Leigh Fondakowski Talks the Importance of Interview-Based Theater

"I think we've lost the ability to just be human with each other...and we've lost a way of even talking about what's going on in our country that needs fixing as a collective body. And so that's part of the reason why I think this kind of work is still important." — Leigh Fondakowski

The cast of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's production of Leigh Fondakowski's "Spill." Photo Credit: Gerry Goodstein

Extended Play’s James Carter recently spoke with playwright Leigh Fondakowski, whose work includes “The Laramie Project” with Tectonic Theater Project, the day after she closed her play “Spill” at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, which is part of its Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project. “Spill” chronicles the BP oil spill in 2010, and Leigh knitted it together from over 200 hours of interviews with survivors, widows, architects, fishermen, and many others affected by the BP oil spill April 20, 2010.

To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the incident, we’re publishing the interview with Leigh accompanied by three monologues from the play, performed by cast members from the New York City production at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


JAMES CARTER: So how you feeling? The show closed on Saturday, right?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: It closed yesterday. Yeah.

JAMES: Yesterday, Sunday. Well, congratulations. How are you feeling about it?

LEIGH: I’m feeling good about it. You know, I watched it over the weekend and the show has grown so much over the course of the run and the ensemble really came together. You know, it’s a really challenging thing to try to build a cohesive ensemble in a short period of time. But these guys really nailed it. And they adored each other and they really created a beautiful community. So it was nice. I got up and said a few words. It was sort of woefully inadequate because it’s very hard to say something impactful or poetic when you don’t really want it to end. How do you put a button on something that you don’t really want to end? But it was a beautiful run.

JAMES: I understand. I saw the show on Saturday and it was really enjoyable.

LEIGH: Yeah, Saturday was some strong performances.

JAMES: I felt like they were such a team and that’s what you’ve got to have with an ensemble cast like this, right?

LEIGH: Yeah, totally. Basically, their main task is to tell the story of a community. So in this case, the community was very small and very far-reaching, but they had to give the impression of this cohesive community that was going through this traumatic event. So they’re all a small part of the whole and I think that they all kind of gave themselves over to that artistic project in a very dedicated way.

JAMES: When did you start researching the play? Because the incident was in April 2010 – almost seven years ago to the day, right?

LEIGH: Yeah, it’s just coming up the seven-year mark. I started in the fall. My first trip down there was taking a group of students, Wesleyan University students. They asked me to teach a class about art making and science. So I co-taught the class with the head of their environmental studies program, Barry Chernoff, and I taught them the interviewing process, the artistic method. He taught them the science. So we went down there and we interviewed people, and then they came back and then they’d work. And then I was thinking to myself, “I think there’s a bigger play in here.” So I started traveling back down and I spent the next three years traveling back and forth and interviewing as many people as I could about their experiences. But it started in the fall shortly after the well was capped. The well was capped in August and we started going down there in September, October.

JAMES: Wow, so you’ve been working on the play for basically seven years?
LEIGH: Yeah, I mean the interviewing process was three years and then the play development process has been going on since then. But we did workshops and we’ve also done three productions so the play kept growing and changing and becoming what it is over that whole time period.

JAMES: Right. It’s deceptive to say, “Oh, you’ve been working on a play for seven years,” because we all know that there’s projects in between, and time off, and then coming back to it and things like that, right?

LEIGH: Yeah, but this has been one of the main things that I’ve been focused on for the past seven years in various forms and incarnations of it. In 2014, in Baton Rouge—which is very meaningful—we wanted to premiere it there because that was the closest regional theater to where most of the interviewees had come from. So we did that production, and then we did another production in Chicago. Then we finally brought it to New York. And those productions were all really distinct. They had different casts. They had different faces, so each one was sort of its own puzzle that had to be solved.

From “Spill”: Ronald Peet performing Mike Williams, a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

JAMES: How was it doing it in Baton Rouge?

LEIGH: It was amazing. A lot of the people who came out to see it—they do have a regional theater there, but I wouldn’t say that the theater community in Baton Rouge is a thriving theater community. There are some really dedicated artists making great work, but it’s not like New York where everybody goes to the theater. There were some people there who had never seen a play before. It was there first play they’d ever seen.

JAMES: That’s amazing.

LEIGH: Yeah, so quite an experience as an artist, to have someone say, “this is the first play I’ve ever seen and I loved it.” And it was the story of their place. And the story of their neighbors and friends. So it’s a pretty intimate and pretty powerful experience when you take the work back to the community where it came from.

JAMES: Have you had people that are featured in the play attend the show?

LEIGH: Yeah, everybody who’s in the play has seen it.

JAMES: And what have their reactions been?

LEIGH: I mean, I think for the families who lost their kids and their partners it’s obviously a mixed experience. There were widows who were there, they basically wept through the whole play.

JAMES: Sure.

LEIGH: But in the end, I think they were very appreciative of what we had done with their stories.

JAMES: They felt like you had been respectful to it?

LEIGH: Yeah, respectful to—and also as an artist I’m always worried like, “well if I put somebodies’ political views in there and they come across a certain way, are they gonna be upset?” But usually people, when they seem themselves portrayed authentically they stand behind what they said and they appreciate that their views were given that space to be articulated.

JAMES: Well and it feels like you really try to give everybody that space. Certainly, there’s a tone to it or a feeling to, perhaps, your perspective as a playwright, but everybody has a voice in this. You don’t harp on pro-oil or anti-oil, everybody has a bit of a voice in it. How did you go about trying to make that? Was that your intent from the beginning or did you just start seeing the diversity of opinions and realize that you needed to try to include them all?

LEIGH: Well I think that it’s a little bit of both. I think that I made an assumption, like a hundred percent assumption, that if your husband or your son was killed on an oil rig that you would no longer support the industry. Then when I at down with these people and they were like, “We need to keep drilling. We need to keep drilling for the country. We were so upset when Obama put the moratorium on.” I actually think I was rather shocked. And when I met the fishermen who were put out of work for years because of this and had to take their kids out of college and lost their homes in the devastation that followed, and they’re still saying, “We don’t hate the oil industry. We need to keep drilling. That’s part of our life down here.” I was rather shocked. But I also thought that it was—that’s America! Louisiana and Texas, there are places where the cultural identity and the social order of the society is interwoven with the oil industry. It was just was like, “Wow this is just sort of a mess.” And I thought it brought so much dramatic tension. Especially doing it in a city like New York, where I’m sure a lot of the audience members made the same assumption as I did: that families would be against the industry or that different people would be against the industry and so we got this conversation going about what oil means socially, culturally, economically, and then, of course, our consumption which is going up and up and up across the globe, right? So it becomes a very complicated, very messy story where there’s not a villain or a good guy, there’s not a hero and a villain, it’s actually a big giant mess that we’re in that we have to sort through. So I think having all those views on stage really gives you a snapshot of where we are as a country dealing with these issues right now.

JAMES: Well and you—you and the actor portraying him—even made the CEO of BP feel a little sympathetic. I remember at the time when he was speaking publicly that he was devastated. You could see that, but, correct me if I’m wrong, everything that’s in the play from his point of view is just from court transcriptions. Is that right?

LEIGH: Yeah, it’s from his deposition and from media accounts. It’s a little bit of the quotes from the media sprinkled in with his deposition, but it’s mostly his deposition. Unfortunately, BP, you know—I’m sure everybody remembers when the CEO said, “I want my life back.”

JAMES: (laughs) Right. Yeah.

LEIGH: And that used to be in the play where he would say, “I want my life back” and people were like booing and hissing when he said that so I took it out. Cause I think that he was such an easy target because they actually were so grossly negligent and like unbelievably so. Incompetent. Negligent. So they’re an easy target. But I think if you just break it down to the man in that position who was dealing with the worst environmental disaster and biggest engineering challenge that the industry had ever faced and that there was no mind on the planet who knew what to do. If you’re that guy who’s in that position, that is a very difficult position. So bringing humanity out or making him a sympathetic character is just showing him in that room completely powerless to stop it and being the one in charge. On a basic level, I think, “Have you ever been in the position where you’re powerless over something, even on a small scale in your own life?” You can appreciate the absolute powerlessness of that man and I think that’s what brings humanity out.

From Leigh Fondakowski’s “Spill”: Molly McAdoo performs Shelley Anderson, a widow who lost her husband Jason Anderson on board the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

JAMES: It’s funny because I felt like that. Someone asked me, “How was the show?” And I said, “You know, I feel powerless.” And I feel like that was pretty much the trajectory of almost every character in the play. I guess I was wondering a little bit, not to get into your personal politics too much, but how has this play shifted, or resonated a little bit more for the audience and for you since a former CEO of ExxonMobil has been named as our Secretary of State? Have you seen any shifts in that for you?

LEIGH: I think my politics about it were a little bit naive where I just thought, “What’s wrong with us? Why? Why aren’t we just changing? Why aren’t we just making green energy? Can’t we see that we’re just destroying the planet? How can those people down there be so stupid?” I think I had very naive notions. And then when I went down there—I think they have something like a thousand oil lobbyist in the state of Louisiana. Pro-oil lobbyists—a thousand. And the anti-oil lobby had two volunteers.

JAMES: Wow.

LEIGH: Because all the people who were trying to do that work gave up because they didn’t have the money, they didn’t have the power, they didn’t have anything. And they just were burned out. They had these two librarians who were volunteering as the anti-oil lobby. And I think that there was a defeatist—that the government and the industry are so intertwined, they’re so much in bed with each other that people have felt completely powerless. And so I think kind of grasping the depth of that, I realized like, “Wow this isn’t an easy fix.” This is really a radical reimagining of representative government where people actually have a voice. And one of the things that’s happened out of this oil spill is that there was a movement. There was a new environmental movement that popped up and kind of galvanized and grew to sue the oil companies for the land loss, to restore the land. And the Louisiana legislature actually created a law that said you can’t sue oil companies.

JAMES: Wow.

LEIGH: And, you know, that was a big setback for them, but that made the movement even stronger because I think that people are waking up. And particularly I think now with this administration people are waking up and saying, “Wait a minute. Who’s in charge?” I think one of the lines that really resonates in the play is, “Who’s in charge here? The state? The people who own their property? Or BP?” I guess I had a less complicated view of what’s actually happening in these places than I do now.

JAMES: Well I think that that’s a really interesting point with regards to investigative theater is there almost always tends to be a different perspective, right? Because you go in, like you said, with one opinion or belief about things—because of wherever you come from—and then you start talking to all of these people and it’s always more complex than it seems. What’s the importance of verbatim or investigative theater to our work as artists, and how does that affect you? Why did you gravitate toward that?

LEIGH: What you’re pointing out is true that there are these national polemics that are in our midst that the nuances are not being represented in the media. We’re just showing the extreme sides of things. We’re not showing the people in the middle and we’re not giving your average, everyday, ordinary person a voice. I don’t think I’m trying to make necessarily a document like a journalist would, what I’m trying to do is draw out the human stories. And I’m trying to find an artistic representation or artistic meaning in what people go through and how they’re changed by these events. So this historical moment is the backdrop, but the human lives are what my main intent is. And I think by doing that, by kind of stripping away the differences between people, in a theater you’re just sitting there.

You’re just one degree of separation from Arleen Weise or, you know, Gary Bartholemy he’s a fisherman. And I think by stripping away those differences the theater is this kind of equalizing force where you’re just in a room having a conversation. And I think that’s one of the things that’s profoundly lacking in our society right now – where people have a view and it’s a very fixed view of reality, and even of facts, and you can’t talk about it anymore because we can’t agree on a version of reality. But when someone like Arleen Weise says, “Well yeah, I always hated Nancy Pelosi my whole life, so when she held my hand and let me talk about my son for an hour. That made a difference on me.” And so then Nancy Pelosi and Arleen Weise are just mothers talking. They’re not people on a political spectrum anymore.

I think we’ve lost the ability to just be human with each other. Even in families with this election cycle. Even family to family. How many stories did you hear on the news or on the radio about how families were trying to negotiate Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, there’s all this tension. And we’ve lost a way of even talking about what’s going on in our country that needs fixing as a collective body. And so that’s part of the reason why I think this kind of work is still important.

From Leigh Fondakowski’s “Spill”: Alex Grubbs performing Billy Nungesser, Plaquemines Parish President.

JAMES: I saw “Sweat” a couple weeks ago and, of course, Lynn Nottage had an interviewing process. She fictionalized her piece, but I think a lot of the people that are in the play resonate with the original subjects that she interviewed.

LEIGH: Yeah, that’s what she said. I just talked to her a couple days ago at a party and that’s what she said. That people would hear themselves in there, if they came.

JAMES: I remember, a few years ago, Danny Hoch did “Taking Over” at The Public Theater. It was all about gentrification. He basically had this one character who was anti-gentrification. He was speaking in Spanish and yelling. It was very protest-based. Afterward, I remarked to him, “Wow you could hear a pin drop in that room.” And he basically replied when he did the speech in the Bronx people were yelling and screaming and shouting and cheering for this character. But when he did it at The Public, he was public enemy number one. You’ve done this in Baton Rouge and now you’ve brought it to Chicago and New York City. Has there been a difference in reaction? What do you think about the theater shifting its lens on people who—I think that we’ve always had a lens on the oppressed and people who are trying to overcome insurmountable issues, but we’re in this sort of space right now where working-class and middle-class people are struggling to continue surviving. How has that been different for you taking the play to different cities? What’s been your perspective on the responsibility of theater or performance in general towards mostly white, upper middle class, audiences?

LEIGH: It is such an interesting question. This still is really a play for working people. And it’s interesting because getting it to New York was such a struggle, in part, because I think that, I mean, I heard some people, I won’t name names, but that people, that New York audiences wouldn’t care enough about these people because they weren’t reflected enough in there. That they wouldn’t care enough about the bayou and they wouldn’t care enough about the people in Texas to come see the play.

And I was rather shocked by that, I have to say because one of my motivations in creating it was—you know I travel the country talking about “The Laramie Project” a lot. I’m invited to speak at different productions and schools and things, and I was at a production of “The Laramie Project” when somebody asked me what I was working on. I told them the BP oil spill, and the woman literally put her hand out in front of her like a stop sign and said, “Oh well that’s a different kind of sadness.” And she sort of categorically dismissed the possibility or the idea that she would care about the 11 men who died or the people who lost their livelihood. And I thought, “Oh wow, that is so interesting. How do I make a play that gets her to care?” And I sort of started out, like a lot of the interviewing of the rig families from that moment because I thought, “If I can get audience to care about the rig guy who dies and to actually feel the loss of him and to make the connection between consumption and people’s lives and livelihoods and just the struggle to survive, that would be a huge theatrical coup.

But it was, in a way, understood in a more intimate way in Baton Rouge and even in Chicago where the audiences are a less upper middle class, elite audience. And in New York, I think there’s sort of like people whose eyes are opened to it who say, “Wow. Oh my god, I never thought about that.” Or that guy on the Bayou who was the cleanup worker, “Oh my god, what happened to him?” And then there are people who still can keep it at—keep themselves at a distance from it and say, “Why should I care about these people? They know what they’re getting themselves into. They’re so stupid. Let oil ruin their place.” You know, the kind of just dismissive out of hand. But, to me, it’s about poking at those barriers and boundaries. My work’s about puncturing that and saying, “Let ‘s look at this guy. Let’s listen to his story.”

The guy who went out without a respirator with all those other guys who went out without respirators, they were some of the poorest people in Louisiana. And $300 a day seems like all the money in the world. And now he’s likely to suffer the effects of being out there for the rest of his life. And his family’s going to suffer the effects of being out there for the rest of his life. So I don’t know. I think it’s just really important that we not forget who we are. And I think this election at least was a wake-up call. Yeah, there are people out there, people who are disenfranchised, who are hurting. They feel that they don’t have a voice and they’re so desperate that they would grab on to anybody. Even somebody completely inexperienced to run a government, to give them a voice. That should be a wake-up call for the arts as well. For artists. And for the kind of theater that we’re doing in this country. It’s interesting to me that “Sweat” is being talked about as this radical play that gives working class people a voice. Like, duh! That should not be radical. That should be obvious.

JAMES: (laughs) That’s interesting, though, because I feel like there is this “zoo theater.” Where you’re putting stories on stage that are these, “Oh this is the rural Midwest or rural South” or something like that. And you’re showing it to these elite white audiences that— (laughs) and they’re watching them as though they were people in a zoo. And I’m like: why are we approaching it with that mentality as opposed to the mentality of “Hey these are people that you need to listen to,” you know?

LEIGH: Yeah, totally. And what’s interesting about that is when I think about the documentary style where—even Lynn Nottage even though she fictionalized the characters—I think in the back of your mind knowing that they come from interviews, it does change your relationship to it. You feel like, “Oh I really am one degree of separation from these people.” And I think that that kind of immediacy is important too. And I sometimes think about the Freedom Rides in the South. And how all the white students went and lived with black people. It was such a radical transformation that occurred when they were like, “Oh they’re just like us.” Well, of course, they’re just like us. But it was going and living and being in the community is when political transformation started to happen on the individual level. And I do think that that’s part of what the power of theater can do. That you are really giving a person an intimate view into the mindset and the heart and the daily life of people who are very different from them who, I think we, we all walk around with a certain set of stereotypes and the theater has the opportunity to smash and break down those stereotypes.


LF-orchestra lobbyLeigh Fondakowski’s original work as playwright/director includes, “Spill” (Swine Palace, TimeLine Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and 2015 Kilroy List); “The People’s Temple” (Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theater Company, The Guthrie Theater, and received the Glickman Award for Best New Play in the Bay Area 2005); “I Think I Like Girls,” (Encore Theater, Bay Area Critics Circle nomination for Best Production, and voted one of the top 10 plays of 2002 by The Advocate). As a member of Tectonic Theater Project, Leigh was the Head Writer of “The Laramie Project,” a co-writer of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” and an Emmy-nominated co-screenwriter for the adaptation of “The Laramie Project” for HBO films. She is a 2007 recipient of the NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights, a 2009 Macdowell Colony Fellow, and a 2010 Distinguished Visiting Chair at the University of Minnesota, where she lectured and developed CASA CUSHMAN, a work-in-progress about 19th-century American actress Charlotte Cushman. She released “Stories from Jonestown”, her first non-fiction book in 2013, and is currently adapting the book to film. She is a teaching artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and Naropa University.

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