A conversation with Leigh Fondakowski

Writer/director Leigh Fondakowski (LF) shares reflections on the play and the process of creating it with Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP).

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

(LF) I was asked by Wesleyan University to co-teach a class with a distinguished environmental scientist by the name of Barry Chernoff. 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.

Pam Tatge, the director of Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts proposed to me a commission to create a play from these events, but I was hesitant. Having done three 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 in to the story.

I knew that there was an important American play here and I had to follow that hunch.

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

(LF) 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, even five years later, you can still feel the effects. People’s lives were changed irreparably from this event.

(PJP) Being there, how did things differ from what you had been seeing on television or reading about in the news?

(LF) The thing that is most striking about southern Louisiana is the juxtaposition between oil and nature. Southern Louisiana is one of the most beautiful natural environments on earth. On one of my first trips there I was taken out by boat to a heavily oiled marsh. There were brown pelicans flying low along the water right next to the boat. There were dolphins swimming alongside it. It was breathtaking.

Oil and nature side by side on the Louisiana coast.

Oil and nature side by side on the Louisiana coast.

Then, you turn a corner and all you can see is oil rigs and production platforms and refineries, literally as far as the eye can see. One interviewee called them, “Mosquitoes on the skin.” For the people there the co-insistence of industry with this natural beauty is just part of their way of life. It is perfectly normal to them.

On one of these boat trips, I also happened to see dolphins being autopsied at the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries building. A team of scientists were gathered around a large lab table and there were several dead dolphins in body bags on the ground next to the table. I was very struck by this image as well. No one knew for certain at that time if the dolphins were dead because of the oil spill, but it was certainly a haunting image, one that I will never forget. So this idea that oil and nature can live side by side began to have cracks in it.

(PJP) What’s your process for conducting interviews? Where do you begin with identifying people and what’s your strategy for those meetings?

(LF) 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.

I reached out to Professor Bob Bea who is at the University of California-Berkeley, for example. I happened to be visiting the Berkeley area and he was easy enough to find online. I had read about Bob in an article in which he was referred to as “the master of disaster.” Bob led me to Lillian Espinosa–Gala, a former rig worker and journalist, and Lillian knew A LOT of people whom she began to recommend that I meet.

Four degrees of separation later, we found ourselves meeting with Jorey Danos, a clean-up worker. One interview led to the next, to the next, to the next in a natural progression. Bob and Jorey are strangers, but Bob led us to Jorey.

(PJP) Were there things you discovered during interviews that surprised you or that took your research in new directions?

Craig Spidle (left) portrays Bob Bea in "Spill."

Craig Spidle (left) portrays Bob Bea in “Spill.”

(LF) I traveled to the Gulf with my close collaborator, visual artist Reeva Wortel. Reeva was interested in painting portraits of the people impacted by the spill and so we traveled together conducting interviews. We thought that we were going to be interviewing people impacted by the oil spill: clean-up workers, fishermen, politicians, religious leaders, and every day citizens. We quickly discovered that a HUGE part of this story centered around the rig workers and their families.

We also discovered how technically advanced deepwater drilling is. Deepwater drilling is often compared to space travel. I had no idea how dangerous it was. I didn’t understand the difference between a well in deep water versus a well on land. My dramaturgical team and I—Sarah Lambert, Kelli Simpkins and Reeva Wortel—have all become modest experts in deepwater drilling.

As a playwright, I knew I needed to understand why that rig blew. The answer is not simple. You can’t point to the one “smoking gun,” like the faulty o-ring that blew up the Challenger space shuttle. There were more than 20 different decisions taken over a long period of time that caused the Deepwater Horizon to blow out. So, now I know what a centralizer is, and what a toolpusher does, and a lot of things I never dreamed I’d know.

There is also something terrifying in this knowledge. When people now debate whether or not we should go to the Arctic, I am literally terrified. I’m sure that we have the technology to do it, but I am almost as certain that we do not have the technology to clean it up if something goes wrong.

How do we as a society measure these risks and do we really have a voice?

(PJP) Once you’ve conducted your interviews, how do you start to shape those hundreds of hours into a play?

(JF) Typically within a two-hour interview I know almost instantly if there is what I call “usable text,” or 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 is the story of a community. The community is the protagonist. The playwriting process is also about letting many voices speak and become part of the greater story being told. The ensemble is also a community, and so their task together is to embody this single protagonist, to become a single protagonist, even though they all have their individual contributions to make.

(PJP) How did the process for Spill compare to your work as head writer on The Laramie Project or your work as writer and director of The People’s Temple?

(LF) 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.

(PJP) 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?

Chris Rickett and Justine C. Turner portray real-life couple Jason and Shelley Anderson in "Spill."

Chris Rickett and Justine C. Turner portray real-life couple Jason and Shelley Anderson in “Spill.”

(LF) 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.

(PJP) TimeLine first got involved in the play’s development after the original production, and we’ve been collaborating with you for a little over a year. Can you talk about how the play has evolved since its premiere?

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

The second act has been under construction for a long time now. I have 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.

The people suffered, and many suffered greatly and are still suffering, but I want the play to be about what happened as a result of that suffering, who they became having gone through it, what insights that they had while living through it—those are the touch points that make this story universal beyond the details of the spill.

(PJP) How do you think the issues of the play will resonate with our Midwestern audience, as compared to an audience in Louisiana?

(LF) Well, for one thing, our Cajun accents don’t have to be PITCH PERFECT as they were down there! Seriously, though, I think that this play will resonate with this audience because it is a story that could happen to any of us.

No, most of us don’t go to work on an offshore drill rig or fish for oysters, but there is not a person living who hasn’t gone through a trauma or an abrupt or unexpected change in their lives that has changed them forever. We have all loved, we have all lost, we are all identified with the places that we love and call home, and many of us may know how jarring it is when you’re forced to look at your identity because of an event that happens that is out of your control.

Earlier on in its development, I was giving a talk back after a production of The Laramie Project. I was asked what I was working on and I said a play about the oil spill. The woman literally put her hand up in front of her chest as if to shield herself from something toxic and said, “Oh, that’s a different kind of sadness.”

I thought, “Okay, Matthew Shepard was the victim of a hate crime, but isn’t it still tragic that these 11 men lost their lives?” Different circumstance, of course, but is it really a “different kind of sadness?” Do we measure sadness based on whether or not we perceive the person as a worthy victim? Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s parents, are deeply connected to Arleen Weise, Keith Jones or Bill Anderson. They all lost children in an unjust, unfair, and brutal manner: their grief is absolutely universal and yet so deeply personal to each one of them. If Judy Shepard and Arleen Weise were to meet in a room, they would know and understand one another deeply before even speaking a single word.

I made it a point after that talk back to reach out to the family of Jason Anderson and to make Jason a more substantial character in the play. I wanted the audience to go on a journey with a man who they wouldn’t naturally sympathize or empathize with—someone very different from them. When we lose Jason in the play, I want the audience to feel that loss. I think that they will.

The ensemble of "Spill," featuring (from left) Justin James Farley, Tim Decker, Chris Rickett, Justine C. Turner, David Prete, Christopher Sheard, Caren Blackmore and Kelli Simpkins.

The ensemble of “Spill,” featuring (from left) Justin James Farley, Tim Decker, Chris Rickett, Justine C. Turner, David Prete, Christopher Sheard, Caren Blackmore and Kelli Simpkins.

(PJP) Each actor in the show takes on numerous roles to form a sort of chorus of players. How do you go about making that ensemble work in the rehearsal room?

(LF) This ensemble has been a joy to work with, an absolute joy. In truth, you have to get very lucky when you’re building an ensemble from scratch. There is something mysterious about it—are all of these strangers going to “gel?” In order for an ensemble to work, people have to be willing to leave their individual egos at the door and see themselves as a part of a bigger whole. They have to be open to one another, they have to be good listeners, and they have to be willing to take risks and to fail in front of a large group of people. This group has been all of the above. They encourage one another, they BELIEVE in one another. Each one is better because the others are there. These are all of the ingredients of a good ensemble, and this group is the best.

(PJP) You’re creating a vivid physical vocabulary with the actors too, keeping them present on stage throughout the play and very active whether they are speaking or not. Is this type of physical work and choreography something you’re always drawn to as a director, or is it mostly for this particular play?

(LF) I have always been drawn to this type of work, but I have been able to express it in ways in this play that I haven’t been able to in the past, so it has been thrilling. I love physical acting. The actor’s body is like a beautiful instrument. They can communicate so much beyond the text. I am interested in the physical interplay between and among them and how much story can be told beyond the text. Text is one element of theater, but there are so many others. This physical world is one layer, but it provides a strong foundation for this piece in terms of the story telling. When their bodies are listening, their minds are keenly in tune also.

(PJP) One of the things that first struck me about the play is that it offers no easy answers about oil drilling and its impact. You present an array of viewpoints. If you had one hope for how people would respond to the play, what would that be?

(LF) 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.

When I was in Louisiana I thought, “We’re doomed, we’re never changing course, here.” The infrastructure alone down there is stunning. People who are not from there often say things like, “We should just stop drilling.” That is a very naïve idea, which I now only realize having been there. As Bob Bea says, “We don’t realize how much oil permeates our lives.” Try going a day without petroleum products. You literally cannot do it. Our lives are inextricably linked with this industry and so is our economy. When the people of the Gulf say oil is a “way of life,” they are right. But it is a way of life for all of us, too, though we would never name it like that.

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 think noticing that oil is precious and acting accordingly would change a lot. Just shifting our thought to the fact that it’s not a cheap resource but a precious one would change a lot. We would be less inclined to use oil on one use or disposable items and perhaps begin to use it for the things that we really need to survive and make our lives richer and more productive.

My only big take-away from this is that we really have our work cut out for us as a society and my question coming out of it is: are we going to rise to the occasion?

One of the most shocking things as an outsider is that I FULLY expected the families of the rig workers to suddenly turn anti-oil in their views. I think I realize now that you can’t actually be pro-oil or anti-oil. You can think you are, but you really aren’t. We all use fossil fuels to survive. All of us, regardless of our political views, so if we are going to start talking about an issue like climate change in a real way, we have to at least be honest with ourselves about that.

I can’t stand back and judge someone for saying, “drill baby drill,” although I have and still might have an inclination to do so! But now I have to look at the situation more as a predicament or a puzzle or a dilemma that we’re all in, it’s a problem that needs to be solved in a deeply creative and committed way.

One of our characters says, “We’re all in the same boat now,” and truly we are. Whether you live in Wyoming or Louisiana or New York City we all need water to survive, we all need air to breathe, we need our land to not wash away under our feet, the ecosystems of the world need all of the species we are killing off, and we need them, too. Standing on two sides of the issue isn’t going to get us to the solutions that our future needs.

It’s a cliché, but we must stand together, we must rise above those labels in order to change our mentality about oil. We are all inextricably linked to the oil industry at this time in human history. So for that to unravel, for that to shift and to change is going to be a very big deal.


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Comments (2)

  1. Maria Scipione

    i would very much like to read a copy of your script “Spill”.
    please contact me.

    • TimeLine Theatre

      Hello Maria,

      We will get in touch with you via email regarding obtaining a script for “Spill.” Thanks for your interest!