PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 23, SPILL

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Intro: Hello and welcome to episode number 23 of the PMA podcast. In this episode, Dr. Sara Warner, associate professor of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University interviews Caitlin Kane, a PhD student in PMA, to discuss her upcoming theatrical production of Spill by Leigh Fondakowski.

Sara Warner: All right, so Caitlin, tell us about Spill, the play you're directing this month at the Schwartz Center.

Caitlin Kane: Absolutely. Um, so Spill is Leigh Fondakowski's interview-based play, um, about the 2010 BP oil spill and really about the human and environmental repercussions of that spill. Um, and so she spent three years doing interviews in Louisiana and Texas, um, about sort of the impact that that had on the families of people who died during the blowout, fisherman, and oil rig workers who lost their jobs in the midst of the moratorium and the aftermath of the spill itself, and then wrote this piece in response to those interviews and to archival research and has been working on it off and on for the past nine years.

Sara Warner: Nine years is a long time to work on a play.

Caitlin Kane: It really is. I mean, she's done several productions, so premiered in Baton Rouge in 2013. Um, and then had a production in Chicago in 2015 and one in New York City in 2017 and each time it's changed and she actually came back for a week and did edits and revisions for this production in hopes that it'll get published after this.

Sara Warner: So, Leigh Fondakowski has a reputation for writing plays, creating plays that have to do with, um, social crises that really tear at the fabric of a people and a nation. And she's most famous obviously for her work on the Laramie Project, but she's also worked on Jonestown and a number of other issues. Why, why create plays like this and how does Spill fit into that history of the work for Leigh?

Caitlin Kane: Right. I mean, I'll answer from my own perspective in terms of why to create work like this. And I think so often has to do with the ways in which we process tragedy as a nation or as a world. Um, and the ability to actually sit with something longer than 24 hours, longer than sort of what the news cycle is. Um, and so often, you know, the BP oil spill, as soon as the well was capped, 87 days after the spill began, it disappeared from the headlines. But the environmental and human effects of it are continuing to today and plays like this that use interviews and archival materials to delve back into those issues, allow us to deal with sort of the effects more carefully and in a more nuanced way. I'm in to engage with what are really the human effects of any these tragedies in a way that other media oftentimes do not allow. Um, and so I think Leigh's work is particularly good at that in terms of developing these polyvocal insightful, uh, representations of communities dealing with tragedy and dealing with crisis. Um, and Spill certainly builds on that and this is perhaps the most complex of those works because of the technical complexity of the tragedy that she's dealing with. That, um, not only is there the technical complexity of oil rigs, which is there, but also the sheer number of stakeholders involved, um, in our sort of energy needs and climate change and economic disparity, all of which are themes that are running through this play.

Sara Warner: And so you have a close personal relationship with Leigh. How did you meet her and what's it like to work with her on a production here with college students?

Caitlin Kane: Absolutely. So I actually met her in 2012 during a workshop of this play. Um, she was at American Theater Company where I was working at the time doing a workshop of Spill and I saw one of the early readings of the play and fell madly in love with it, but also with she and her collaborator, Kelly Simpkins who I work with closely as well and sort of decided in that moment as, I dunno, a 23-year-old that I was going to work with them. Um, and I've been really lucky that actually came to be. So, uh, we've worked on a couple of projects together, but having her here to work on this play with college students as been such an interesting and exciting process. Um, many of the students involved in this production are both new to theater and definitely new to new work. And so having a playwright and nonetheless a playwright with the career that Leigh has, um, in the room making revisions, hearing their comments about the script, responding to their feedback has been I think an incredibly exciting experience for them. And it's also really challenged them to think differently about how plays get constructed and how they make meaning and why we do them.

Sara Warner: And it's not just, I mean they're new to the theater, most of your cast. Um, and they might not even have a conception of what a community-based play is or a devised theater piece is. Why is it important to do work here at the Schwartz Center on documentary theater and not just have students do scripted drama, be it Hamilton or Hamlet, for example?

Caitlin Kane: Absolutely. I, I think there are a couple of things there. For one, I think it's really useful in terms of teaching students to become creators and sort of a broader meaning of that word. So it's not just about, you're not just an actor in a room who works from a script that exists, but you also have the capacity to tell stories that matter to you. Right? And stories that are your stories or your community's stories that might not be getting written yet. And so I think devised methodologies and communities, methodologies provide students with the tools that they need to be able to do that work. Um, and so often I think students don't feel empowered to be telling those stories and we need them to be doing so. And so I think on that level, there's great value there.

Sara Warner: So as the, you're a director of this play and you're also a graduate student completing a dissertation on documentary theater. How does this play feature into your thesis and what's the importance of performance as a mode of research for you and for the graduate students in this department?

Caitlin Kane: Absolutely. So my dissertation is looking at the ethics and politics of documentary theater, sort of broadly speaking, really thinking about the ways in which theater artists respond to what are called testimonial injustices, which means basically, um, instances in which people are not given the credibility that they deserve, um, in courtrooms and social settings and any of those settings. Um, and it's thinking about the ways in which documentary plays that oftentimes use verbatim quotations from people whose insights have been undervalued, um, try to challenge that narrative.

Sara Warner: And, and so what are some of the examples of plays that you're, that you're working on or some of the artists that you're interviewing and observing and collaborating with in the dissertation?

Caitlin Kane: Right, absolutely. So I'm working with a number of artists, including Leigh Fondakowski obviously, but then also Sojourn Theater company, um, Albany Park Theater Company, [inaudible] Park Theater project.

Sara Warner: Um, and what kind of work did they do that's different or how does it relate to the work of Spill in the work that Leigh Fondakowski does with Tectonic?

Caitlin Kane: Right. So Albany Park and Sojourn both work in more engaged methodologies and oftentimes more physically devised methodologies that move away from direct quotation of interviews towards um, sort of physical and theatrical interpretations of real stories. And so part of my interest in their work is looking at the ways in which that expands the way that we think about theater created from reality and the ways in which we think about how theater responds to real-life tragedies and real-life events and gives us new insights into, um, sort of the political and social world in which we live.

Sara Warner: And so in addition to Albany and Sojourner, um, I would imagine people like Anna Deavere Smith and Emily Mann, absolutely.

Caitlin Kane: Andrea Smith, Emily Mann, um, Ping Chong Company. There's a list of other folks who are being included or at least being referenced within it. Um, but it looks at all of those methodologies that they're using.

Sara Warner: And these are some of the most important, highly decorated theater artists working in America at this moment. Why do you think documentary theater is such a popular and critically lauded mode of performance? What is it about the time in which we live or say, the last 30 years really, that has brought this, this genre of theater to the forefront?

Caitlin Kane: Right, I mean, I think in some ways as the world gets more and more complex, or at least we become more and more aware of the complexities because media is allowing us to access knowledge in a different way than we have before. Um, there's a challenge in processing that sort of complexity in dealing with the range of news and tragedies that come into our lives every day. And I think this method allows people to grapple with complexity and human complexity of those issues, um, in a very different way than most other mediums do. And so part of the appeal of documentary theater, I think for many people is about being able to look at any issue from multiple perspectives, um, and really grapple with the fact that there aren't easy answers to most of the things that we're talking about in this work.

Sara Warner: And you've also taught a class on documentary theater for first-year students, have you not?

Caitlin Kane: I have, yeah. So I teach a class called Testimonial Justice on the Documentary Stage, um, that looks at many of these questions with students and encourages them to think about what are sort of both the values of this work, but also the challenges inherent to it. Um, and how do you navigate that as an artist and as a person who writes about that work or a person who sees that work.

Sara Warner: Now, do you have a particular investment in environmental theater or environmental studies because you also worked on the Climates of Change play last year, right?

Caitlin Kane: And so I don't necessarily think that I had one, but because I've been doing this work and I've been interested in this work since really the first reading of Spill that I saw in 2012, um, I've become increasingly interested in those issues. And in particular in the ways in which we start to talk about climate change in very human terms. Um, and how we begin to think about what makes us care about this issue. So often it feels like it's so big and so insurmountable that we can't possibly do anything in response to it. And I think theater has a unique capacity to respond to that and help us think about the human effects. Um, and what then are the human actions that can be taken to respond to climate change.

Sara Warner: And it's Earth Day today. So it is fitting that we're having this conversation this afternoon.

Caitlin Kane: Absolutely. And the nine-year anniversary of the BP oil spill was just Saturday.

Sara Warner: And as somebody who's from Louisiana that, uh, that day like Hurricane Katrina is sort of indelibly marked on my—

Caitlin Kane: Absolutely, I'm sure.

Sara Warner: And so you have this longstanding relationship, um, with Leigh Fondakowski and you're also working on another project with her simultaneously. Would you like to tell us about that?

Caitlin Kane: Sure. Yeah. So we're currently working on developing a piece called Casa Cushman, um, which is about 19th-century actress Charlotte Cushman, um, who was one of the most famous actors in her time, particularly for her representations of male Shakespearian characters. Um, but she also had this immense, uh, this collective of sort of emancipated women in Rome, uh, that created a sort of proto-lesbian community, uh, in the 19th century. And so, um, it looks at her, at Cushman, and two of her lovers and the community that they built around themselves. Um, and then also at the ways in which that story has been reinterpreted, reinterpreted over history.

Sara Warner: And so where, where might we see Casa Cushman in the coming year? Will it be published? Will it be produced?

Caitlin Kane: Yeah. So all of those things. So I definitely know that we're doing a workshop with New Charges and July and a workshop with About Face Theater in August.

Sara Warner: And that's in Chicago.

Caitlin Kane: New York and Chicago, respectively. And then we're hoping that it will premiere in 2020 but nothing has been announced yet.

Sara Warner: Okay. Well that's very exciting.

Caitlin Kane: It is. It's very exciting.

Sara Warner: And will that find its way into your dissertation as well?

Caitlin Kane: That's the plan, that the chapter that deals with Leigh Fondakowski's work will look primarily at Spill and Casa Cushman.

Sara Warner: And the set is extraordinary. Kent Goetz his outdone himself.

Caitlin Kane: He has, it's really beautiful.

Sara Warner: It's, yeah, I think folks will be, um, their mouths might gape a little bit when they lock in to the set. And then I hear there's surprises. There's some surprises in store for folks as the show progresses.

Caitlin Kane: There are absolutely both in terms of the set and projections, all sorts of things. Wow.

Sara Warner: Well, Caitlin, it was lovely to talk with you. Break a leg on the show and we look forward to seeing you at the Schwartz.

Caitlin Kane: Thank you so much.

Outro: Thank you for listening to the PMA podcast. Performances of Spill are in the Schwartz Center's Flex Theater, April 26th and 27th as well as May 3rd and 4th. Tickets are available online at or in person at the Schwartz Center box office located at 430 College Avenue, Ithaca, New York