Much ado about fracking

“Marcellus Shale” explores both sides of fracking at Antioch College

By Tim Smith

Drilling for shale gas—also known as fracking—has become a hot button issue from Ohio to the northeastern United States. People on both sides have staked out their claims, with many landowners caught in the middle. The experimental theater troupe Talking Band has turned this conflict into a new play.

“Marcellus Shale” is named for an outcrop near the village of Marcellus, New York that extends through much of the Appalachian Basin and contains untapped natural gas reserves. Playwright Paul Zimet and composer Ellen Maddow used personal experiences as the basis for their work. They own land in western New York state, and their neighbors were caught up in the land leasing craze that hit the region.

“There was a great deal of debate in New York state that eventually led to a moratorium on fracking,” Zimet says. “These were some of the events that influenced the play. We did interviews with our neighbors about ‘What is a good life? What do you value? What would you miss if you did not have it?’ These interviews became the basis for the play and the characters in the play.”

The central theme of the story is how a crisis within a close-knit community tests their values, but the play purposefully does not take a side.

“We are really interested in keeping the complexity of the issues and the characters in the foreground so that no one is a villain in the play, but everyone is acting from motivating ideas and impulses that are what they think is best for themselves and their neighbors,” Zimet continues.

Zimet notes that the play is loosely based on the Dostoyevsky novel “Demons.”

“I was inspired by the idea that the characters in “Demons” are unfinished and was interested in how we can look at people on both sides of an issue with a sense of compassion,” he says.

“The primary impulse for the play was close to home,” he continues. “The issue of natural gas drilling has engendered fierce debates among my neighbors in upstate New York. We live on the Marcellus Shale, one of the richest deposits of natural gas in the country. This is a community in flux—farms are failing, industries have left, and people with second homes are moving in. What used to be a fairly homogeneous group of people is increasingly diverse.”

The Talking Band has been making innovative and influential theater works in New York for 41 years. Collectively, the founders have earned 11 OBIE awards and numerous other honors. At the heart of the Talking Band is its Performance Lab, which draws new artists and ideas into the company, experiments with theatrical form and cultivates the seeds of new plays. Talking Band is a resident company of La MaMa and has also performed at nearly all of New York City’s celebrated downtown venues. Nearly 50 of its original productions have toured the United States and the world.

Concepts for new plays are a collaborative effort.

“Making a play is like rolling a ball of clay along the ground and whatever sticks to it becomes part of the play,” Zimet says. “Talking Band’s work is often inspired by prosaic situations and characters. They sometimes work from music and design elements as the seed, sometimes from photographs to capture a theme and characters that they layer and weave into a larger theme.

“Each time I begin work on a play, I find different starting points,” he continues. “The starting point could be a story, visual image, a piece of music, an idea, a person I’ve observed or read about or a desire to experiment with a genre. Then, the costume designer, working from a verb—e.g., to inflate—could create a costume which would inspire the writer to create a character for that costume, and the composer to create music for the character.”

The theme of this particular play was very personal to Zimet and Maddow.

“Finding the right theatrical language for Marcellus Shale was especially important to me, because it deals with an issue that has already polarized the public debate,” Zimet explains. “In a theater piece this carries the danger of creating characters that are two-dimensional mouthpieces for a particular point of view.  The issue of hydrofracking has opened rifts—both new and old—between my neighbors, but these are people with rich, multi-layered lives that cannot be reduced to one issue. I want Marcellus Shale to present the people of this community in their complexity.”

Zimet would like the audience to take away a better understanding of how the issue of fracking changed people and challenged their beliefs.

“When audiences leave the show,” he says, “I would be glad if they were moved to take action to avert the disaster that has fallen on the land and people of the play, but I would be disappointed if they came away believing one side is good and one is evil. My wish is that the audiences will recognize how good and bad is entwined in the characters of this play, as it is in all of us.”

“Marcellus Shale” will be presented March 10-13 at The Foundry Theater at Antioch College, 900 Corry St. in Yellow Springs. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased by calling 937.319.6139, ext. 7628, or by visiting

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach Dayton City Paper freelance writer Tim Smith at


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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at

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