We all know about the drama and disaster that took place on April 20, 2010 off the coast of Louisiana. But even as the nation directed its rage towards BP, demanding explanations for how such a disaster could be allowed to happen, the dominant sentiment of the men and women in and out of Louisiana was more complex.
SPILL, a theater production and art installation that visited the University this past weekend, attempts to capture that confusion. Written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski, the production, which celebrated its first ever public performance on Saturday, Feb. 25 in Beckham Hall, deals with the Gulf oil spill, covering events before, during, and after the disaster occurred.
The show itself was pieced together from extensive interviews with victims of the spill, as well as testimonies from BP CEO Tony Hayward, rig workers, scientists, and photographers. Together, it presents a vivid and compassionate collage of questions, confessions, tirades, and apologies that, in many ways, is the only manner in which one can do justice to such an event.
The setup on Saturday was simple. The actors, seven in all, sat in a row of chairs, each with a music stand in front of them containing the script. Portraying multiple characters, each actor read excerpts from quotes that moved back and forth along the timeline of the spill. Notably, they directly addressed the audience even when talking with another actor on stage.
Though the actors rose, they never moved very far. To do so would defeat the point of the production. SPILL wasn’t about movement. The energy of the show came from the voices and the words of those who were interviewed, many of whom were, for the first time, given the opportunity to share how the spill affected their lives with a large audience. The show wasn’t about acting so much as it seemed to be about channeling a set of ideas and emotions that usually would be overlooked. Yet it was the “average-ness” of the people to whom those ideas belong that gives them their value, intimacy, and punch.
The range of voices was wide indeed, with actors portraying everyone from shrimpers in the Gulf to professors at UC Berkely. Some characters were given names and some were not, but each was given moments of fragility, honesty, and dignity.
One of the voices was Michel Varisco, a photographer from New Orleans who took extensive photographs of the spill and who spoke at Downey House on Friday afternoon. Much of Varisco’s photography dealt with the environmental effects of the spill and the general trend of land loss in the Louisiana marshes. He touched on the complex and exploitative relationship the state shares with the industry that ravages it.
“It’s a Stockholm Syndrome relationship,” he said. “An abusive relationship.”
That relationship was also touched on in SPILL, which pointed out that Louisiana is the only state that does not receive royalties from the oil and gas industry.
“We make money because of the oil industry,” Varisco said. “We lose land because of the oil industry.”
Varisco’s presentation, however, was not wholly scientific or political. Throughout the talk, she reminded the audience of the toll such an event takes on those who live in the area, displaying candid emotion when discussing what it was like to see something so devastating occur in the area she knows as home.
“It was like going to a loved one’s bedside when they’re dying or sick,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do except watch it.”
Having also been present for Katrina (though her house remained miraculously unravaged by the flooding), Varisco was clear about the effect disasters have on residents.
“You realize ‘place’ in a much more pointed way after disaster,” she said.
That mix of cerebral scientific debate and raw personal confusion was what made both Varisco’s talk and SPILL so effective. Both paid attention to the underlying forces behind the BP disaster, but neither ignored the much less easily quantifiable trauma the catastrophe inflicted, depicting those who suffered from the spill as dignified and wounded but never as weak or nameless victims.
In many ways, SPILL represented the Greek Chorus of the BP tragedy, recognizing, however, that in the case of this story the Chorus may be the most important character as well as the most honest and tenacious voice—both outraged and terrified, determined and unsure. Towards the end of the performance, one character spoke to the audience as though addressing the interviewer and the writers of the show.
“Do you think people are gonna go see a play about a buncha people cryin’ bout an oil spill? I mean, if you say so,” he said. “But if you do make this a play, you take this play to London and you tell BP, they ain’t finished with us here.”