Oldcastle play explores decline of print journalism, PFOA's impact on a community
'Water, Water Everywhere ...' a story of a community in crisis
BENNINGTON — Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow noted that Americans are a people who prefer to "make up their own minds on the basis of all available information."
This trait was reflected by Oldcastle Theatre Company's co-founder and producing artistic director Eric Peterson. In 2017, he decided to write a play on the importance of small town journalism providing vital information in the face of local crisis — and a news industry struggling to survive.
Peterson's efforts, based on the 2017 series of reporting on the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination from industrial plants in Bennington and surrounding areas, have resulted in the upcoming world premiere of "Water, Water Everywhere..." set to open Oct. 4 at the Bennington Performing Arts Center.
Peterson said he was inspired by the investigative reporting on the PFOA crisis in the Bennington Banner. The 2017 series, authored by Banner reporter and editor Jim Therrien and VTDigger's Mike Polhamus, represented "just how underrated the value of local journalism is at a time when small newspapers are fighting to stay alive and soluble all over the country."
"Day after day, I would sit here in my office and read these articles that Jim had written," Peterson said recently in a break from rehearsals. "It struck me that the depth of investigation and quality of the writing and storytelling was as good as anything you can find in a Pulitzer-winning series from one of the nation's big-name newspapers."
To have such an asset in a small town like Bennington, Peterson said, was both priceless but also "a double-edged sword."
"On the one hand, everything that followed from that reporting, the legal cases, the water line construction projects, all of it, showed the value of quality journalism to make a difference, and to do so quickly and with great impact," Peterson said. "But it's bittersweet, too, because this is exactly the type of reporting that is disappearing in the wake of financial realities affecting small news operations everywhere."
Not a documentary
Peterson was quick to emphasize that while his play used the local PFOA crisis as catalyst to telling a larger, human story, it remains "a work of fiction with its own suspense elements and mystery and unique characters to both entertain and educate." It's not a documentary, nor meant to be, he said.
William John Auperlee, the play's set designer, called the story itself "a mystery comedy with elements of romance." Oldcastle co-founder Gary Allan Poe, who will stage manage the production, said the plot has "suspense, and then more suspense."
The setting is the newsroom of a small town newspaper in the fictional town of Walloomsac, Vermont, as its reporters begin work on a story about a factory discharging PFOA from its exhaust stacks. The contamination builds up over years in the groundwater and soil, and local residents are sickened.
Two reporters at the struggling Walloomsac Tribune, Nick (Ed Rosini) and Nora (Halley Cianfarini) — their names a salute to characters in the classic "Thin Man" mysteries by Dashiell Hammitt — break the story with the help of a veteran editor, Katherine Dwyer (Christine Decker).
Dwyer's surname is a salute to former Banner editor Elizabeth Dwyer, who died in 1977. She was known locally "as a tenacious and dogged champion of pursuing the truth," Peterson said.
In the play, Katherine mentors the young reporters while parrying attacks from townspeople afraid that negative publicity will hurt business, according to Decker.
"Katherine is a career-driven woman, retired when the play begins and then she gets her last hurrah," Decker said. "I think this speaks to a lot of women who have dedicated themselves to a career which was fulfilling but largely unrecognized by the general public."
A world in turmoil needs the conversation that's sparked by good reporting, Decker said.
"This play offers the complexities of a dire situation when people are struggling to do the right thing," Decker said. "Journalism has been the vehicle for conversation in the past but is being challenged today."
Much of that challenge is further reflected in the plot as residents are touched by the crisis. In a series of scenes, they have their say on the effects of PFOA on them, their children and their jobs.
To that end, actors (and husband-wife team) Patrick Ellison Shea and Natalie Wilder play a total of 22 different characters. These include local store owners, a real estate salesman, a spokeswoman for the governor, the town's mayor and scientists.
Adding to the play's underlying romance is the nugget that Shea and Wilder, who have appeared on the Oldcastle stage for the better part of two decades, met each other and fell in love while working on a past Oldcastle production.
The cast is rounded out by two longtime industry professionals. Richard Howe, Oldcastle's associate artistic director, plays Ethan Corcoran, a business owner with financial ties throughout town. David Snider, the executive and artistic director of Hubbard Hall in nearby Cambridge, New York, is Chandler Tillsbury, the plant manager and part owner of the PFOA-spewing factory.
The play's costumes are by Ursula McCarty. Lighting design is by David Groupe and sound by Cory Wheat.
Journalists: The final word
If the backdrop sounds familiar to local residents, one can't blame them.
Therrien gave a nod to Peterson, saying authors and artists have often "fleshed out and hammered home viscerally the significance of a moment or an era or maybe a country or culture."
"They are the ones people should probably read first when you're talking about the past to get a vivid impression of what it was like in that time," Therrien said. "They are usually working from newspapers and magazines and nonfiction books, as well as their personal experiences."
Therrien mused that Peterson's work brings to life "an era of declining print journalism and declining revenue to pay for thorough reporting, which takes time and having [people] to throw at a big story."
"[It's also] describing on a personal level what widespread industrial pollution can do to people and to communities," Therrien said. "All that is certainly more than fictional in the Bennington-Hoosick region."
Anthony Marro, the Pulitzer-prize winning retired editor of Newsday and president of Bennington Performing Arts Center, agreed with Therrien.
Marro got his start in news at the Rutland Herald and spent decades in the newspaper industry in the New York City area before returning home to Vermont. He said Oldcastle has a long history of producing original plays that have focused on Vermont people and issues, including Ethan Allen, the civil union law and Robert Frost.
"Eric is not only the artistic director for Oldcastle, but a playwright in residence," Marro said. "[This] play is a work of fiction, but the issues are real. Everyone in the region is aware of the problems that have been caused by the pollution of well water in Bennington County."
People are also aware, Marro said, of the problems "of delivering honest news reports at a time when the traditional economic model no longer works for most newspapers, and newsrooms are shrinking or shutting down altogether."
"Eric is a former newspaper reporter and columnist and he knows first-hand how newsrooms function," Marro said. "He knows that it takes hard work by reporters and the strong backing of newsroom managers to reveal the causes of problems that important people want to be kept secret."
And to that end, Peterson revealed his greatest wish for his play.
"Come and see this play, and hopefully you'll be entertained and educated," Peterson said. "Then go home, get online or on the phone or whatever it takes, and get a subscription to your local newspaper."
"Water Water Everywhere ..." runs from Oct. 4 to 20. For more information or tickets to Oldcastle Theatre Company, visit oldcastletheatre.org or call 802-447-0564.
Reach freelance journalist Telly Halkias at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @TellyHalkias
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