Leigh Fondakowski’s SPILL at Ensemble Studio Theatre

Vince Gatton, Molly McAdoo, Alex Grubbs, Greg Steinbruner, and Kelli Simpkins in EST-Sloan’s SPILL, Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Leigh Fondakowski’s Spill, running at Ensemble Studio Theatre through April 2, is overflowing with stories. Although most New York audience members probably have a distant memory of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, 2010, we would be hard-pressed to explain the incident in any level of detail. Spill excels in its capacity to both educate audiences on the events of that fateful day, but also evoke true human compassion for this impossibly complicated quagmire of economic reliance and environmental destruction.

This is the second play in the space of a year I’ve seen on this subject, not to mention last year’s Deepwater Horizon film, yet Leigh captures the subtlety of human emotion along with the complexity of the drama in unparalleled fashion. I’ve known Leigh since I attended her documentary theater workshops with Life Jacket Theater Company in 2015, and had the opportunity to pick her brain about Spill after seeing it for myself.

Leigh first traveled to visit the spill site in spring of 2011, with a Wesleyan College class she was co-teaching with a biologist/environmental scientist in the interview-to-art method. She remembers going down to visit the oiled marsh, where scientists were autopsying dolphins. The image of those dolphins in body bags was the turning point in that trip for Leigh, leading her to spend the next three years traveling back down south to conduct interviews and collect additional materials.

Leigh’s best known credit as a documentary theater artist is Head Writer on Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project. However, she has been has been creating documentary theater for most of her career, including her 2002 piece, I Think I Like Girls, created from interviews with a dozen lesbian women about growing up gay in America, and her 2005 piece, The People’s Temple, based on interviews with the survivors of the 1978 Jonestown tragedy. When confronting the project that would become Spill, Leigh says, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again, because it takes over your life, for a time.” And yet, she found the stories of the people she met connected to the BP oil spill so compelling that she couldn’t help but dive back in.

The first reading of Spill took place in New Orleans, followed by a production at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Leigh says, “A lot of people who saw it in Baton Rouge had never seen a play before. Not only was it one in which their community was represented, but the first play they’ve ever seen. People came in like, ‘What is this?’ And a lot of people left the theater in tears. […] That’s what theater can do best, open up a space for dialogue in a way that on TV or in some kind of public forum you still go with your camp. Giving that little bit of separation as an art form, it’s a little easier to hear, and to open your heart to.”

The cast of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s production displays excellent ensemble work, including several choral moments that surprised me in their warm, authentic intensity. Kelli Simpkins, a long-time collaborator of Leigh’s, served as the through-line “narrator” character, often representing Leigh’s end of interview conversations. Exemplifying the versatility of this cast, Simpkins also had some of the most spectacular transformations, from Lillian Miller, a wise, old woman, with severely arthritic hands, referred to as the “heartbeat” of the oil industry, to Jorey Danos, a rambling and cussing Bayou man sporting a “cut-throat” neck tattoo, who helped clean up the spill and suffered permanent physical damage as a result.

Leigh was conscious and intentional in her employ of the theatrical medium for this story. She explained, “I’m expanding the form with Spill in a way that’s not just content-driven documentary theater, but also has a theatricality to it. I’m pushing the relationship between people’s words and their documentary expression, further and further as I have progressed. […] There are lines in the play that the play could live without, but there’s something about the poetry of the vernacular.” Leigh’s finesse for the human essence of each of the characters depicted, and in turn, the story as a whole, lends an empathy and complexity to this complicated event that is easily lost or manipulated by familiar retellings in the media.

I was struck by the masculine energy exuding from Spill, both in the survivors’ testimonies, the corporate jargon, and the families’ devout support of their sons’ sacrifice. Like Leigh, I learned a tremendous amount about the process of drilling for oil over the course of Spill, and what a complicated, highly skilled and technical profession working oil rigs has become. Leigh foreshadowed the high stakes of this world by twice revisiting a casino scene, right before the last “hitch” — the explosion of April 20, in which eleven rig workers lost their lives.

The men are in a familiar mode, boys being boys, loud and raucous, drunk and daring. These rig workers felt the same loyalty to each other and to their profession as members of our armed services, and took a real pride in their work as a service to our country. I felt the gulf of cultural misunderstanding from the first casino reenactment scene, recoiling in my seat from the boys’ testosterone and competition and risk and dominance. This categorical alienation was only compounded later as we learned about the BP and Transocean executives who were on board the rig the day of the blowout, who embodied the industry’s greed and assumed, guilt-free privilege, ignorantly patting one another’s backs while turning a blind eye to real-time problems.

And just as this personal gulf was widening, Spill repeats how funny these rig workers were, pulling lines from family members’ memories, explaining that these were guys who could make you laugh every day. This is just one small example of Leigh’s flair for human emotion and storytelling. Because whose sympathies aren’t piqued by a victim of circumstance who made someone laugh every day while he was alive, no matter how complicit he was in this environmental devastation, no matter how aware he was of the risk of his profession?

Leigh says, “I never thought about the oil industry as a cultural badge, but for people down there, the oil industry and who they are is very much interwoven. Even those who lost their loved ones on the rigs wanted to keep drilling. People were up in arms against BP, but you would hear things like, ‘We’re not oil haters down here, we’ll keep drilling for the country.’” Other characters in Spill echo Leigh’s sentiments, explaining oil as the only middle class, American dream fulfillment left. As we have witnessed throughout American industrialization, we historically have to let something burn (Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, anyone?) before we make a change to protect our labor force. That unrealistic pressure for success, coupled with the oil industry’s culture of silence and secrecy (another military parallel), left its workers feeling vulnerable and unsupported in the face of mounting pressures for increased productivity.

As I, too, tried to fruitlessly parse out blame and justice in this irreconcilable story, it was easy to get mad at BP and Transocean and the capitalist monstrosities they represent, profit-driven with no respect for the human lives their decisions affect. Leigh honed in on the celebratory award of a fancy watch to an oil executive just minutes before the Deepwater blowout, in a ceremony that harkened back to Nero and his violin. As Bob Bea, an engineer and former off-shore rig man comments in the play, “We knew the risks. We got cocky.”

But as frustrated as I was by the inhumanity of this industry, and the sacrificial service of its front-line rig workers, I also found myself sick of liberal disapproval of the oil industry. As much as I disagreed with the systems represented on stage, I still came home and flipped on my lights as I always do. After Spill’s gripping two hour presentation of this story, it was nearly impossible to come to a satisfactory conclusion, allowing the audience to hold so much information in their minds and hearts and yet still leave with some sort of catharsis.

Leigh explains, “At the end, you want to find a silver lining, but it’s a much bigger and more complicated story. Obviously BP is to blame. We all consume this amount of energy, these people’s economic livelihood for the past 100 years has been completely reliant on this industry… It’s a huge problem, bigger than any one person’s individual choices.”

As Spill drew to its conclusion, one father tells his (now dead) son, “You can always get another job. You can’t get another life.” Our “cut-throat” friend from the Bayou testifies, “I’m mad because my greed took the best of me — greed, money, devastation, you put that in.” And finally, Bob Bea explains, “Well, the solution’s quite simple. It consists of: Stop. Think. Don’t do something stupid. That’s it.” If only it were that simple.

Leigh expresses, “With the play, I wanted people to hold the complexity of the situation. We’re in this predicament together. In such a polarized political climate, people believe things because of their lived experience. We need to be listening to each other in a different kind of way, not in terms of right or wrong. We’re all implicated, we all have to be part of the solution.”

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