Leigh Fondakowski on nature, oil, the Deepwater Horizon, documentary theater, empathy, and SPILL

Leigh Fondakowski

Leigh Fondakowski

This year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production is SPILL, written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski. Created from over 200 hours of interviews with industry experts, surviving crew members, environmental scientists, families of the victims, fishermen, and cleanup workers, SPILL uses the techniques Fondakowski pioneered with The Laramie Project (2000) to dramatize the story of what happened on board the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010 when an explosion killed eleven crew members and triggered a massive 87-day oil spill, the largest in American history. Prior to its New York premiere at EST, SPILL has had productions at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and at the TimeLine Theatre in Chicago. The following interview with Fondakowski draws on her conversation with TimeLine’s Artistic Director P J Powers as well as new material from an exchange with EST blog contributing editor Rich Kelley.. SPILL began previews on March 8 and performances continue through April 2 at The Ensemble Studio Theatre.

What first drew you to the story of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the BP oil spill?

I was asked by Wesleyan University to co-teach a class with a distinguished environmental scientist by the name of Barry Chernoff, chair of their Environmental Studies department and Director of the College of the Environment. Dr. Chernoff and I took a group of Wesleyan students to Louisiana to teach them about the oil spill and to study the environmental impacts. My role was to teach the students interview techniques, guide them through an interview process in the Gulf, and then assist them in creating artwork from their experiences.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig prior to its destruction.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig prior to its destruction.

Pam Tatge, then director of Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts, proposed a commission for me to create a play from these events, but I was hesitant. Having done The Laramie Project, about the murder of Matthew Shepard, and The People’s Temple, about the 1978 tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana—major works about tragic events—I was hoping to turn my artistic attention toward other subjects and new processes. Once I visited the Gulf though, I was incredibly moved by the plight of the people living there. They are living in an already fragile ecosystem, threatened by coastal erosion and hurricane storm surges, and then BP hit. It was almost exactly five years after Katrina. One interviewee remarked that it was like getting stabbed in the same wound twice. I was almost immediately drawn into the story.

How soon after the explosion did you make your first trip to the Gulf region, and how long were you there?

Dr. Chernoff and I took our first trip to the Gulf in the fall of 2010. We took the students down in early 2011. It was after the oil had stopped spilling. It wasn’t during the high crisis time of the events.

What was interesting about it is that the rest of the country had moved on, but it was as if time had stood still in southern Louisiana. There were still homemade billboards and anti-BP signs all along the coast, and at Grand Isle, what came to be known as “Ground Zero” for the oil spill, there were still tar balls prevalent on the beach.

People were beginning to show signs of illness from having had close contact with the oil, and the fishing communities were frustrated because the claim process with BP was dragging on. The story was still very much alive. In fact, you could still feel the effects five years later, when I again visited there. People’s lives were changed irreparably by this event.

What is your process for conducting interviews? How do you decide who to interview and how to approach them?

Oiled pelican (Photo taken May 8, 2010)

Oiled pelican (Photo taken May 8, 2010)

My process for conducting interviews is strongly based on hunches. I begin reading about a place or an event, and I literally go with my gut instinct—what stories do I feel drawn to, whose stories do I feel drawn to—and I proceed from there. Typically, you can start with a handful of interviews and then the tributaries from those initial interviews are quite far reaching.

Once you’ve conducted your interviews, how do you shape those hundreds of hours of words into a play?

Typically within a two-hour interview I know almost instantly if there is what I call “usable text,” text that feels theatrical or interesting or compelling. Certain moments stand out and they become “pillars” or “tent poles” for the construction of the play.

I also transcribe all of my own material, and as I do I continue to listen to the material. I try to allow the material to speak to me about what the story is, what story lives inside of the raw material, rather than taking the material and imposing a narrative on it. I think of myself as a listener first and then my task as an artist is to convey what I have found and discovered. I try to let the people or the event teach me what the story wants to be.

SPILL premiered in Louisiana in 2014 with many of those most affected by the tragedy in the audience. What was it like to tell their story in their own community?

It is always a profound experience to do this, and it is a privilege. It is a privilege to tell other people’s stories, it really is.

My goal as an artist is to create something beautiful—art—from a tragic event. I hope to create a space for contemplation about the event beyond the tragedy. I have found that art does actually have this capacity—this healing power, if you will—and that in each instance, when the people came to the play it was a cathartic experience for most of them.

We premiered the play in Baton Rouge because it had the largest regional theater in the state. I would say Baton Rouge isn’t a huge “theater” town. Tailgating for LSU football games is where it’s at in Baton Rouge. So, we had a lot of people come to see the play who had heard about the subject matter but who had never seen a play. It was a very satisfying experience to have people say, “This is the first play I’ve ever seen and I’m blown away.” To be able to make that kind of artistic impact or imprint, it’s a nice feeling to have.

SPILL had a second production at the TimeLine Theatre in Chicago in 2015. How did the play evolve between the two productions?

Platform supply vessels battle the fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon, April 20, 2010

Platform supply vessels battle the fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon, April 20, 2010

The play evolved significantly since the premiere. First of all, I did more interviewing, and those interviews have shaped the play profoundly.

I had been trying to create a second act that captures the drama of the 87-day oil spill while also creating a space for contemplation about what this event means to the people who lived through it. It has been challenging to find that balance between mourning what was lost and still following the rules of great drama, which are about tension, plot, and transformation.

How has SPILL changed since Chicago?

The main changes since the Chicago production are reflected in both the writing and in the staging. My set designer and I asked ourselves: What makes theater unique as a medium? Why do this play on stage? What makes our representation of the blowout or the oil spill uniquely theatrical? Particularly now, after the $100-million film Deepwater Horizon, how is the theater different? The movie followed the guys who survived. Our play follows the men who died. The film did expensive CGI effects to represent the blowout. Our play uses a theatrical gesture, one that we have been refining since Chicago. The set pieces are disassembled by the ensemble. There is choral singing by the cast. We lose one of our guys in a simple theatrical gesture: a cross downstage, a simple goodbye. Sarah Lambert, my dramaturg, and I discovered a tighter dramatic structure for Act Two, and Billy Carden, EST’s Artistic Director, and Linsay Firman, EST’s Director of Play Development, have helped us sharpen and define it.

Deepwater Horizon movie poster

Many of the characters in the Deepwater Horizon movie are also characters in SPILL: Jimmy Harrell, the Offshore Installation Manager played by Kurt Russell; Mike Williams, the Chief Electronics Technician played by Mark Wahlberg; Andrea Fleytas, the Dynamic Positioning Officer played by Michelle Rodriquez; and BP executive Don Vidrine, played by John Malkovich. They’re all in SPILL. How does your vision of the event and of these characters differ from the movie’s?

Our narrative follows the eleven men, and centers on the widow of Jason Anderson. The play and the movie sourced some of the same material. We used the court testimonies from these characters. The film took some dramatic licenses with the material. BP was found guilty for criminal negligence for over twenty cost-cutting measures taken over the course of many months that led to the blowout. There were disagreements on board the DWH in the days leading up to the blowout. Both the operating company Transocean, the cement company Halliburton, and BP all had a role to play in the unfolding of events as they happened. They all blamed each other in the end. The film made BP the obvious villain. While it's hard to argue with that, there were many more nuances to this story that we tried to capture. We kept with the record. We didn't veer from it.

How did the process of creating SPILL compare with your work as head writer on The Laramie Project or your work as writer and director of The People’s Temple?

Both Laramie and Temple were created by a team of people working together. My collaborators were doing independent research and interviews that were then combined with mine to create a collective whole. While I had a team of people collaborating with me on SPILL, I was present for all of the interviews and shaped the body of the play based on that material. I was able to hold the body of material in my mind at every step of the way. So the listening process was easier in some ways as it was contained to the stories that I myself had heard and found.

Each interview process was distinct for all three projects. Laramie is a small Western town, so you could just walk across the street or take a short drive to accomplish your interviews. In the case of Temple, the survivors of Jonestown were all over the country, so we had to travel to multiple states to find them. With SPILL, we confined most of our work to the coast of Southern Louisiana. We tried to find communities that had not been represented in the media, communities that were “off the map,” so to speak. As our connections to the people who had lost their loved ones in the explosion grew, we also traveled to Texas to interview them.

In a talk you gave at Wesleyan University in 2014 you said you considered SPILL to be more controversial than The Laramie Project. How so?

When we did The Laramie Project, the death of Matthew Shepard was the first anti-gay hate crime in which the whole world stood up and said, "This is wrong." Thousands of gay people were defamed, harmed, and killed every year in America. Matthew was the first where people saw him as a victim worth protecting and worth honoring.

Wildlife biologist surveying oiled sargassum in Gulf of Mexico

Wildlife biologist surveying oiled sargassum in Gulf of Mexico

The men who died on board the Deepwater Horizon are different. I've heard comments over the years, "Why should we care about those men?" "They knew what they were getting themselves into," even one woman remarking, "That's a different kind of sadness from the sadness I feel about Matthew." Why is Matthew a worthy victim? Why is the audience who sees The Laramie Project willing to self-reflect and see themselves reflected in the people of Laramie, but resist complicity or identification with rig workers or fishermen? The characters who inhabit the world of SPILL are the "every man" or "every woman," people struggling to make a living who don't have a lot of time to think about the global, climatic, or geopolitical impact of our worldwide oil use. They just want to put food on the table. I think feeling empathy for people that you don’t think you have any relationship to is an activist gesture. I want to invite the audience to find identification and empathy with people who they don’t care about or never thought about before.

For my part, I made a lot of assumptions about the people of Louisiana, and if I'm honest, a lot of judgments, too. Why can't we just stop drilling? Isn't that what's best for the planet, and best for us all? I found that the answers to those questions are much, much more complicated than I could ever have imagined, and run much deeper than any one person's individual choices in life. The worldwide infrastructure of the oil industry is over a hundred years in the making. It is highly advanced technology. To steer us away from this as an economic base may take another hundred years. Unfortunately, this is time the planet doesn't have. SPILL doesn't provide easy answers, it can't. It can only identify that there is a problem much more complicated that our political leaders on either side of the aisle are being honest about. We can't just keep drilling. And we can't just immediately stop either. There needs to be a vision and a plan forward, and we have to be honest in the ways that we are all implicated. The U.S. alone uses more oil in a day than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 87 days. That's just a reality.

People sometimes expect plays based on interviews to be making a political point. What are the politics of SPILL?

One of the things that strikes me about “documentary theater,” or the label or perception of “documentary theater,” is that these plays seem to be held to a different standard than other plays. These plays come with an expectation that the playwright is supposed to make a big statement or comment on the event, create their own spin or take on the story.

For me, SPILL is as much about the fragility of human life, about love and about loss, as it is about oil. It’s not a play about the BP oil spill, though that was its starting point. It’s a play about human lives and how life changes as a result of an event like this. So I keep wishing that “documentary” plays could simply be viewed as plays, simply be seen as a study or examination of human nature, human behavior, and life.

Yes, SPILL does point to larger themes—as an allegory in a way—for where we are as a society in terms of fossil fuels. We know that nature and our current oil-based economy are on a collision course. Most of us feel personally powerless to do anything about it, even if we deeply care.

I do think it would be good if when people leave the play that they thought deeper about the people they love and hold dear, how fragile life really is, how your life can change in an instant. But I’d like them also to connect those deeper existential questions to the earth and to the environment, what kind of society to we want to live in—what kind of society DO we want to create? I think most people would say that we want to create a society where life is valued, where the environment is valued, where we actually recognize how precious a natural resource like oil really is.

I am very curious to see how this material plays in our current political environment. Just last week, a White House press release and an ExxonMobil press release about drilling in the Gulf were essentially the same document. The White House "borrowed" ExxonMobil's language verbatim. Our new Secretary of State is the former head of ExxonMobil. Industry regulation is being swept away at a rate never before seen. If SPILL is a cautionary tale, it is cautioning us against our inaction, against turning a blind eye to the dangers right before our eyes, both on a micro level within the industry, and on a global level on the planet. My role as an artist is to tell a good story. It is my hope that SPILL resonates with our times. I hope that it poses the big human questions that face us all. 

SPILL is being produced as this year’s Mainstage Production of The EST/Sloan Project, a nineteen-year-old initiative between The Ensemble Studio Theater and The Sloan Foundation. SPILL started previews on March 8 and continues performances through April 2 at The Ensemble Studio Theatre. You can purchase tickets here.