Entertainment » Theatre

John Greiner-Ferris: From Public Works to Alley Cat

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 18, 2017

Playwright John Greiner-Ferris may have helped shepherd Boston Public Works through several seasons of original theater, from the troupe's founding to its recent disbanding, but he's not about to rest on his laurels. Greiner-Ferris has established a whole new Boston theater company, Alley Cat Theater, which -- as he notes with some glee -- derives its name from the names of his two daughters.

That is, perhaps, an indication of how personal - and personally meaningful - the new company is for Greiner-Ferris, who has also authored Alley Cat's inaugural production, a play titled "Plank." Metaphorical, far-reaching, poetic, and socially conscious, "Plank" bridges various dichotomies: Land and sea, isolation and community, big philosophical questions and pragmatic sociopolitical concerns, a yearning for individual freedom and society's reflexive need to exert control and impose uniformity. It's a vehicle for deep ponderings, but also light-hearted comic stylings that serve to underline the play's deeper resonances.

In "Plank," a shipwreck survivor named Potpee drifts alone -- or, almost alone; her sole companion is the Ocean and its many aspects, which (like those of a Hindu god) crystallize into distinct characters while still belonging to a greater whole. Hence Potpee's small chorus of aqueous friends: Chop, Fetch, Spume, and Swell.

So content is Potpee, drifting far from land and human concerns, that she's able to surrender to her situation and find transcendent happiness within it -- escaping the tyrannies of time, fear, and even identity. When she eventually washes ashore, and is found by Mercedes and Thimble (the former a control freak and slick rhetorician, essentially a politician; the latter a seemingly naive waif who turns out to be far more perspicacious than she's given credit for) Potpee has a hard time reintegrating. But is that so important?

EDGE had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Greiner-Ferris about Boston Public Works, the new Alley Cat Theater, "Plank"'s probing themes, and what it takes to create and sustain theater in times that are increasingly tough for the arts.


EDGE: You're keeping busy with the new Alley Cat Theater, but I do want to ask first about Boston Public Works Theater Company. It's an intriguing idea that everyone involved with BPW would write a play, the company would then produce the play, and when everyone's play had been produced you'd disband. Why was there a built-in expiration to that company?

John Greiner-Ferris: Boston Public Works was based on 13P, a group of 13 playwrights in New York City: Sarah Ruhl, Anne Washburn, Young Jean Lee...

[EDITOR'S NOTE: 13P also included playwrights Rob Handel, Winter Miller, Erin Courtney, Gary Winter, Kate E. Ryan, Ann Marie Healey, Sheila Callaghan, Lucy Thurber, Julia Jarcho, and Madeleine George.]

...they got tired of theaters giving their scripts reading after reading that never led to a production. So, they said, "We're going to band together, and each playwright is going to put up one play; be the artistic director for that production" - in other words, be in control of the artistic merits of that production - "and then we're going to disband." And that's what Boston Public Works did, too.

But, we used 13P as a launching pad rather than an exact model because we quickly realized that the playwrights in BPW doing theater in Boston were a lot different than Sarah Ruhl and Sheila Callaghan doing theater in New York. But that's basically what we did. We produced one play each; the playwright acted as the artistic director for their production; and then we disbanded.

Along the way everybody would learn the nuts and bolts of theater production, which is a whole different animal from anything artistic. It's business! You're turning artists into business people, doing things like casting, marketing, and budgeting. What a concept! But theater is a business, and the quicker theater artists understand the business model they're working in and how it affects them, I think the better off we'll all be.

The co-founder and I started in January 2013 and we disbanded at the beginning of July 2017, so that's four and a half years. It was a crash course in theater production. In three years, BPW produced seven shows and two One-Minute Play Festivals.

EDGE: Is Alley Cat Theater going to be an open-ended prospect, or do you have some set goal in mind you want to achieve, and then Alley Cat too will dissolve?

John Greiner-Ferris: When I think of all of the theaters in Boston that have been around for 15 or 20 years, I think of what an extraordinary accomplishment it is to sustain a theater for that long. I'm thinking of people, for instance, like David Miller [founder of Zeitgeist Stage Company]. It's like the Rolling Stones; how does a band not only stay around for so long but also keep doing really good work? I mean, I'm just trying to get through my first year.

I have certain ideas and goals I would like to do, but I honestly don't think of them in terms of a specific time frame. A friend of mine is very steeped in devised theater, and he doesn't really know when something will be finished. When it's done, you put it up. Public corporations have to report their earnings every three months, and a lot of theaters use that basic business model, thinking they're required to come up with season after season of shows. No one said you have to run a theater that way. Maybe they should be more like a farmer and let their fields go fallow for a year. I know I mentioned turning artists into business people, but as an artist, I'm not going to rush things. When I come up with something and it's ready to be presented, that's when I'll present it.

EDGE: Speaking of seasons, what are your plans, if any, for Alley Cat's first season? Will "Plank" be it for the season? Will you produce a couple of other plays? Will it be a matter of doing however many plays you kind of feel like for a season?

John Greiner-Ferris: I'm reluctant to talk about future projects until they're actually cast in stone, funded, and I've found the right people to work with.

One of the many lessons from Boston Public Works is how important it is to have the right people in the room with you. Jeff Mosser, who directed, Turtles, my play for BPW, and I would laugh, saying we were identical twins separated at birth and 20 years. We just clicked; we finished each others' sentences; we understood exactly what the other one was talking about, and that is so important. So it's a matter of finding the right people, and finding the right work.

I will say that, again, I am constantly looking for theater that is closer to my aesthetic, which is more non-traditional. My work, I like to say, is like fusion cooking - you know, it's French and Cambodian, and it's a little Creole. You get a different cultural experience. It's very much a mix of traditional theater [plus] I mix in elements of magical realism and absurdity and farce. They're not straight plays. And I will do anything I can to break down what I consider are the barriers traditional theater has put up between the actors and the audience, starting with the fourth wall. I hate spoilers, but I will tell you that at Plank, people will enter the space and wind their way through the set to get to their seats. It immediately immerses them in the world of the play.

The choice to make all seats general admission is a very real choice of mine. I like working in small, intimate spaces. In the traditional theater, the actors are up there on stage, and we're down here in the audience, and the wealthier people who can afford the good seats sit closer, and the poorer people sit in the back. That's not my theater at all. If I ever worked in a traditional proscenium space I guess I'd just have to figure out a work-a-around. I don't know: stage the production in the back of the theater instead of in the front.

[Laughter]

So, I'm always looking for people whose aesthetics are like that.

EDGE: What you were saying before about blending different traditions fits right into the play's themes - "Plank" isn't just a story about a woman clinging to a board in the middle of the ocean, it also blends big existential questions and more mundane concerns like political and social issues.

John Greiner-Ferris: Yeah, like what's a real friend in a world of Facebook friends? Thimble and Potpee are two young people who discover, "Omigod -- I have, like, a soul mate here!"

The basic goal of Boston Public Works was for the playwright to keep control of their work. I think playwrights are way behind the curve on this. Musicians are way ahead of the curve. Musicians have essentially said, "Screw the label, I'm gonna do it myself. I'm going to load ProTools on my laptop, hole up in my apartment, and cut a whole album." Nobody would ever buy a painting and then hang it upside-down, thinking it looks better that way. But that essentially happens to playwrights all of the time. Directors want to change endings thinking their way is better. They'll set your play in outer space.

Just recently, the playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, shut down a production of his play, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" [that had been slated to run at the Shelton Theater] in San Francisco because the artistic director cut scenes and characters. The artistic director thought it was perfectly all right to do this!

Stephen Adly Guirgis happens to be very well-known, but for a playwright like me, I have no leverage. So the other Boston Public Workers and I just said, "We're going to keep control over our work so that it's artistically presented the way we meant it to be." Producing is not easy - it's extraordinarily hard work - and not everyone can do it. But I would encourage a playwright who has basic business skills to give it a try.

EDGE: Not everyone can be Edward Albee, you're right. Speaking of having control over your work and having the right people in the room -- you've brought in Megan Schy Gleeson as director on "Plank." How did that come about? When working with a director, how much control are you willing to cede to them? What has Ms Gleeson dreamed up that you might not have been able to add to the play if you were working with someone else?

John Greiner-Ferris: Oh, I certainly don't want to spill the beans on what Megan has dreamed up for "Plank!" Megan and I met at playwright Peter Floyd's birthday party. Megan had directed his play "Absence" at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, and Megan and I were two wallflowers at the party who started talking. She's very well versed in both physical and traditional theater, which is exactly what the script needs.

Megan directs and we talk, and if I see something that I don't think is quite right I mention it, and if she disagrees we talk about it some more. It's actually a very adult relationship. It's not just the director, though, who has to have this aesthetic. We had to look for actors who were steeped in movement. We cast Fray Cordero, playing Swell, who is a student in the new contemporary theater program at the Conservatory, Adam Lokken playing Fetch, who just graduated from BU in acting, and Sydney Grant, who plays Thimble and Spume, who came into theater through dance. But they're not dancers; they consider themselves actors who can move. The veteran actor, Liz Adams, who plays Chop and Mercedes, and Poornima Kirby, as Potpee, are the rest of the cast. But they all play parts of the Ocean and need to move.

EDGE: Is it terribly difficult to start over afresh? I mean, you have a track record, having done what you did with BPW, so it's not like you're an unknown in the theater world - but still, when it comes to convincing those who dispense money fro the arts from corporate or government sources, how do you pitch it to them? Are they less interested in a brand new theater company than they might be in one that's become established?

John Greiner-Ferris: I don't know what I would have done without a LAB Grant from The Boston Foundation. It's a new grant and they were looking for daring, new work that used non-traditional elements. They saved my life. We need more of this in Boston.

I will come out and say it: I look at the buildings in downtown Boston, and I see names like State Street and John Hancock and Liberty Mutual. And over in Cambridge there are all of these high tech and biotech companies, and they should be funding small theater companies and work like mine with some serious money. And I'm not saying they shouldn't continue funding the A.R.T. and the bigger companies. My God, tomorrow on Facebook everyone is going to be screaming at me for calling for the downfall of mainstream theater in Boston. I don't believe that at all. But with what we have in the White House right now, and how funding for the arts is drying up, the corporate world needs to step up and fund the arts on all levels. It's more important than ever to support the arts right now, and the real money is in the corporate world.

With that said, there are people and organizations in Boston that fully support little companies like mine. I'm sure the Huntington Theatre is taking a bath on the space they're renting me at the Calderwood Pavilion, but it's affordable and I get lights and sound and a lot of support from Joey Riddle and Katie Most at the Huntington, and from the people at the BCA, and that is golden for someone like me. Everyone knows that Kate Snodgrass, the artistic director at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, will do almost anything for new work. Julie Hennrikus at StageSource is the same way.

EDGE: It is indeed tight out there for arts organizations. You mentioned David Miller and Zeitgeist Stage Company. Before every show, Miller says the same thing in his introductory spiel: "Sometimes micro-donations keep us going, don't ya know!" This problem of support for the arts is by not means an insignificant question.

John Greiner-Ferris People got the idea that, "If I can't give five hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars, it's not worth it." It may sound like a cliché, but every little bit does help and even ten dollars makes a difference. Hey, what it does, no matter the amount, is get people involved, makes them a part of things; in this case, if they sent money my way, bringing new plays to the stage. No matter the size of the contribution, they're suddenly patrons of the arts.

EDGE: You mentioned in an essay about "Plank" that you began the play in 2012, and at that time, as compared to now, the world "felt safer" than it does now - and that's a fair point, because look at us now, after last weekend, with the events that took place in Charlottesville! So what compelled you, in 2012, to start work on a play that, as it turns out, was going to be so relevant now?

John Greiner-Ferris: I didn't feel safe even then. I keep saying that I think all artists should be canaries in a coalmine. I think in 2012 we were all very complacent. Obama was in the White House, but we were taking off our shoes just to board an airplane, and November 2017 was just five years away. The BP oil spill was long forgotten. Hurricane Sandy and Kate Middleton were the number one and two news stories that year according to Google. Trayvon Martin was number nine. I get outraged by stuff like this, and other people say to me, "Oh, John, just calm down. Take off your shoes and go fly on the plane. You're on vacation!" But all this Homeland Security stuff that came out of 9/11 has always upset me. I've always been like this.

[Laughter]

EDGE: I forget where I saw this; maybe at the home page for Alley Cat Theater - but you were talking about wanting to make theater that would push the boundaries and leave audiences asking questions. What questions do you hope people will be mulling as they leave the theater after seeing "Plank?"

John Greiner-Ferris: I think that's going to depend on the particular person. Plank is all about the individual and where the individual fits into society. I want people to really look at themselves as individuals, not part of a movement or a political party, and wonder where they actually fit in society.

EDGE: I agree it's hard to know what to do. I found out there's going to be another right-wing so-called "free speech rally" here in Boston this coming Saturday - I was pissed! I've already made plans to be across the country, to see the eclipse. I want to be here to stand up for my family and my values!

John Greiner-Ferris: I was in Vermont in January so I went to Montpellier for the Women's March. And then my daughter, Kathryn, who is a grad student in marine bio, and I went to the Science March together here in Boston. I'm so glad she got to see all these people with signs with scientific diagrams - it was like something out of Gary Larson; I know it's supposed to be funny, but I don't know what it means. But she understood all this, and she was with her peeps. We're all individuals, and we still have friends and we all need to play an active role in society. I think that's what makes these marches important.

I actually feel guilty when I post something on Facebook about "Plank" because I feel there's more important stuff to deal with. But then, on the other hand, the arrogant artist in me says, "No - you have to listen, you have to see this play. This is important. You have to go see this, people!" It's a weird feeling. It's this little tiny theater piece, but I really would be lying if I said I didn't think it was an important piece for people to see right now.

EDGE: It's the function of art, I'd say, to ask questions. Not to claim to have answers - but to ask questions.

John Greiner-Ferris: A lot of my work is open-ended. I don't want to tell people, "You should be like this, or you should think this" as much as I want to make something that causes people to start a conversation. I certainly would love to hear that people are leaving performances and were really going at it on the ride home. I want to be able to spark conversation that cause people to question their own values.

I'm fully prepared for some people to walk out of "Plank." There were a few people who walked out of [BPW's 2014 production of Greiner Ferris' play] "Turtles" - they didn't like it. They left at intermission and didn't come back. You can't please everybody.


"Plank" runs Aug. 26 - Sept. 16 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to the Alley Cat Theater website at http://www.alleycattheater.org/plank.html

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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