WELLSBORO - When playwright Gerard Stropnicky wants to learn about something, he doesn't mess around.
So, when he decided to research the effects of gas drilling in Tioga County, he went straight to the people.
"I've been working here in Tioga County for the past 18 months and have interviewed 125 people to date, collecting about 200 hours of stories," he said. "A wide range of folks and a wide range of stories."
Performers are seen rehearsing for “TIOGAchanges,” a play by Gerard Stropnicky, which will premiere Friday in the Livestock Judging Arena at the Tioga County Fairgrounds.
Stropnicky compiled data for what would become "TIOGAchanges," his latest community-based theater effort.
"The focus of the project is 'change;' the impetus was the change wrought by the coming of the Marcellus Shale gas industry to this rural, largely poor and sparsely populated place," he said.
In 2011, Stropnicky was awarded a $50,000 grant from the United States Artists, a national grant-making and advocacy organization, for his "Theater of Place" projects, which have helped communities in Bloomsburg, Harlan, Ken., Sautee Nacoochee, Ga., and Colquitt, Ga., tell their stories through theatrical performances.
He wanted to work with Wellsboro and its surrounding area this time in order to expand his understanding of how fracking is affecting Central Pa.
"This project is giving me a 360-degree perspective," he said. "I've spoken with gas field workers and dairy farmers, environmentalists and abstractors, some veterans of the CCC (These guys, now in their 90s, helped to plant this forest after it was clear-cut) coal miners, medical folks, ministers dealing with the resulting homelessness issues, people who grew up around tanneries (with the open acid pits) and smelters. We've spoken with scholars (environmental economists) in the field at Stanford and Yale, just to get an outside overview and to check if what we were learning was correct. We've spoken to several folks involved in the gas industry. I've walked around and on several drilling pads, before, during and after drilling."
Stropnicky said that the national perspective on the issue is a little skewed because people don't realize what the residents of Tioga County have been through in the past and what they were dealing with before gas drilling became an issue.
"Basic national arguments get turned around here in interesting ways," he said. "For example, concerns about polluting the river run up against the fact that the Tioga River has been poisoned by acid mine run-off for 80 years, a legacy of the 100-year 'Blossburg' coal boom here. It is a complex picture, in a long-struggling community now presented with fresh opportunities and dangers."
The playwright said that there's no doubt that fracking will continue.
"[There's] No question here about whether to go forward with 'fracking,' " he said. "It is here already in a big way, and the footprint of the industry will only grow over the coming decades. What does that mean today to these communities? What will it mean down that road?"
The play will be performed Friday through Sunday and May 16 through 18 in the Livestock Judging Arena at the Tioga County Fairgrounds, 2258 Charleston Road. It is centered around Ole Bull, a 19th century Norwegian virtuoso violinist, composer and land-speculator, who came to Tioga County in the 1840s to start a utopia.
"The play employs Ole Bull ... as a metaphysical bridge to stories about lumber, coal, farming and yeah, fracking," Stropnicky said. "For the people here, this is far from the first trip to the extraction industry dance. What does that mean in relation to today's concerns?"
"TIOGAchanges" has a bit in which each of the chemicals that are in frack fluid are detailed and connected to regular household items.
"We even offer a recipe on how to make frack fluid with things you have around your house, in your bathroom, kitchen and garage," Stropnicky said. "I'll probably tick off both the industry and the most intense activists. The scary thing is that it's true."
The play's assistant director, Emily Mendelsohn, said that she wanted to be a part of the project because she was happy to take the chance to learn the logistics of Stropnicky's projects.
"I wanted an opportunity to learn this form," she said. "Because I think it's where theater is going - local, integrated into the performance of community, ethically aimed."
She said that she thinks the play can do a lot for Tioga County residents.
"The play, created by-with the community, hopefully can create a space for reflection, recognition and celebration of the extraordinary stories and the strength and perseverance of Tioga County," she said.
Music director Meghan Galloway likes the way that the performance will connect the county's present with its past.
"I think that looking back at our history puts the current changes that we are going through in better perspective," she said.
She thinks "TIOGAchanges" is important because it presents some issues and concerns to a wider audience.
"It's a lot easier to talk about the things that bother you with a select group of like-minded friends, but bringing it out in the open like this provides a forum for us to address this as a community, while at the same time recognizing and celebrating the things that make us unique," she said.
The performances that will be held this month are "Phase One" of the project and "Phase Two," the play in its entirety, will be performed in 2014.