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    Boston playwrights take works into their own hands

    Jackie Davis in “Turtles,” by playwright John Greiner-Ferris, part of the inaugural show from Boston Public Works.
    Joan Mejia
    Jackie Davis in “Turtles,” by playwright John Greiner-Ferris, part of the inaugural show from Boston Public Works.

    Call it a double debut.

    “Turtles,” at the Calderwood Pavilion through Nov. 8, is the first production of John Greiner-Ferris’s gritty, funny play about a family trying to survive on the mean streets of today’s America.

    It’s also the inaugural show from Boston Public Works, a loose-knit troupe of seven playwrights trying to do more than survive on the mean streets of today’s American theater scene. Over the next two years or so, they’ll produce one show by each member, then disband.

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    “We’re trying to show other playwrights this is a viable alternative,” cofounder Greiner-Ferris says. “We’re not saying traditional theater should go away. We’re just saying this is a way to get more work out there.”

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    Getting new plays produced by existing companies isn’t easy, even for many established playwrights. Boston Public Works comprises seven playwrights of varying track records doing something about it instead of just complaining. Each playwright functions as artistic director of his or her own show. There are new skills to learn as they go.

    “I always say we’re laying track in front of an oncoming locomotive,” Greiner-Ferris says. “God love the people who can use both sides of their brain. . . . Being [both] an artist and a producer-businessperson is extremely difficult.”

    The troupe began to take shape with discussions in early 2013, with several of its members coming from the same writing group. As with most such efforts, membership has waxed and waned, but the current roster includes Greiner-Ferris and cofounder Kevin Mullins, along with Cassie M. Seinuk, Emily Kaye Lazzaro, Jess Foster, Jim Dalglish, and Laura Neubauer.

    They modeled themselves at least in part on the group 13P, a collection of 13 mid-career playwrights in New York including Young Jean Lee and Sarah Ruhl, which produced one play by each member between 2003 and 2012 and then intentionally “imploded.” American Theatre magazine online just featured Boston Public Works in a piece with other groups around the country following in 13P’s footsteps: Orbiter 3 in Philadelphia, Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis, and The Welders in Washington, D.C.

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    Boston Public Works has advantages that 13P didn’t have when it started, Greiner-Ferris notes, notably social media. The group raised more than $22,000 on the fund-raising site Indiegogo — just under half of its goal, but most of the rest was made up by offline grants and donations, he says. Actors and designers are getting paid, too, he notes — “better than you’d get from typical fringe show, but not a living wage.”

    The members held their first meeting in September 2013 at Mullins’s apartment near Porter Square in Cambridge. Greiner-Ferris says he intended his play to go last, to make sure everyone else got a turn, but no one wanted to go first, so he agreed.

    “Turtles” tells the story of Bella, tough but tender mom to 15-year-old Foos and 9-year-old Finn. Tough because they’re living in their broken-down car in the shade of a Jesus-is-coming highway billboard somewhere in the desert in today’s America. The police come sniffing around with questions about custody. When a Jesus literally falls into their lives — a Latino with amazing car-repair skills, who may or may not be the Jesus — things get complicated.

    “People like this need to be heard,” says Greiner-Ferris. “They’re not heroic, they’re not PC, but they’re people who are getting by in the world.”

    He’s not calling it a world premiere, reserving that term in hopes a larger company will someday produce the show. Diversity in mind, his script specifies that the cast be all female, except for Jesus, and that the actors playing Bella and her children not be of the same race. The cast features Jackie Davis as Bella, Lauren Foster as Foos, Elle Borders as Finn, and Alexander Castillo-Nuñez as Jesus. Mal Malme and Nicole Dunn play multiple roles.

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    Boston Public Works’ second offering will be Seinuk’s “From the Deep,” directed by Lindsay Eagle, playing March 12-29 in the Black Box Theatre at the BCA. It takes place in the surreal Room of the Missing, where a vanished Boston college student and an Israeli POW held by Hamas try to help each other survive in their very different states of captivity.

    “One of our mission statements is to create a roadmap for other playwrights,” says Seinuk. “In the past five years there have been a lot more plays self-produced, and a lot more playwrights doing this. And they’re doing it on their own, which I think is even harder. At least I have six people helping me, and John has had six people helping him. What’s really cool is, together we’re doing this.”

    Improv comes to JP

    Improv fans have a new destination in Jamaica Plain Thursday through Saturday nights. The Riot Theater is open at 146A South St., sharing a storefront with A Far Cry chamber orchestra, which rehearses there. Friday night belongs to ComedySportz Boston at 8 and “Goosebumps: Choose Your Scare” at 10, while Saturday brings “Magic: The Gathering: The Show” at 8 and Improv Jones Boston at 10. More information at www.theriottheater.com.

    Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.