Leigh Fondakowski developed her own approach to making documentary-like theater about real life tragedies. She was the main writer behind The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 gay-bashing death of Matthew Shepard and how the community of Laramie, Wyo., saw the murder and the attention it focused on them. She's also worked on a project interviewing the survivors of the 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana.
She had taken a break from documentary-based projects when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest environmental disaster in United States history. Later, as she co-taught a course at Wesleyan University about art and science, the BP oil disaster became the class' main subject, and she visited the Gulf Coast.
"I saw dolphins being autopsied," Fondakowski says.
She decided to start a project on the disaster, and a nearly complete version of Spill runs this weekend at NOCCA, where she and portrait artist Reeva Wortel have been working with students while finishing the multimedia production. They will present the play in Lockport, La., in early November and expect the final version to be completed for a late November production at LSU.
The two have spent much of the past two years interviewing people in south Louisiana affected by the disaster, including fishermen, cleanup workers, family members of men who died on the rig, scientists, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and others.
"I came to tell the story about what happened on the rig and what happened with the spill," Fondakowski says. "I got a whole education on culture and how deeply tied people are to the land, and how deeply tied they are to (the oil) industry."
The play's first half focuses on the explosion on the rig.
"It's like a disaster movie," Fondakoski says. "It's highly charged."
The second act expands to look at how the people of south Louisiana and the environment were affected by the disaster and how they have responded. The timeline goes up to the second anniversary of the explosion and includes the trial of the BP engineer who deleted hundreds of text messages about the event.
"It's easy to beat up on BP," Fondakowski says. "That voice is in there, but individual characters speak for many different aspects of life in Louisiana."
The piece also examines how history gets written and how the mass media play a role by swooping in and then quickly moving on to other events.
"The media coverage ended after the well was capped," Fondakowski says.
The show features 20 of the people they interviewed, many portrayed by the main actress and narrator Kelli Simpkins. The subjects also are represented by Wortel's portraits, which will be revealed at the show. Many of those subjects will attend performances this weekend and see how they are depicted.
"This is the first time that some of these people will see that we're not reporters," Wortel says.