A new play from the Pittsburgh-based Hatch Arts Collective puts real Pennsylvanians’ experiences of the fracking boom center stage. The work, titled Driftless, is written by Hatch co-founder, Paul Kruse, who let us drop in on a recent rehearsal to talk more about the play.
The Allegheny Front: So first off, tell us about the meaning of the title, Driftless.
Paul Kruse: The word “driftless” comes from geology, and what driftless means is land that has been untouched by glaciers. We were really interested in rooting the text in geological realities. One of the key ingredients in fracking is sand, and the largest and best naturally occurring supply of “frac sand” is in a region called the Driftless Area, which is in western Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota and northern Iowa. That’s where I grew up. And two years ago, I did not know that the sand that I walked on as a kid was being dug up, brought to western Pennsylvania and injected into the ground to extract natural gas. In a lot of ways, learning that fact lit the fuse for this project.
AF: And the story of the play is rooted in real people’s lives. Can you tell us a little about that?
PK: Our process for working on this play has taken about three years. We started with a small workshop process in 2013. And we did a play investigating how environmental activism intersected with fracking. And from that, we had another workshop, where we gathered a group of nine artists and took a look at the transcripts from a trial of a bunch of protesters who were arrested trying to shut down a frac sand mine. And over the last year, I have been interviewing about 30 folks who live in western Pennsylvania and are in some way connected to hydraulic fracturing. That has meant activists, folks who have directly benefited from fracking and those who are interested in fracking. And one of the things I hope people understand after experiencing this play is that it is complicated, and that it is possible for something to have economic benefits while still causing real environmental harm. And that until we admit both of those things, it’s going to be really hard to progress.
LISTEN: Behind the Scenes of Driftless
AF: One of the characters works on a fracking well pad in Pennsylvania. He is also a recovering addict. There’s actually a scene where the audience sees him working on the well pad and we hear two others talking both about the definition of addiction and the process of fracking. So what were you trying to say in that scene?
PK: There are two reasons addiction plays a role in the text. The first and most immediate is that what is true for Washington County and several rural counties around Pittsburgh is that there has been a big problem with heroin addiction. And in talking with a lot of people who live in those areas, many people have drawn a connection between heroin addiction and the fracking boom. Whether it’s causal, we don’t know. But what is true is that they have existed at the same time. The other thing that occurred to me as I was writing is how similar our relationship to fossil fuels is to addiction. And by “our” I mean, our way of life—the fact that I drive a car and can’t move through a room without touching at least a dozen petroleum products. And so the analogy of an addiction seemed really appropriate. We have a dependence. And it is a dependence that’s causing us harm.
AF: And there’s also a place for religion in the play. As you know, Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania is a heavily Catholic place. So tell me about religion’s role, which often seems pretty irreverent.
PK: I wouldn’t call it irreverent. But I would call it—maybe—raw. The play is guided by two saints, who share wisdom—not only spiritually but scientifically. I chose Saint Peter because the word “Peter” comes from the Greek “petros,” which literally means “stone” or “rock.” And there’s a passage in the Bible where Jesus turns to Peter and says, “You are my rock and on this rock I will build my church.” And that analogy between Peter as rock and the geology in the play was really interesting to me. The other is Saint Barbara, a Medieval saint, and she is the patron saint of miners and explosions. And because there are small explosions involved in the process of fracking, I wondered what Saint Barbara might have to say about it.
The existence of religion in the text is grounded in the fact that religion and Catholicism do play a huge role in people’s lives in this part of the world. But it is really personal to me. For me, my way into activism was through the Catholic Worker movement. Growing up, my family was part of a Catholic Worker community, and connecting activism to religion has been a part of my understanding of the world for a very long time. And so seeing that played out on stage was powerful for me, and I hope it is for other people as well. I think people often turn to their deepest beliefs when you’re confronted with something this large.
Playwright Paul Kruse’s new play is called “Driftless.” It premiers August 11 at the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh. For showtimes and ticket information, go here. “Driftless” is supported in part by the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the PNC Charitable Trusts, which also support The Allegheny Front.