Out playwright and director Leigh Fondakowski was initially resistant to creating Spill, a theatrical docudrama looking at the 2010 explosion of the BP-owned oil rig Deepwater Horizon and the aftermath of it spewing oil for 87 days into the Gulf of Mexico. But since Spill will be making its Midwest debut this week courtesy of TimeLine Theatre, it's clear that Fondakowski became convinced to change her mind.
"I became pretty determined not to do any more big epic, tragic, interview-based projects," Fondakowski said. "I've spent a great chunk of my artistic life doing that kind of work. I love it, but it is very time-consuming as a multi-year process involving a large amount of travel and interviewing."
Indeed, Fondakowski is famed and respected for her documentary-style theatrical works. As a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project, Fondakowski was a crucial part to the creation of The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, a much-produced drama and its sequel questioning homophobia following the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
And because of the major impact of The Laramie Project, Fondakowski also was also approached to apply the same theatrical storytelling methods to The People's Temple, a thorough examination of the San Francisco-based church that horrifically ended in what is known as the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. American Theater Company staged the Chicago premiere of the work in 2008.
The seeds of Spill developed when Fondakowski received an invitation from Wesleyan University to teach a class in collaboration with scientists inspired by her fact-finding interviewing techniques. And since the BP oil spill had happened, that's where Wesleyan steered Fondakowski to go.
"I actually went down there for the first time with students to teach them to do interviews and make art from it. I really went in the role as a teacher and not as an artist myself," Fondakowski said. "When the university proposed maybe that they could commission me to write about a play about this crisis, I said, 'No.'"
But once Fondakowski arrived on the Gulf Coast and met with people directly affected by the spill ( including some relatives of the 11 men killed in the blast ), she became really intrigued by the relationship between oil and nature and the people who rely on the industry.
"It really felt like a much bigger, iconic story to be told about that place and I kind of got hooked in really quickly to write a play about it," said Fondakowski, adding that once she finished her teaching commitments she herself returned many time to work on what would become Spill.
Kelli Simpkins, a member of Chicago's About Face Theatre and a company member of the Tectonic Theatre Project, also became involved in the creation of Spill as a dramaturg and as a member of the original ensemble when the play premiered in March 2014 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For Simpkins, it was great to once work again with Fondakowski since they also collaborated on the two Laramie Project plays and the 2007 interview-based lesbian work I Think I Like Girls. Simpkins is also appearing the acting company of Spill for TimeLine.
"It's my fifth project with her," Simpkins said. "We've had a friendship that is really longstanding which is a rarity in this business."
As a performer and collaborator, Simpkins loves doing interview-based pieces for numerous reasons. She feels a deep responsibility for portraying real people that she has met and might have interviewed as part of the artistic process.
Simpkins also revealed that Fondakowski is thoroughly revising Spill since many more people came forward to be interviewed after its world premiere. Many people had pre-judged the piece only as a liberal condemnation of the oil industry.
"For me, this really is about a community speaking to another community. We're representing characters who are really infrequently seen on the stage," Simpkins said. "After the cameras shut off and get their soundbites, and this happened in Laramie and this happened with The People's Temple, people forgot about the story and didn't go further into the story. And that's part of the product of this kind of work is that we have what is a lost art of listening to other people and listening to these stories."
TimeLine Theatre's Midwest premiere of Spill plays from Saturday, Oct. 24, through Saturday, Dec. 19, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Previews run through Thursday, Oct. 29, with an official press opening at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30. Preview tickets are $22 and regular-run tickets are $38-$51 with a $10 student discount available; call 773-327-5252 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com .