Louisiana Theatre Artists’ Canary Vision and Praise for the Concentrated Theatre Conference
by Anne-Liese Juge Fox
“New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first. These are not local plays. These plays are about what happens if you don’t pay attention to the environment.”—John Biguenet
On Saturday March 29, 2014 an international group of colleagues and strangers spent twelve hours together at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for the NoPassport Theatre Conference exploring the theme of the “Diasporic Imagination” at the incredibly accessible price of $5 for students and $10 for the general public. Following the same group of people from all over the world, alternating presentations and performances on this topic, created a vivid community that gained momentum throughout the day. In praise of the concentrated theatre conference, it was a privilege to journey with the same group in such diverse explorations and positions and it was distinct from the experience of larger conferences.
I moderated the panel discussion entitled, The Katrina Effect: Performance Response to Gulf Coast Manmade Disasters. Panelists were playwright Leigh Fondakowski and Kelly Simpkins of the Tectonic Theatre Project with portrait artist Riva Wartel to discuss their work in Fondakowski’s new play Spill. Spill premiered at LSU’s Swine Palace for the fifth anniversary of the Macondo well explosion and ensuing oil spill and was also part of NoPassport’s conference activity. Panelist playwright John Biguenet of Loyola University spoke of his response to the Katrina levee breaks disaster in New Orleans with his Rising Water Trilogy. New Orleanian theatre artists Kathy Randels of ArtSpot Productions and Nick Slie of Mondo Bizarro spoke of their three performance collaborations over the past eight years addressing Louisiana coastal loss and culture loss. As part of my research interest, I saw all seven performances discussed in this panel and I consider them to be representative of some of the finest and most responsible work in performance response to disaster in Louisiana. It was deeply gratifying to share a Louisiana perspective to this international group gathered in our state capitol.
Real Stories Real Stakes in Artistic Representation
A unifying thread of all seven performances was the varied use of personal story and survivor experience of disaster. The seven performances discussed in this panel broach a spectrum of “real” and “fictional” characters expressing lived experience of catastrophe, its aftermath, and our complicated relationship with our landscape. On the extreme end of fiction, the collaboration of Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot Productions uses the Cajun werewolf folk character, the Loup Garou. Performed by Slie under the direction of Randels, the Loup Garou first appears in the ensemble of Beneath the Strata: Disappearing (2006) set at a wetlands preserve just outside New Orleans and later in 2010 in a solo performance written by Raymond “Moose” Jackson at an abandoned city golf course. Jackson’s Loup Garou howls the story of a man who lost generations of family members to the oil industry and the madness of the disappearance of his home. Randels emphasizes in her work how land loss is tied to culture loss and stated in the panel that culture “survives in our bodies—it survives in our songs.” ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro’s strategy to build awareness to the startling truth happening everyday to Louisiana’s coastal communities celebrates and dramaturgically incorporates at-risk myths, stories, songs, and dances of Louisiana’s founding peoples. In Beneath the Strata for example, the West African dance of the Calinda is revived and becomes a speaking character in the form of three African American women performers.
The characters of John Biguenet’s Rising Water Trilogy are entirely fictional; however, Biguenet asserted in the panel that the issues they face, the events they live through, are based on true stories of New Orleanians. Biguenet compared his work to co-panelist Leigh Fondakowski’s The Laramie Project in that “he made up almost nothing… all three stories are almost entirely documentary.” When Rising Water (2006) set the record for the most successful play in terms of audience attendance at New Orleans’ Southern Repertory Theatre’s twenty-year history, New Orleans only had a third of the population it had had before the flood. Adding to the explanation for the success of the Rising Water, Biguenet spoke about the connection between theatre and cities. In New Orleans his characters speak not just the accent, but also the language of New Orleanians and asks questions that New Orleanians need to address. For Biguenet those issues are clear: race and the loss of thirty percent of New Orleans’ population from the disaster. Biguenet recalled the racial tension in New Orleans after the former mayor Ray Nagin’s infamous “Chocolate City” speech on Martin Luther King Day in 2006. Biguenet stated that the only equivalent in his living memory of racial tension in New Orleans was the integration of schools in the 1960s. In terms of the diaspora, Biguenet made the appeal that we need to address that to this day, one hundred fifty thousand people have not returned to New Orleans.
On the spectrum of “real” to the point of being labeled a docu-dramatist, playwright Leigh Fondakowski’s Spill was developed with live interviews and trial testimonies: a process she and dramaturge and performer Kelly Simpkins used for the Tectonic Theatre Project’s well-known The Laramie Project and Fondakowski’s play The People’s Temple. Fondakowski stated that foundational to all her work are “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” In Spill an ensemble of performers play over thirty characters to relay the traumatic events of the Deep Horizon explosion and ensuing oil spill where actors “loosely wear the clothes” of various characters and “the community becomes the protagonist.” Collaborator and performer Simpkins states: “There is a certain kind of responsibility in playing a human being who is going to potentially come and witness you performing them.” Simpkins continued by expressing that the “beauty” of doing this kind of work is “giving a representation or being a representative of somebody who didn’t get a voice.” Impetus for creating this work, Fondakowski avers, is the question of “what to do with all the grief” of traumatic events. Fondakowski states that for her vision of American theatre, there is the sense of “giving the story back to the community” in the closest regional theatre where the event had the most impact. Fondakowski added, theatre then “become(s) a place to bring all that grief and bring all that trauma.” Fondakowski clarified that the objective is not to provide a resolution to the events; but rather, through the act of making art of the tragedy, the “suffering is addressed” not as “healing” but as an honest expression that “touches upon the unresolved places within that community and within the individuals.”
Fondakowski spoke of her resistance to the label of “docudrama” or “verbatim theatre” that is often attached to her work. She stated that although they are rigorous that their information is factual, they are presenting an artistic representation: “They are the words of the people who survived the event but they are not word perfect. They are heavily edited.” And on the other side of this coin, Fondakowski spoke of the difficulty in meeting dramaturgical expectations for a play with complex events such as the BP Oil Spill. The explosion of the oilrig provides great drama, yet the creative team found as they spoke to people in Louisiana communities that an overriding and persisting concern was the less dramatically contained issue of land loss and the complex dependence our culture has on oil.
War of Narratives
All the panelists expressed the need for their work to help bring the stories of Louisiana outside of the Gulf Coast and re-ignite concern for Louisiana’s enduring issues. Biguenet stated that in over forty productions of the Rising Water plays from coast to coast, he found that audiences had no idea of what had happened in New Orleans and thought, “it was just a hurricane.” Biguenet continued that the easily accessible, three-part “hurricane story” that reporters gravitated toward as they reported events in New Orleans in 2005 did not apply to what happened in New Orleans where people were still waiting on rooftops on the third day “and the US was still two days away.” Biguenet continued that another issue was that the United States had never lost a city before and “there was no existing narrative structure” for reporters and audiences to make sense of “all the disparate information.” Simpkins similarly spoke of this inability or downright refusal to address the complexity of ongoing catastrophe with the BP oil spill event. Simpkins referred to the reporters’ descent into Louisiana communities already armed with “an angle” and the desire to extract “a snapshot…a sound bite…something that can be said in a headline.” The choice Simpkins described for their creative process in Spill was to do the opposite: “to come down without any agenda” or vision, but to come with an “open heart and open mind”, “to question”, “to learn” and to be present.
In response to an even more aggressive campaign against misinformation and over-simplification, Biguenet described a crucial war of narratives between conflicting stories of what happened in New Orleans. Biguenet stated that one of the biggest single expenditures of the Corps of Engineers after the disaster in New Orleans was to hire a PR firm in Manhattan. Biguenet adds, “It was money well-spent because their narrative prevailed-that it was our own damn fault for living in a city below sea level.” Fondakowski added that with the Deep Horizon oil spill, BP similarly has spent “millions and millions and millions of dollars to teach the rest of the country that it’s all over here and that nobody is suffering.” Fondakowski referred to BP’s full-page ads in the NY Times to present themselves as the victim of false claims. Fondakowski asserted that BP basically gave small payouts of 5-25K to fishermen to make it look like they were paying claims when actually residents were signing away their rights to legitimate claims and real financial compensation for their past, current and future losses. Fondakowski spoke how this event brings up the “propaganda machine” and the question of how history gets told, who owns that history and how that narrative is constructed over time. In light of what seems to be overwhelming forces constructing master narratives, Fondakowski expressed “I feel that our work is in part a document-- it’s the words of the people. It’s the actual words of the people and it’s at least on the record. It’s a least part of the dialogue of how history gets told and how history gets written.”
Building on that question of theatre’s ability to carry counternarratives, I asked the panelists about audience receptiveness in other states to hear stories of Louisiana and learn more of the truth of the oil industry and its impact on our environment. In response, Randels spoke of the national tour of Loup Garou the summer of 2010 while BP oil was gushing in the Gulf Coast. Randels described that everywhere they went “we were a little piece of what was happening in Louisiana” and stated that people were eager to speak with them. Randels found their work particularly resonated in extraction communities, such as the border of New York and Pennsylvania states where fracking was just beginning. Slie added that he found the story of Louisiana resonated with New Yorkers who had experienced two major hurricanes in the past four years. Similarly, Biguenet spoke of performances of his trilogy in New Jersey where audiences consisted of survivors of Hurricane Sandy. Biguenet described how these audiences had similar reactions to those in New Orleans where for some it was difficult to return to their seats for the second act. Slie stated that their national dialogue of communities at risk in Louisiana is robust because “in New Orleans, we’re the canary in the coalmine” and “the people of Southeast Louisiana have experience to offer” the rest of the nation. Biguenet concurred: “New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first. These are not local plays. These plays are about what happens if you don’t pay attention to the environment.”
This canary message, however relevant globally, is uncomfortable, and even at times unwelcome. Wartel, the portrait artist for Spill, stated that the play asks us to look at our own relationship to oil and recognize our ignorance of the oil industry and the very real human sacrifice behind it. Fondakowski cited Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” as still inconvenient and stated that artists she deeply respects have told her that her narrative in Spill meanders because of its insistence to tell the story of land loss in Louisiana. She was advised to drop it in order to serve the dramaturgical drive of the explosion of the oilrig. Fondakowski continued to explain that the fact that Louisiana has the highest sea level rise in the world and 50-80-% of the erosion of Louisiana’s coast is directly due to the cutting of canals for the oil industry, is something people resist and “don’t want to take in.”
One way ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro have addressed even New Orleanians’ reluctance to see how quickly our neighbors a few miles south are sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, was to set their final installation, Cry You One, at the very edge of the coast in Violet, LA in St. Bernard Parish. When I brought my eight-year-old son to the performance, it was an opportunity to address his questions of why “all the trees were dead” and what “salt-water intrusion” was. The task of bringing this message outside the Gulf Coast is formidable, but urgent. In order to address this challenge, Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot Productions have created a touring version of the site-specific performance (ongoing) and have an online video format that accompanies the project (http://www.cryyouone.com/). Biguenet provided a “measure” of urgency of the rapid rate of land loss in Louisiana with his statement that in the last sixty years, as much square mileage as the entire state of Delaware has already been lost. Biguenet continued: “When I was a child I was taught the coast was 100 miles away (from New Orleans), my kids were taught it was 50. Now it’s 12 miles to the east.” Biguenet concluded this reality check with the fact that during the time we were talking in the panel, “three football fields have fallen in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s how quickly this has been happening.”
As we closed our hour with audience questions a participant commended the artist panel for their courage to make the choice to bring the “details” of the stories to life and to ask people to “pay attention.” Slie, in his bright yellow shirt and feathered fedora hat responded: “This is all gloom and doom but in Southeast Louisiana we live amongst the most joyous people in the history of the planet. We’ve been assimilating, changing, transitioning story, ways of fiddling, playing the horn, making food for 250 years…the situation is dire. If anyone is trained, the people of Southeast Louisiana have the skills to do it.” Slie’s optimism adds another dimension to the urgency of getting the stories of Louisiana’s manmade disasters outside of the Gulf Coast. The people of Louisiana do need out-of-state support, but also in times of disaster to come, the people and artists of Louisiana have unique knowledge to offer the rest of the nation and the world. NoPassport Theatre Conference afforded a rare opportunity for Louisiana, national, and international artists to speak together of performance response to manmade disasters that impact us all. This panel and other events of the NoPassport Conference 2014 were live-streamed and are archived on HowlRound at: http://www.howlround.com/livestreaming-2014-nopassport-theatre-conferenc....
Anne-Liese Juge Fox, Ph.D., a native New Orleanian, studied theatre at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU and the International School of Theatre Jacques Le Coq in Paris. In San Francisco she was a company member of Theatre of Yugen, a founding member of Pacific Playback Theatre, and an award-winning solo artist. She returned to New Orleans and received a M.Ed. in Human Performance and Health Promotion. In New Orleans, Fox collaborated with playwright Lisa D’Amour and ArtSpot Productions in the Obie-winning, Nita & Zita and was a writer and performer of Swimming Upstream with Eve Ensler. Swimming Upstream, an original performance about the levee breaks disaster premiered in the Superdome before its national tour. Fox’s article on that process was published in TDR in 2013. Within a few months following the Hurricane Katrina levee breaks, Fox founded NOLA Playback Theatre and worked in community settings. She currently serves on the board for the International Centre for Playback Theatre. Fox was a Board of Regents and Graduate School Dissertation fellow at L.S.U. where she received her doctorate in Theatre History, Literature and Criticism with a minor in Performance Studies. At Tulane and Loyola Universities in New Orleans, Fox taught acting, movement, speech, and mask improvisation.