Theater
2:54 pm
Tue March 18, 2014

Deepwater, Center-Stage: Disaster Through Survivors' Eyes

Originally published on Wed March 19, 2014 1:50 pm

Eleven died and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico when BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010. But beneath the tragedy, there's a complex story about people's relationships to oil. That's what's explored in Spill, a new play by one of the creators of The Laramie Project.

Playwright Leigh Fondakowski had never been to southeast Louisiana when she took a boat ride out of Bay Jimmy, several months after the well had been capped. She was leading a workshop with a scientist, showing students her method of using extensive interviews as a basis for theater.

"We were parking the boat at the dock," Fondakowski says. "And they were autopsying dolphin bodies. And it's a very striking image to see a dolphin on the table, and to see all these body bags. And I knew almost instantly I was going to have to do something about this story."

Something like what she did with The Laramie Project, a collaboration with Moises Kaufman that used the real voices of people affected by the murder of gay teen Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.

What she found in South Louisiana was a culture cut off from even the rest of the state, just a few miles to the north. One of her first interviews with a woman in a bayou town made that clear.

"It's different here from up north," the woman told her. By "up north," the woman meant Baton Rouge.

Up north, people don't live so close to the land. Fishing, hunting, boating and drilling are all intertwined on the bayou. The reality that oil is part of everyone's everyday life hit home for Reeva Wortel, a visual artist who painted portraits of all the interviewees — portraits that are used in the production.

"There are many degrees of separation between the oil industry and our lives," says Wortel. And that can be a problem: "I think it's really easy to make moral judgments about the oil industry if you're in a bubble," she says.

Oil itself becomes a character in the play. At first, it's an invisible force driving the action. Fondakowski says that an oil well "is like a living thing. It has gas in it, and sometimes it kicks. It's like breaking a wild horse."

Later, in a tightly choreographed sequence, we see what happens when that wild horse isn't broken. Using survivor interviews and court testimony, Fondakowski re-creates the blowout.

"I knew I had to get out," one survivor says. "A tremendous explosion occurred. It blew me probably 20 feet against a bulkhead in that room. Both me and the door went to the other side of the shop. The power went out."

The play then explores the aftermath of the BP spill through the voices of oystermen who can't harvest their beds and who must work long, hard days to clean up the oil.

"I sit here taking phone calls, [and it's] 2 o'clock in the morning when a man tells [me], 'I feel like taking a gun to my head and blowing my brains out,' " says Amar Atkins, playing the head of an oysterman's group. "BP don't get those phone calls."

The playwright also interviewed victims' families. Silas Cooper, who plays a father who lost his son, muses, "I guess fathers and mothers have said this for as long as children have been killed working in coal mines and working on railroads and in industry on the high seas, and our message never seems to be heard."

That message is simple. "Don't let industry gamble with human life," says Keith Jones. His son Gordon, a mud engineer, died on the rig.

"Gordon is on my screensaver, and his picture is on my credit card," Jones says. "I do everything I can to surround myself with his memory."

His biggest hope for the play is that it renews the dialogue about profits versus safety that all but dried up once the Deepwater Horizon dropped from the headlines.

"The best way to remember and honor Gordon," says Jones, "would be to never accept what anyone says — oil company employees, executives, drilling companies' employees or executives, politicians. Never accept anything they say on face value. Always know that everything they say is motivated by the dollar."

And be skeptical, too, of the delusions many of us carry about oil, and our ability to extract ourselves from it, urges Fondakowski. In a discussion after a staged reading of the play in New York, she says audience members seemed to expect someone in the play to speak up.

"Why is no one saying we should stop drilling? When is the character going to come in and say we should stop drilling?"

But the fact that they don't reflects the kind of complexity Fondakowski was going for.

Jones, whose son Gordon's grave is the sunken rig, says he will go see Spill first as a scout for his son's mother and his widow.

"And I'll report back and tell them if I think there's anything about it that will be upsetting to them," he says. "I think they both would like to see it, but don't want to be put through an emotional wringer to do it."

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010, it killed 11 people and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf. Those are the big headlines from that story. But a deeper look reveals a complex tale to be told about people's relationships to oil. And that is what a new play by one of the creators of "The Laramie Project" explores. From member station WWNO, Eve Troeh reports on the play "Spill."

EVE TROEH, BYLINE: Playwright Leigh Fondakowski had never been to southeast Louisiana when she took a boat ride out of Bay Jimmy several months after the well had been capped. She was leading a workshop with a scientist, showing students her method of using extensive interviews as a basis for theater.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: We were parking the boat it the dock and they were autopsying dolphin bodies. And it's a very striking image to see the body of a dolphin on a table and then see body bags. And I sort of knew almost instantly, like, I'm going to have to do something about this.

TROEH: Something like what she did with "The Laramie Project," a collaboration with Moises Kaufman, using the real voices of people affected by the murder of gay teen Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. What she found in south Louisiana was a culture cut off from even the rest of the state, just a few miles to the north. One of her first interviews with a woman in a bayou town made that clear.

FONDAKOWSKI: She said: It's different here from up north. And we thought she meant New York, but actually she meant Baton Rouge.

TROEH: Up north, people don't live so close to the land. Fishing, hunting, boating and drilling are all intertwined on the bayou. The reality that oil is part of everyone's life every day hit home for Reeva Wortel. She's a visual artist who painted portraits of all the interviewees that are used in the production.

REEVA WORTEL: There are many degrees of separation between the oil industry and our lives, so that I think it's really easy to make moral judgments about the oil industry if you're in the bubble.

TROEH: Oil itself becomes a character in the play, at first an invisible force driving the action.

FONDAKOWSKI: We're taught that an oil well is like a living thing, and it has gas in it and sometimes it kicks, which means it's coming in on you. And the job of the rig worker is to control this. It's like a wild horse. It's like breaking a wild horse.

TROEH: In a tightly choreographed sequence, we see what happens when that wild horse is not broken. Using survivor interviews and court testimony, Fondakowski recreates the blowout.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SPILL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I knew I need to get out. I grabbed the handle of the door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I made it to the doorway (unintelligible) pushes off this...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A big (unintelligible) and then a huge (unintelligible), an initial boom.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Then a tremendous explosion occurred. It blew me probably 20 feet against a bulkhead in that room.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Both me and that door ended up on the other side of the shop. Ooh. The power went out.

TROEH: The play then explores the aftermath of the BP spill through the voices of oystermen who can't harvest their beds and work long, hard days to clean up the oil. Amar Atkins plays the head of an oysterman's group.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SPILL")

AMAR ATKINS: I sit here taking phone calls 2:00 in the morning when a man tells you, I feel like taking a gun to my head and just blowing my brains out. BP don't get those phone calls.

TROEH: The playwright also interviewed victims' families. Silas Cooper plays a father who lost his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SPILL")

SILAS COOPER: I guess fathers and mothers have said this for as long as children have been killed in coal mines and working on railroads and in industry and on the high seas, and our message never seems to be heard.

TROEH: That message is simple - don't let industry gamble with human life, says Keith Jones. His son, Gordon, a mud engineer, died on the rig.

KEITH JONES: Gordon is on my screensaver and his picture is on my credit card. And I do everything I can to surround myself with his memory.

TROEH: His biggest hope for the play is that it renews a dialogue about profits versus safety that all but dried up once the Deepwater Horizon dropped from the headlines.

JONES: The best way to remember and honor Gordon would be to never accept what anyone says: oil company employees, executive, drilling company's employees or executives, politicians. Never accept anything they say on face value. Always know that everything they say is motivated by the dollar.

TROEH: And be skeptical, too, of the delusions many of us carry about oil and our ability to extract ourselves from it, says playwright Leigh Fondakowski. She held a staged reading in New York. And in the discussion after, she says audience members seemed to expect someone in the play to speak up.

FONDAKOWSKI: When is the character going to come in and say we're going to stop drilling? And so all these people who you get really connected to over the course of the piece and you feel their sorrows and their heartbreaks and you, you know, you get in sync with them and you're waiting for them to agree with you, and they don't.

TROEH: The fact that they don't reflects the kind of complexity Fondakowski was going for. Keith Jones, the father of Gordon, whose grave is the sunken rig, says he will go see "Spill" first as a scout for his son's mother and his widow.

JONES: And I'll report back and tell them if I think there's anything about it that will be upsetting to them. I think they both would like to see it but don't want to be put through an emotional wringer to do it.

TROEH: For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.