Play about BP disaster to premiere in BR

Multimedia presentation gaining national attention

Jason Anderson, a tool pusher working on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, calls his wife, as he regularly did, to let her know he’s OK.

He also tells her he’s uneasy with the platform’s setup. Shelley Anderson detects his discomfort and coaxes him to tell her more, but he can’t.

“The walls are too thin here,” he said.

A few hours later, the 35-year-old father of two from Midfield, Texas, is dead — one of 11 workers killed in the April 20, 2010, explosion.

The story of the oil spill has been told on television and in the pages of newspapers, at congressional hearings and in a courtroom in New Orleans.

Now, thanks to a New York playwright, it is coming to the stage as well — not on Broadway but here in Louisiana, on the LSU campus.

Anderson’s phone call is recreated in “Spill,” a multimedia play recounting the lives of Anderson and 29 others affected by the explosion and massive oil leak from the BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

The news of the disaster captured the imagination of New York playwright Leigh Fondakowski.

Suspecting that the “human story on the ground was much more profound than what was presented on the news,” she and her team spent two years interviewing 99 people affected by the disaster.

Those interviews formed the basis of the play.

“We use the real characters in the story,” Fondakowski said. “They’re not fictionalized. We’ve scaled the 99 interviews down to 30. That’s how many characters we have in the play, and Jason is one of the main characters.

“We also look at the fact that deep-water drilling is the new frontier, and we look at the consequences of what comes with that,” she said. “We’re looking at the risks being taken here. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we always should.”

The play, which is receiving national attention, will premiere March 12-30 at the Reilly Theatre on the LSU campus. Fondakowski is directing the Swine Palace production.

Though Fondakowski’s name may not be readily familiar, many may recognize her 2000 play, “The Laramie Project,” which examines the people and circumstances surrounding the violent death of a young gay man named Matthew Shepard in 1998. She also was nominated for an Emmy Award for her 2002 movie adaptation for HBO.

Fondakowski was the head writer of that play, which was co-authored with members of the New York-based Tectonic Theatre Project. “The Laramie Project” drew on hundreds of interviews with residents of Shepard’s hometown of Laramie, Wyo.

With “Spill,” she’s collaborating with visual artist Reeva Wortel, who is based in Portland, Ore. Wortel, who assisted with the interviews, also painted portraits of each interviewee. Those portraits will be exhibited in the Reilly Theatre lobby during the production.

Fondakowski, 44, and Wortel, 36, workshopped the play last spring at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and many of the people featured in the story attended the performance.

“Spill” began receiving attention from national publications, most notably The New York Times, since December, when Swine Palace began its auditions.

This production will mark Fondakowski’s fourth play based on interviews surrounding current affairs.

The Deepwater Horizon accident caught her attention because there were so many issues surrounding it. The 87-day oil disaster impacted Louisiana’s coastal communities and marine life.

Fondakowski and Wortel began traveling to Louisiana only months after the accident for interviews with fishermen, political figures, cleanup workers, scientists, oil industry workers and families of those lost in the explosion. President Barack Obama also plays a part with words taken from his public statements during the incident.

“We look at it from all angles,” Fondakowski said. “We don’t make any judgments. We put the story and the facts out there.

“I’ve learned so much from working on this, and I’ve developed a newfound respect for those who work in the oil industry.”

As for Wortel’s portraits, they will take on a different meaning for audience members leaving the theater at the play’s end.

“They’re portraits of real people involved in this story,” Wortel said. “They developed their own character as I painted them, and it gave me a different perspective of them, of who they are.”

Fondakowski learned of Wortel’s work through a friend. This is their first project together.

“Our task as theater artists is to expand the boundaries of what is possible on stage and to make the work that does what the medium does best,” Fondakowski said. “We believe in a theater that addresses the important social and human issues that affect us all.”

After the well was capped on July 15, 2010, Fondakowski said, the rest of the world assumed that the story was over.

“The BP oil spill was one of the most significant events of our generation, and ‘Spill’ captures the true legacy of this crisis in the voices of the people who lived it,” she said.