When Dave Harris’s play Incendiary landed a spot in last year’s PlayPenn conference—a prestigious annual gathering that for 15 years had helped birth new plays, including the Tony-winning Oslo, and which is Philadelphia’s main theatrical event of the summer—he had reason to be excited. This would be his first time returning to his Philly hometown as a professional playwright, with other acclaimed regional productions under his belt.
“But from the jump there were red flags,” Harris told me recently, related to “casting, how they produced the reading, how the all-white staff handled it, issues around housing—a number of things.” Ultimately the Philly connection was the only thing that kept him from withdrawing from the conference, he said. “Having done a lot of U.S. play development conferences, PlayPenn was kind of the worst I’d been to. It was clear they needed new leadership.”
PlayPenn doesn’t have new leadership yet, but its old leadership is gone. Earlier this week the organization’s board accepted the resignation of its founding artistic director, Paul Meshejian, and dismissed associate artistic director Michele Volansky, after a firestorm on social media, amplified in the Philadelphia press, brought to light longstanding practices many artists and former staff identified as racist and exclusionary, in addition to accusations that PlayPenn had failed to take seriously, indeed covered up, allegations of sexual misconduct by a prominent donor and board member. This year’s PlayPenn festival, which was to be held this month online due to the pandemic, has been canceled (though some theatres are stepping up to find virtual homes for the scotched play readings).
“The whole artistic sector is dealing with sexual harassment, assault, and racism, but Paul and Michele had been trying to ignore these issues for years,” said Jacqueline Goldfinger, a local playwright who ran the company’s non-conference education programs from 2014 to 2017. Referring to the organizing that transpired both on the Philly Theatre Facebook page and through a Change.org petition, Goldfinger said, “Once people put together the pieces they were holding, the whole picture was disgusting.”
Harris’s experience illustrates one dimension of the problem. As Elaina Di Monaco, a local dramaturg and director who worked at PlayPenn six times, explained, each year the fest has kicked off with a retreat at which playwrights, directors, stage managers, interns, and staff get to know each other. Without actors present, those assembled would also read the year’s plays aloud. The idea, Di Monaco said, is that “actors ‘fix’ text—it’s one of their gifts—but it can be helpful for the writers to just hear their words ‘neutrally.’” The problem is that the folks gathered at these retreats have always been predominantly white, and Harris, who is Black and whose play depicts Black characters, was not especially interested in hearing a “neutral” reading of his play by predominantly white people. Di Monaco, who went through a similar process with Black playwright Jonathan Norton’s play penny candy, said, “There have never been enough people of color at that table to properly read plays with POC casts, and to be quite honest, this is not helpful to the writers.”
When Harris objected to this, he said he was told by email that it would be helpful to “disregard the race or gender of the readers. That they put that in writing shows how blatant this was, and speaks to how antiquated their practices were compared to other organizations I’ve worked with.” Di Monaco confirmed that when she spoke to Black playwrights after their plays were read aloud in this context, often by readers who were roughly 75 percent white, they told her, “‘Well, that sucked.’ It was a waste of time for those artists, but it wasn’t being viewed that way by leadership. That’s white supremacy. That’s a structure built to see white as the norm.”
Though Harris raised his objections at the time, the campaign for a change in leadership did not begin in earnest until late June of this year, when Terrell Green, a Philly performer and teaching artist with the troupe After School Activities Partnerships (and no affiliation with PlayPenn), noticed a discrepancy: A feature in a local paper, Metro, about this year’s festival prominently featured a photo of the all-Black cast of Harris’s Incendiary from last year, even though this year’s PlayPenn slate was to feature just one Black playwright out of six. (The photo has since been swapped out.)
“I called them out—that that photo with all-Black talent was not reflective of the plays they picked this year,” said Green, who was then invited to speak at a Zoom meeting Philly theatre leaders had been holding each Thursday since the pandemic lockdown began. By a few accounts, that’s when things really went south: Meshejian reportedly interjected a lament to the group that “some people are upset about this photo,” to which Green replied, “Black people are upset! You have a Black artist right here telling you we are upset.” (Meshejian did not respond to requests for an interview.)
“That’s when I started to grass-roots organize,” Green said. He created a petition, emailed the board, and began posting on social media demanding Meshejian’s firing. And then, on July 8, two artists posted allegations in the Philly theatre Facebook group about a PlayPenn donor and board member, Victor Keen: Writer Devin T. Randall wrote that Keen had “placed his arm around me” in the basement of his house, in preparation for a PlayPenn pizza party at Keen’s gallery; next playwright and former PlayPenn education director Sarah B. Mantell wrote that Keen had assaulted her at a company gathering, and that Meshejian and the organization had failed to take her account seriously or sever ties with Keen.
Other allegations about harassment and unwanted flirtation from Keen soon surfaced on Facebook, along with questions about Keen’s ongoing association with PlayPenn and the failure of its leadership to protect its workers and interns. PlayPenn board president Philip K. Hawkins said that Keen left the board “some time in fiscal year 2016—that is, between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 31, 2016, I don’t know the exact date.” Despite his leaving the board, though, PlayPenn continued to accept his donations, allowed to him host parties for staff and interns at his gallery, and listed him as a producer of this year’s festival.
Mantell’s report of assault dates from 2014, and she said she knew of other cases at the time. When she brought her experience to Meshejian’s attention, she said his initial response was to ask “why I didn’t speak up in the moment” and “to ask me about the specific movement of the man’s hand.” Meshejian’s interest, she said, was clearly in “how to protect the organization, not me.” She added, “When I spoke up about the way another incident with Victor was handled, just days later, I was angrily dismissed.” This response, she said, was “more painful than the powerlessness of the original event,” as it made her feel “viscerally all of a sudden how little I was respected and valued at a place I had worked for and loved.”
For his part, Keen—who also served until recently on the board of Philadelphia Theatre Company—released a statement which reads in full, “These allegations are shattering to me. I am truly sorry and apologize to those who found my behavior to be inappropriate and will be more aware of my interactions with others going forward. It is unfortunate my relationship and strong support of PlayPenn has been destroyed, and I am incredibly disappointed in how the organization handled it.” Friends of Keen’s insisted to me that he was never informed by PlayPenn’s board or leadership that there had been complaints about him, but a request for clarification from Hawkins, the board’s president, was not answered by presstime. Associate artistic director Michele Volansky, who characterized the entire debacle of the past few weeks as “a catastrophic breakdown of leadership,” said she is not sure whether Keen left the board of his own volition or not.
The problems at PlayPenn are indicative of larger inequities in the field, both in Philadelphia theatre—Volansky pointed out to me that the leadership at Philly’s major theatres has for the most part not changed in two decades—and in the U.S. theatre at large. It’s a status quo that is currently being challenged by movements like the national We See You White American Theater coalition and San Francisco’s “Living Document of Living Document of POC Experiences in Bay Area Theatre Co.”, all at a moment of self-examination as the field, and the culture at large, is simultaneously paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic and energized by the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.
“Philly theatre doesn’t reflect proportionally the actual city,” said Colston, whose plays include The First Deep Breath and Roost, and who said he had to leave his hometown to be recognized and produced elsewhere. “It’s 40 percent Black folks, but only about 13 percent of the productions in town hire actors and directors who are Black.” An actor as well as a playwright, Colston is not interested in tokenism, a role here or there: “If it’s going to be proportionately representative, at least 40 percent of productions should be written by Black writers, directed by Black directors, and have predominantly Black casts. That’s the bare minimum.”
Zooming out wider, Colston said, “White people have had a stranglehold on the seats of power in Hollywood, government, and the theatre. The crux of it all is that to achieve the change, some white people are going to have to yield power. I really believe there are people who want to shake things up, but we cannot do that alone. I love the American theatre, and we are trying to hold the American theatre accountable as a place for everybody to tell stories and be reflected. But we can’t do it alone; we need white artists to step up and to fight.”
One white leader, Philadelphia Theatre Company artistic director Paige Price, who took the reins of the organization in 2017, acknowledged that she had initially been chiefly concerned with “gender parity and opportunities for women,” and that her theatre has long been “predominantly white, there’s no getting around it. A natural and necessary step has been to bring on leaders of color.” Regarding PTC’s recent hiring of Jeffrey Page, a Black director, as resident artist, she said, “He’s not been brought on to singlehandedly fix the company, but to help redirect our programming. In this moment, I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little easier to make the case to boards that these hires we’ve been talking about for a long time—now is the time. Almost everything is on the table.”
Added another white leader, Elaina Di Monaco, “I think the answer to this is policy. If you want to continue leading an institution as an older white person, you need to implement anti-racist policy in your institutions. People are putting out a lot of emotional statements right now, but those are not policy. What’s needed is structural change. These institutions think of diversity and inclusion as bringing these artists in—but what are you bringing them into? Are these spaces that are going to lift them up, support them? Again, as a white person, I haven’t experienced this firsthand, but for so many of the artists of color who are speaking out—these spaces suck.”
Amrita Ramanan, a dramaturg who was brought in to review play selections for a panel at PlayPenn some years ago, recalled how the objections she and two other panelists of color raised to a racially problematic play in consideration were overruled by Meshejian, who later chose the play for the festival.
“What particularly led me to the point of confusion as well as of challenge is that it was evident that we were selected because we were individuals of color who could bring that point of analysis, but felt that that analysis was disregarded,” said Ramanan, who now works at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “It left me with a feeling of being tokenized. You can say you want to engage with more people of color, but engagement is one thing—what is the agency they will have? I was able to sit at the table, speak to my full, clear opinion, but if that is not going to be taken into consideration, it doesn’t matter if we’re there; you can still make us invisible if we’re there.”
Ultimately everyone I spoke to said they valued PlayPenn and wanted it to continue its new-play work with new and improved practices under new leadership—and some hoped its dramatic fate would serve as a cautionary tale for other leaders. Said Terrell Green, “There’s this idea that I’m trying to dismantle the theatre scene here, but I’m thinking this is about expansion.” Said Jacqueline Goldfinger, who called PlayPenn “a huge economic and artistic engine in the culture” of the city, “We’re not trying to burn down the organization—it has done good things. But how can we rebuild and restructure? It could not be done with Paul and Michele, who had so many opportunities to change their ways. But now that they’re gone, maybe we have a chance to rebuild.”
Board president Philip Hawkins, though clearly a bit shell-shocked by the intensity of the criticism and the rapidity of the change, sounded warily optimistic.
“The replacement thing is really tough,” he said. “The person we hire is going to have to make PlayPenn in his or her image. But PlayPenn is here to stay, and it’s going to be better. We’re going to do our best to make sure of that.”
For her part, Mantell, who now lives in Brooklyn, said that the activism and change-making she’s seeing in Philly theatre—which has gone beyond PlayPenn to challenge the status quo upheld by the city’s many predominantly white-run theatres—are the first things that have made her hopeful about one day returning to the city.
“The work that Terrell Green has led in the community this last month has been a stunning thing to witness,” she said. “I hope that PlayPenn, under new BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] leadership, will create a place of transparency and healing where new plays can grow and the kinds of collaborations Terrell spurred can continue. Philly artists are now leading where many of the institutional leaders have failed. And they’re doing it with intersectional fierceness and care. Imagine what can happen if that becomes a part of PlayPenn’s work. Imagine what kinds of stories could be made. I hope, eventually, that I will be ready to go back and sit in that tiny theatre again and watch.”
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