw widely in the media,” said Iacinti, who was born in Mexico and grew up in San Diego as an immigrant Dreamer and DACA recipient. “Being able to see yourself reflected and take up space is important. Coming from the LGBT community, not everybody feels safe to do so. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Iacinti said the theater industry, generally, is going through a “reckoning” right now, as many in the national theater community leveraged the pandemic pause to push for systemic changes to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Dalien said theater in the United States is poised for a rebirth.

“I feel like theater went to sleep, maybe even died. I don’t mind saying that there was a death,” she said. “It had to die in order to seed and grow. Furthering that metaphor, I think that we are not the tree yet. We are little, scrawny — you know, the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. We’re at that stage right now.”

“We know we have a big responsibility in terms of leading PlayPenn in its new life,” said Dalien. “I’m excited to be alive right now as a part of this renaissance.”

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