Crude Oil

“The Big Spill” details the human costs of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and an industry’s destructive addiction. Playwright Leigh Fondakowski will speak about the project at the U on Thursday, Dec. 1.

Artist Reeva Wortel paints striking portraits like Lillian, one of the interviewees affected by BPs oil spill. Wortel will display the portraits throughout the forthcoming play The Big Spill.

photo courtesy Reeva Wortel

Artist Reeva Wortel paints striking portraits like Lillian, one of the interviewees affected by BP’s oil spill. Wortel will display the portraits throughout the forthcoming play “The Big Spill.”

by Joseph Kleinschmidt

What: âÄúThe Big Spill,âÄù a presentation by Leigh Fondakowski

Where: 125 Nolte Center for Continuing Education

When: 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

After speaking to a Shell Oil worker, Leigh Fondakowski relayed a mantra that the employee saw plastered to the back of an executiveâÄôs limo: âÄúIf youâÄôre not standing on the edge, youâÄôre taking up too much room.âÄù

Last yearâÄôs explosion of the âÄúDeepwater HorizonâÄù offshore drilling unit certainly proves the industryâÄôs frontier spirit outlined in the bumper sticker. In April 2010, 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico for 85 consecutive days after the explosion that killed 11 people, according to an âÄúAl JazeeraâÄù article BPâÄôs oil spill, the largest in the petroleum industryâÄôs history, crippled the regionâÄôs wildlife and marine habitats. Scientists continue to understand the irrevocable damage still crippling the local ecology and economy alike.

Fondakowski, playwright of âÄúThe Big Spill,âÄù studies the disasterâÄôs alarming impact through the human costs of the spill. Current events and history often inform FondakowskiâÄôs work as a member of the Tectonic Theater Project since 1995. As head writer for âÄúThe Laramie Project,âÄù Fondakowski used interviews and personal accounts to relay the story of the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

âÄúPeople are natural storytellers,âÄù Fondakowski said. âÄúI think that when someone is passionate about something or they suffered a loss or they have this event that changes their life, when you sit down and talk to them you really discover incredible wisdom that lives in them.âÄù

âÄúA play captures all of that collective wisdom,âÄù Fondakowski added.

Working with visual artist Reeva Wortel, the two have gathered numerous interviews from a broad sampling of members of the Louisiana community and the surrounding affected area.

âÄúI think that art can build a more sustained community and also build a more sustained meaning for the community,âÄù Wortel said.

Wortel, whose prior work includes âÄúPortrait Project,âÄù captures the image of each interviewee through figurative paintings. With a commission from Wesleyan University, the two sought to combine WortelâÄôs art and FondakowskiâÄôs 15 years of experience in playwriting to create âÄúThe Big Spill.âÄù

âÄúWeâÄôre trying to create some sort of meaning out of this really horrific story and how itâÄôs affected peoplesâÄô lives,âÄù Wortel said. âÄúAnd to raise awareness in a way thatâÄôs more dignified and longer lasting.âÄù

Although the swarm of media coverage following the catastrophe generated plenty of human-interest stories, the rapid response does not allow for much contemplation. Journalism may try to gauge the communityâÄôs psychological or emotional response, but Fondakowski and Wortel seek art to convey the loss and greater significance for the future.

âÄúWeâÄôre not trying to get a sound bite,âÄù Fondakowski said. âÄúWeâÄôre trying to get to know a person âÄî to know what they love about living there, to get to know what the meaning of the place is.âÄù

The culture of the oil industry permeates the region. And the only training some might have may be to work on an oil rig. While scientists factor the environmental costs largely associated with BPâÄôs colossal failure, âÄúThe Big SpillâÄù focuses on the human costs not usually associated with filling up a tank of gas.

âÄúI never gave much thought to the men who are out there,âÄù Fondakowski said. âÄúThey put their lives in the executivesâÄô hands.âÄù

The reality of the U.S.âÄôs dependence on oil remains a grave reminder of the politically and economically entrenched industryâÄôs relentless presence.

âÄúOne of the things that really affected me was how complex the oil industry is and how complex the economic crisis and jobs and unemployment âÄî all those complexities are tied in with the oil industry,âÄù Wortel said.

The two plan to premiere âÄúThe Big SpillâÄù in a series of âÄúwork-in-progressâÄù showings to Gulf communities to seek feedback before a national premiere of the play in New York. Also, like âÄúThe Laramie Project,âÄù the play will have a curriculum component for students to reflect on âÄúThe Big Spill.âÄù

A changing tide in social perceptions of the oil industry will have to counter the increasing devil-may-care attitude of executives. Recent criticism of the questionable practice of fracking and ChevronâÄôs part in the recent oil spill along the coast of Brazil continue to remind the public of such danger that makes âÄúThe Big SpillâÄù all the more disquieting.

Fondakowski said, âÄúI think the magnitude of this still is a real wake-up call.âÄù