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November 8, 2015

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SPILL: Art meets life meets environment meets catastrophe

It was a good week for the environmental community. Or not, depending on what you read. On Friday, November 6, President Barack Obama finally pulled the plug on at least the northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Was it a real victory, a moral victory, a Pyrrhic victory, or a victory for anybody at all? There are already as many opinions about that as the number of miles that the pipeline would have transported tar sands oil. The president himself said that the decision has played an "over-inflated role" in the political/environmental debate.

But the headlines over this decision are stark reminders that, regardless of the the progress of renewable energy sources in this country, we are still far too dependent on fossil fuels, and that the oil industry still has its tentacles wrapped in a vice-grip around our, uh, policy makers.

Which brings us to SPILL, the dynamic, thought-provoking play written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski, and now running at Timeline Theatre in Chicago through December 19. It is about a different kind of oil, extracted in a different way and transported in a different way. Yet it serves as a reminder that the exploitation of our planet's resources has real limits.

Yeah, I actually had to say that.

Because I'm haunted by the notion that an unhealthy number of people don't even consider the possibility that we could run out of any natural substance that exists on this particular outpost in the solar system. Or that our increasingly complex ways of finding and coaxing fluids and gases out of the sub-strata of the earth's skin could pose a threat to the health of any kind of ecosystem or to the people who operate that technology.

Five and a half years ago, those concerns had an unholy confluence on the Deepwater Horizon. That drilling rig, owned by Transocean and leased by BP, was located 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana in water that was approximately 5,000 feet deep. It had already drilled the deepest oil well in history (35,050 feet) in 2009, and was now drilling an 18,360 foot deep exploratory well.

On April 20, 2010, what was likely a bubble of methane gas from the well came up through the drill column under intense pressure, expanded and exploded. Eleven men were killed, probably instantly. Sixteen other people were injured. Less than two days later, the rig, which had been on fire the entire time, sank into the Gulf of Mexico. That collapse created an unprecendented gusher of oil, 5,000 feet below the water line.

The oil poured into the Gulf for 87 days before the damaged well was finally capped, resulting in the largest marine petroleum spill in history. The U.S. Government estimates that 4.9 million barrels--or 210 million gallons--of oil were released, the effects of which are still being felt five and a half years later. The U.S. court system later determined that BP was negligent and even reckless in its management of the rig, ultimately fining the company $18.7 billion.

Within months of the explosion, Fondakowski, who had already garnered acclaim for her work as head writer on The Laramie Project as a member of Tectonic Theater Project, was on the Gulf Coast with her team, interviewing fishermen, clean up workers, scientists, oil industry workers and especially friends and loved ones of the men who were lost in that explosion and fire.

The culmination of that work is SPILL, which received its world premiere at Louisiana State University's Swine Palace in Baton Rouge, LA, in March, 2014. In July of that year, Chicago's Timeline Theatre Company hosted a workshop of the play, and has now mounted a major production.

In my interview with her, Fondakowski reveals that perhaps 90% of the words spoken on stage in this play were uttered by those interviewees in Louisiana. Which means that SPILL is truly and literally the staging of their stories.But if you think you already know what those people said and how they chose to cope with a tragedy of almost apocalyptic dimensions,'re probably wrong.

Americans are maddeningly complex and willful, and nowhere is it more on display than in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon event. Many of the reactions of these folks to the oil industry and its role in this disaster are oddly predictable, even when they seem to run counter to their own best interests. If "living the American Dream" means the degradation of the sea and land around you as well as the possibility that you or your best friend might go up in a ball of fire, some of these witnesses seem to be saying, "so be it."

But there are others who express their anger and frustration and wish to be set free from a prison in which the only guarantee is that the loss of life will eventually be added to the loss of quality of life in what is less and less a uniquely beautiful and sensitive natural area.

The staging of the play is confident and well-paced, with the ensemble moving seamlessly in and out of different roles, often instantly. The designers, too, deserve credit for the effectively minimalist set; the explosion and fire are created out of almost nothing and yet leave the audience shaken. This production is what the best theatre should aspire to be: engaging, moving, enlightening and surprising. I highly recommend it.

It's also encouraging to see an organization like Openlands involved in the production of SPILL. In addition to financial support, CEO and President Jerry Adelmann is serving as a guest expert at audience talk back events. This is not particularly surprising, given that Openlands has supported art installations in their conservation and restoration projects. Good for them.

For information about performances and tickets, go to





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Mike with Leigh Fondakowski

Ensemble members (background from left) Tim Decker, Christopher Sheard, Chris Rickett, David Prete, Caren Blackmore and (foreground) Craig Spidle

Ensemble member Kelli Simpkins, who helped
to bring SPILL to Chicago