Just as in any city, professional theater in Boston is extremely competitive. For playwrights in particular, getting work produced- especially new work- is a challenge in a city where the theater scene is said to be more traditional than experimental.
“The problem is that we’re a satellite of New York,” said Bill Marx, Editor-in-Chief of arts critique website The Arts Fuse. “New York has always been a huge magnet for money, talent, and attention. Our major regional theater companies [here in Boston] were supposed to serve as an alternative to the draw of New York, but now you’re seeing those theaters doing work that is either headed to New York or has it in mind.”
Cue Boston Public Works. Boston Public Works (not to be confused with the city’s utility department of the same name) is a carpe diem collective of playwrights on a mission to produce each others’ work. Instead of depending on theatrical companies to adopt and produce their plays, BPW directly produces one play by each of its seven members with the playwright themselves serving as artistic director. Once all seven plays have been produced, the group will disband and members will move onto other projects.
Boston Public Works was founded by John Greiner-Ferris and Kevin Mullins. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for emerging playwrights in Boston, the two enlisted friends to join them in a production venture modeled on New York’s 13P. With the help of grants and an Indiegogo campaign, BPW was born in September of 2013. In addition to Greiner-Ferris and Mullins, the team now consists of Jim Dalglish, Jess Foster, Emily K. Lazzaro, Laura Neubauer, and Cassie M. Seinuk.
“We joined because we admired each others work tremendously and we kept on saying, ‘These plays are so fantastic- why is so difficult to get them produced?'” said Jim Dalglish, whose play is number six on the BPW agenda. “So we co-opted the model of 13P, taking matters into our own hands. We thought it would be good for Boston.”
BPW has already produced one show and is currently starting work on their second show. The first show, co-founder Greiner-Ferris’ Turtles, finished in November of this year. The current show is Cassie M. Seinuk’s haunting From the Deep. Written for Seinuk’s thesis at Lesley University, From the Deep reinterprets the stories of two real-life figures (an Israeli POW and a Boston grad student) to reflect on life in captivity and the bonds that can form between the unlikeliest of people.
This production is especially meaningful to Seinuk. Not only is it her first full-length two-person play, but it’s also the first play she’s written that is set in one location. For her, this downsizing of both cast and set created an intimate atmosphere for the play to take shape.
“Just by the nature of the play, [those of us involved] were really forced to just get in there and get to the deep stuff, because there weren’t eight or nine people to disperse the content,” she said. “We all know it so well and are going into the rehearsal process [with Boston Public Works] with a very solid grounding. That’s why we’re in such a good place to now bring in other people.”
For Seinuk and the rest of the playwrights, working with BPW offers a unique opportunity for artistic control. By serving as artistic director (but still working with a technical director), the playwrights have the ability to execute their plays just as they envisioned them.
“The idea and vision of a play doesn’t begin with a director- it begins with the playwright and people don’t realize that,” said Dalglish. “[Most productions] are little piecemeal things that you really don’t feel like you’re involved in, so this is a wonderful opportunity for us to really express our entire vision for our plays.”
As Seinuk points out, “The person who’s going to feel the most passionate about your play is you- so why not direct it yourself?”
As it is, self-production and so-called “fringe” companies are the emerging playwright’s best friend. In addition to BPW, companies like SpeakEasy Stage Company, Vagabond Theatre Group, and Fresh Ink Theatre all make a point to produce plays by local writers. Large companies like Boston’s Huntington Theatre have the resources to put on new plays, but are dependent upon the whims of their audience.
“A lot of the fringe companies are actually the ones that do new work by local playwrights,” said Seinuk. “The Huntington has their Playwriting Fellows that they’ll occasionally do a new show from, but they have season subscribers and donors and an audience that they have to market to that are expecting to see the Broadway hit from two seasons ago. So it’s hard for them [and other large companies] to take a chance on an unknown Boston playwright and their play. They need to sell seats.”
For now, it’s the small organizations that are putting on the new plays in Boston. However, these companies don’t draw the same audience that larger companies do.
“It’s difficult to sustain that marginal, bohemian ideal in Boston,” said Marx. “It’s hard to generate an audience around that type of theater and the ecology that you need around it of critics and of conversation- people being excited about what you’re doing and telling other people about it. That is harder to do without the marketing resources that large companies have.”
Regardless, Seinuk and the rest of the BPW team are hopeful of the impact their company will make. “[BPW’s] thing is that we’re committing. We’re doing our plays here, and we’re doing them now, in the city that we wrote them in,” Seinuk said. “I really think Boston has the potential to be the next big theater city. It’s such an academic city- there are so many playwrights and writers right here- so why should we have to go to New York or Chicago to have our plays developed? There’s so much talent here. All we have to do is commit to it.”