Crude: the true cost of oil

Crude is a new play from site-specific theatre specialists Grid Iron which investigates the most controversial industry in Scotland – oil. Focusing on the lives of offshore workers and the choices they make to work on the industrial islands of the North Sea, Crude also travels to the Niger Delta and the Arctic Circle to look at the global impact of oil production and its human and ecological cost.

We found some time with writer and director Ben Harrison to talk about the powerful production and the challenges of staging the show in a vast (and chilly) shed in the Port of Dundee.

Crude performance in full swing

What was the inspiration behind the piece?

The starting point occurred just after we had opened Roam, the show we made at Edinburgh Airport in 2006. As you can imagine that was a very challenging process so as a mental exercise more than anything else I tried to think of a site that would be more difficult. The image of an oil rig came into my mind.

I quickly became interested, as I began to research the lives of the offshore workforce, as to how critical their work is for the global economy and how difficult the effect of the two weeks on / two weeks off work pattern is on family life. That gave the show its core. I was interested too, as we did with Roam, in finding a story that was both very rooted in Scotland but linked globally.

We are all complicit in the oil industry. I wear contact lenses, so I have oil products in my eyes. I see the world through oil.- Ben Harrison, Writer / Director

So you originally imagined staging it on an oil rig?

Yes. As a challenge to ourselves. But then Judith Doherty did some of the practical costings. That would be £9,000 one-way for a helicopter ride, for twelve people. So the economics didn’t exactly stack up!

I later discovered too that access offshore requires a training procedure that means you have to be dunked in a simulated helicopter in a swimming pool, and then make your entrance out by opening the submerged windows. We have a very loyal following but that might have been a step too far.

The other issue is that space is at a premium on a rig, the accommodation is rather compact, so the only spaces would have been the canteen, or the helideck, which would have brought its own issues in terms of North Sea weather.

Female oil worker suspended over the stage - photo by Eoin Carey

The play explores the human and ecological cost of the oil industry. How do you set about tackling these themes?

With honesty and humour. We are all complicit in the oil industry. I wear contact lenses, so I have oil products in my eyes. I see the world through oil. Plastics, derived from oil, flow in our bloodstream. Modern life, with its lighting, packaging, clothes and food is unthinkable without petrochemicals. It is easy to blame ‘Big Oil’ but we are all involved.

Although we highlight some seriously apocalyptic abuses - such as what is occurring in the Niger Delta where a whole people are being destroyed politically, ecologically and financially by oil spills, lack of resource control and excessive gas flaring - the offshore workers I interviewed were amongst the least hypocritical people I have ever met. ‘The problem lies with the end consumer, not with us at the oilface,’ said one. They are risking their lives every day to sustain ours. There is a character in our play who tries to live without hydrocarbons, which leads her onto a very difficult and dangerous path.

Woman smeared with crude oil

Why was it important for you to bring in so many different facets of the oil industry, showing different parts of the world, different involvement with and attitudes to oil?

The global oil map was drawn up in Scotland in a hunting lodge in Achnacarry, in 1928. ‘The Four Horsemen’, the original big four oil companies, so that’s Shell, BP, Exxon and Gulf, met there. The oil barons decided, agreed and marked out the oil territories that they were to going to each control all over the world.  A lot of those decisions still have an effect today.

Oil and gas in Scotland are such a big theme, so critical to our economy, and yet as is well known, the benefits of this natural resource did not stay in Scotland as they did in Norway, which is one of the richest nations in the world. I would position Scotland between Norway on the one hand, with its social security and pension fund, the Oljefondet - which will be worth one trillion dollars by 2020 and has secured the lives of its people - and the Niger Delta on the other, where the oil companies have poisoned the water so much that the people now have to import it from the West, whilst they see no profit at all from one of the most productive oil patches in the world.

Man holding umbrella with US Flag design - photo by Eoin Carey

What was the most moving story that came out of your research?

So many, but one that sticks in my mind, but that actually didn’t make it into the play, was the story one worker told about being called into the school because his son had written a story, with illustrations, about rescuing his father from a burning rig in a hot air balloon. This was in the time shortly after the Piper Alpha explosion. One can only imagine the anxiety felt by oil families in the years after 1988.

Another story came from a brilliant documentary we all watched, called Sweet Crude, where a mother talks anxiously about her favourite son who worked hard at school and had got himself an education, but she could see that he was inevitably going to take up arms in a resistance against the Nigerian government. He had tried peaceful resistance but was turning to violence after the continual murder and rape of villagers in the region and the point-blank refusal to mend burst pipelines, stop gas flaring and divert any of the huge financial rewards of oil and gas to the people whose territory the oil fields are in.

Actor pointing at camera wearing military clothing

Site-specific theatre is a Grid Iron speciality - what’s important to you about making theatre for new and unexpected locations?

New and unexpected locations keep both artists and audiences fresh. We are very experienced (as are our audiences) but each site makes us look at theatre and the world in a different way. I also like the relationships that naturally arise between us as guests making the piece of theatre for our audiences and the hosts of that space, which in this case are the brilliant and welcoming people in charge of Dundee Ports.

Rather than going to a rig, as was the original intention, we have not one, not two, but three exploration rigs moored up outside Shed 36 where Crude takes place. So we are right in the heart of the oil industry, but in a reasonably accessible location. I also always like the fact that we are taking the audience somewhere they would never be allowed access to if a piece of theatre was not taking place there. There is no public access to Dundee Ports so in a way the piece of theatre is smuggling you in. Just don’t forget your passport or driving license.

In that way, the access is identical to Roam where aviation law was suspended for us for three weeks so that a non-passenger audience could access the departure lounge.

Texas oil man waving US flag

What were the challenges and opportunities of putting on a play in Shed 36?

It's a perfect site for the show. I had difficulties keeping it together when I first saw it because I have been dreaming of this show for ten years. So the opportunity is huge because the site is so real and so perfect. It means that we have to be scrupulous in making the show rooted in the realities of the oil and gas industry whilst of course allowing ourselves to be theatrical and magical.

I would say the cold would be the biggest challenge, and audiences are advised to wrap up warm. It is a vast shed: 20 metres high, 75 metres long and 63 metres wide. We drove four vehicles in there and the space just swallowed them up.

But the gigantic scale of the site is appropriate for a show about an industry that operates on a human scale in terms of the worker at the oilface but is gargantuan in terms of the global reach of the industry as a whole.

Tweet showing a photo of the vast shed

Crude runs until Sunday 23 October 2016 at Shed 36 in the Port of Dundee. Book tickets now from the Dundee Rep website or call 01382 223530.

Grid Iron Theatre Company is one of 118 organisations receiving 3-year regular funding from Creative Scotland, for 2015-18.

Photo credits: Eoin Carey and Chris Close. Used here with kind permission.

Poster for Crude by Grid Iron

This article was published on 11 Oct 2016