Mike Williams jumps overboard from the rig he has been working on every day for the past couple months. He hits the water just in time to avoid the rig’s explosion, immediately cursing himself as he sees fire skimming across the water’s surface and realizes he is now soaked in oil. If he doesn’t move fast, he’ll catch on fire along with the rest of the marsh. He swims and swims until he can no longer feel the burning of the oil against his skin, and he is eventually rescued by a fisherman who pulls him into his boat.
This scene ends the first act of “SPILL,” a play by Leigh Fondakowski about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a tragedy that killed 11 people and severely damaged the Gulf of Mexico and all its wildlife. On Thursday, Oct. 30, Fondakowski, who taught playwriting at Wesleyan in the 2012-2013 academic year, returned to talk about “SPILL,” show and explain slides about the production, read text from the play, and answer students’ questions.
“SPILL” came into being in 2011, when Fondakowski, along with Director of the College of the Environment Barry Chernoff, taught ENVS 380, The Deepwater Horizon Tragedy: A Scientific and Artistic Inquiry. During the class’ 10-day trip to the Gulf Coast region, Leigh was inspired to write a theater piece about the disaster. She recalled visiting a marsh, where the oil had eroded, and then stopping at a wildlife area, where she saw scientists clustered around autopsied dolphin bodies. Though Fondakowski initially believed that there was very little tension to draw from the issue—she originally thought BP was simply just an evil entity that had destroyed the environment and many lives—these features helped her to fully comprehend the continuous tension between the oil industry and the natural beauty of the marsh.
“Sometimes I think that the art finds us… but here it was a privilege to find myself there, and I felt like I had to respond to it,” Fondakowski said.
Her piece depicts the incident through the eyes of the region’s citizens. Fondakowski took about 15 trips to Louisiana and collected over 200 hours of stories from people involved in the disaster; then, in collaboration with visual artist Reeva Wortel, she created the piece, which for the most part draws directly from transcripts and interviews.
The first act of “SPILL,” Fondakowski explained, focuses on rig workers going out to what would be their final hitch. Already uncomfortable with the riskiness of the process and the corner-cutting that executives are carrying out, they feel a responsibility to keep working on the rig despite their apprehension. While the rig is blowing up, executives are attending a dinner honoring them for safety, as they have not had an accident in seven years. Fondakowski said she juxtaposes these two scenes on the stage to heighten the tension and drama. The play’s first act ends with what Fondakowski calls the “apocalyptic speech” by Mike Williams, in which he recounts his dive overboard from the exploding rig.
The second act of the piece takes place on Environmental Lobby Day, during which the rig remains on fire. Executives attending this event start receiving inquiries from the media and realize that something is wrong. The piece follows a character that plays watchdog for what the media is not relaying to these executives.
Another significant aspect of the piece was a collection of portraits of its characters, painted by Wortel, which were displayed in the lobby of the theater so that audience members could observe them as they entered and left. During intermission, staff members put the name of each character and some quotations from them underneath the portraits. Fondakowski said she did not want the audience to leave the theater immediately and simply forget what they had just seen. This aspect of the show allowed viewers to mill around, observe the portraits, discuss the piece, and digest the events of the show.
The portraits were first presented at Wesleyan along with a choral reading of the play in February 2012, and the fully formed version of “SPILL” was presented at Louisiana State University’s Swine Palace theater, as well as at the Culture Project’s Women Center Stage 2013 Festival.
Fondakowski also said she projected clips from the “spill cam” onto the stage during the production, showing the damage that had been done to the marsh. Additionally, the piece included testaments from workers who were sent in without any protective gear to clean up the spill.
Fondakowski wanted to focus on the lives of the men working on the rig and portray to the audience what it was like to walk in these men’s shoes.
“I like that she made the piece not only about the BP oil spill itself but about the lives and families of the workers who died in the explosion,” said Amelia Spittal ’18, who attended Fondakowski’s talk. “I’ve never really thought about them, and they weren’t really included in the media coverage, so I think it’s great that she is getting their stories out there.”