By David Stallings
Directed by Heather Cohn
Produced by MTWorks
Nominations: Brian Silliman is nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role; David Stallings is nominated for Outstanding Original Full-Length Script; and Dark Water is nominated for Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play
About this Production
The swampland of Louisiana is hit with the most massive oil spill known to history. Barnacle, an old sea turtle, fights against man’s destruction, nature’s wrath, and her enemies of the wild to save her children trapped in the spill. Poetry, allegory, music, puppetry and movement create this magical world as the animals of Louisiana face the ultimate threat to their lives.
Producer and Actor Antonio Antonio Minino, Playwright David Stalling, Actress Dianna Martin and Actor Brian Silliman talk about bringing this epic tale about surviving the destruction of an ecosystem to the stage.
What attracted you to this project/subject matter?
Brian: Aside from the vast environmental importance of the story being told, it was the character. I love playing villains and previous to this year I rarely got the chance to. It was a fantastic opportunity to not simply twirl a mustache, but find and then revel in the decrepit madness beneath the surface of one truly troubled seagull. David Stallings gave him such a wonderful voice and the second I read the play I wanted to play him. I've also wanted to work with director Heather Cohn for quite a while and I knew she'd bring this wonderful play to life in a very creative way.
Dianna: As a member of MTWorks for over 6 years, I of course was eager to be in another play and get to work with both fellow members and actors/designers. I had worked with Heather once before, and was delighted to come on board for this. In relation to the play, I really enjoy working on roles that deal with relationships between mothers and their children, But the struggle that my character goes through to survive, to help her CHILDREN survive – and the things she has to do to get there…that is a story in and of itself. The other part of it was that I wanted to learn more about the oil spill, about the damage that had been done, and the effect on the animals and wildlife. David's play is beautiful, it's moving, and it's lyrical, and the fact that we would be using a myriad of artistic mediums to portray this world and perform his play was a wonderful opportunity.
David: When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened in April of 2010, fellow MTWorks Co-founders Antonio Minino and Cristina Alicea told me to write a play about it. Being from the Gulf Coast, it was certainly a topic that haunted and enraged me. But I had no desire to write about BP, the frustrating cover ups surrounding the spill, or the shady chemical clean up that ensued. Several months later however, when dolphins began to have mass miscarriages at sea and shrimp were being born with no eyes (yes this is happening in the Gulf), I decided to write about the animals. Dark Water follows the animals and their journey through the oil spill, using different forms of poetry and song for each species.
Antonio: To illuminate the issues of climate change and animal preservation on stage.
What was your favorite part of working on this production?
Brian: The cast and crew were all so much fun to work with of course, but there is a moment in the final scene where one of the heroes finally manages to pluck one of his baby turtle sisters from the oil and throw her to freedom. Behind the set I would emerge, step up, and catch it. The second I was sighted at least two or three "oh no" reactions would come from the audience. Heather Cohn, the director, had the brilliant notion that once I had the baby in my hand, I might waver for the briefest of moments before nature took its course and I devoured it. That moment proved to repeatedly be a "pin drop" situation as the audience hoped so very much I wouldn't kill and then eat this turtle baby. Of course Gullet is too far gone and past redemption, and he soon does the unthinkable, which also brought about various reactions of hate from the audience. I loved that they were caught up in the story and cared about a cute little puppet being eaten. Convincing people after the show that I myself would not make that same choice in real life proved difficult however.
David: I loved that this play used different forms of poetry to signify the different species of the characters: Dolphins speak in alliteration, Birds in Iambic Pentameter, Turtles sing folk songs, etc.) Also the use of puppetry for the baby turtles was beautiful and effective.
Dianna: Besides getting to know that amazing cast and see the incredible world the wonderful designers created for us? I would have to say it was the way I became even more involved and aware of the struggle that goes on every day in the environment: aware of the casual cruelty of mankind to inflict such pain and suffering to millions of animals, both marine and avian, as well as the destruction of entire ecosystems all for money and oil. And the fact that they still continue to do it – they have not learned their lesson, because all they get is a slap on the wrist. This is an entire topic I could rant about another time, but I am very happy that my work in Dark Water allowed me (and I consider myself an animal activist and avid pet lover) to really rethink the feelings and pain of even the strangest fish in the sea. As we worked as a team looking at photos of fish, birds, and other animals covered in oil, and learned how entire ecosystems were destroyed to the point of animals giving birth to mutated offspring years later because of tainted water, it really changed my outlook. After this show was over, I donated to several “Save the Sea Turtle” organizations and ‘adopted’ sea turtles around the country. It’s a small effort with a few dollars, but to see a majestic animal that I had had the joy of playing be able to be healed and fed and cared for really made me feel like I was helping in some small way.
Antonio: Collaboration. Producing a play about wildlife without dressing people in animal costumes or having them act like animals. Magic and stagecraft of the piece.
What was the most challenging part of working on this production?
Antonio: Raising money.
Brian: We were playing various animals, but were not wearing giant animal costumes. I had to elicit the feeling that I was playing a bird without flapping my arms about like I had wings. Too much of that and it would be silly, too little and you're just a guy in a suit. Finding that balance was difficult, the balance of bird and human. Originally I had made many more bird noises, but these often ended up sounding cliche, silly, or like R2-D2. They took the audience out of the play. For my character specifically we found in the end that less is more. My impulse of course was also to cackle and roll around in the evil like a pig in slop, but once that happens the threat level lowers. Director Heather Cohn was fantastic at keeping me on a leash and knowing when to let me off of it for certain moments.
Dianna: There were two things that were equally challenging for me: The first was the character herself. The way I work is that I just try to be as true to myself as the character in a set of given circumstances. Since I clearly have no experience being a sea turtle, trying to be a turtle – really being the character as opposed to “playing” one - was extremely challenging. But these beautifully written characters were written as real people (creatures) with real feelings, lives, happiness, sorrow, obstacles and joys. Barnacle, my character, is a mother who loves her children dearly, and is trying to get to them to save them on the most perilous journey of her life. When you combine that with some physicality work (studying a LOT of nature videos), things fell into place. I was also supposed to be BLIND for the entire second act. A blind sea turtle. Let’s just say that I did a lot of work on the character, and at some points the eye work effected me at home for the first couple of hours after a show every night. lol. The second was the fact that I had to sing throughout the play. Although I do sing, I had not done so in a production before, and I was terrified! Mean karaoke I can do. Sing for an audience in a production? Oy vey! But I had such a lovely time doing it - and conquered my fear. Now I would like to sing in another one!
David: Scope. Dark Water is a big play about a massive oil spill. It had a large cast and huge requirements (Video, puppetry, dance, song). In indie Theater, getting such a large crew together can be daunting--but luckily everyone believed strongly in the piece and its subject. We all fought for it!
What was the craziest thing that happened during this production?
Brian: I'll admit that my only fear about working on it was that I would be shown a picture of a bird costume on the first day, and told that it would be what I was wearing. I was so lucky that the brilliant DW Withrow showed me a fantastic white linen suit instead. A central part to this costume was a frayed yellow cravat that would gradually become undone by the end of the play, just in time for Dianna Martin's character to strangle me to death with it. It was a lovely vintage piece and we all loved it. The second week I was holding it, ready for fight call, and made a stop into the men's room. I came out, and the cravat was gone. We searched every corner of that theatre (the bathroom, every trashcan, etc) but no one could find it. As I needed to be strangled with something I used my own scarf that night and DW found a replacement for the next, but the whereabouts of the original cravat are entirely a mystery. I think a theatre ghost might have been mad at me for playing such a horrible creature. Or maybe I accidentally flushed it, who knows. What a charming story!
Dianna: Usually it was just trying to not cut up with Brian Silliman too much because besides being a great actor he’s also a really hilarious guy and a fellow Star Wars geek. The jokes with him and my fellow cast-mates backstage and in between dance/fight calls were epic. One thing that does stick out is when Barnacle is supposed to kill Brian’s character (Gullet) near the end of the play. Now I’m playing a blind enraged mother, who grabs this disheveled evil guy and lets loose on him, strangling him with his tie and dropping him into the “oil” on the ground, which was old VHS tape (a masterful idea of our scene designer). At one point in the choreography, I was so worried I had actually really hurt him. He was fine, just doing that “very believable acting thing” we all try to get right, but he told me later that in character I was so enraged with whatever I was using at the time that he literally was in fear of his life. Ah..the things we do for art. ;)
David: Although about animals and involving puppets, Dark Water is not a piece for children. It is actually quite dark. We had to definitely work hard to convince people to not bring young children as all their favorite animals die in this play.
What did you want the audience to come away with after watching your production?
Dianna: I want them to be engrossed in a tale about a Mother trying to save her children, a woman who is kind and giving and generous…and how all that can change and the things she will do – some of them horrific – to keep her children safe. To be engaged in the stories of these animals – who are really people, when you come right to the heart of the matter – and feel for them. I want them to feel and have concern for the damage we are doing to the animals, to the water, to the world – and that it’s not all so easily swept under a rug because “They’re just fish or birds” – NO it’s our planet. I want people to be outraged, moved, and carried away for two hours into this world we’ve created. Because these creatures are just like you and me – they have lives and loves and a world that in a matter of an instant can be destroyed by a causal turn of ours. I also want them to laugh, and feel joy at the triumphs that occur, the beauty of the design, and the poetry of the script.