News Story Reaches New Audiences as Dark Comedy

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

OIL TANK REMEDIATOR: Then we’re going to put in monitoring wells there, there, there, here.

LENA: How much is this going to cost?

OIL TANK REMEDIATOR: Oh, you just empty what wheelbarrow of dirt and fill it with $20s.

If the story of a couple and their years-long saga to remediate a leaking underground oil tank sounds familiar, it’s because you saw it here — on NJTV News.

The national organization StoryWorks from the Center for Investigative Reporting pairs journalists with theaters to bring news to the public in a more personal way. Several outlets — including NJTV News — collaborated on a deep dive into New Jersey’s toxic legacy or “Dirty Little Secrets“.

Our own Brenda Flanagan’s report was then translated from a hard-hitting news segment into an hour-long dark comedy called “Terra Incognita“, performed at George Street Playhouse.

“It’s total theater of the absurd,” said Flanagan. “You don’t get that in a news story, but it plays out beautifully here along with all the emotion that’s wrapped up in the thing.”

That’s what playwright Bob Sandberg was going for. “I think it does two things,” he said. “I think it psychologically and emotionally gives affirmation to lots of the people who are going through this, and then it raises awareness of the issue for other people to think about.”

A packed house of audience members laughed at the dark humor of the piece and audibly gasped and groaned as challenge after challenge was lobbed at the protagonists.

An audience member, who didn’t want to appear on camera, said the play was scary. She has an underground oil tank on her property and seeing what the characters went through made her feel even more of an urgency to do something about it.

StoryWorks Artistic Director Jennifer Welch says partnerships between playwrights and journalists allow for artistic creativity and factual accuracy.

“People will come into the room, and we have the articles that have been published provided in the program. We have Department of Justice reports, facts and figures for people to look at. And by doing that, I think that, not only are they being moved emotionally, but they can trust that,”‘ said Welch.

And unlike the solitary experience of consuming news through the paper, TV or a smartphone, a theater allows for questions and answers and post-show chats in the lobby.

“Despite yourself, you’re learning a lot of information. All the way through this, you’re caring about the couple, you’re listening to the struggle that they’re going through,” said Flanagan, “but all along the way, you’re absorbing an enormous amount of information — facts and regulations.”

The turnaround time from news story to completed script to fully-produced play is a rapid six months — breakneck speed in the world of theater. But for StoryWorks, getting the message out while it’s relevant is the whole point. And if tight timelines mean saving audience members from the chaos they see characters go through, it will have been well worth it.