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Delving Into DARK WATER With Diánna Martin

by Karen Tortora-Lee on March 2, 2014

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In two weeks MTWorks will be producing the world premiere of David StallingsDARK WATER, directed by one of my favorite directors, Heather Cohn.  DARK WATER is about the ramifications of the Gulf oil spill, which began on April 20, 2010 and caused extensive damage to wildlife and marine habitats.  Although the accidental marine oil spill was eventually capped by mid September of that same year, detrimental ramifications continue to exist along the shoreline of Louisiana and as far as the Florida panhandle.

Stallings’ DARK WATER uses poetry, allegory, music, puppetry and movement to create this magical world as the animals of Louisiana face the ultimate threat to their lives. Diánna Martin plays Barnacle, an old sea turtle, who is fighting against man’s destruction, nature’s wrath, and her enemies of the wild to save her children trapped in the spill.  We were thrilled to be able to chat with her about DARK WATER.  Read on as she tells us about the challenges of transforming into a turtle, the ways this play takes her out of her comfort zone, and the ways in which preparing to play Barnacle affected her.

Diánna Martin, you’re currently preparing for your lead role in David Stallings’ DARK WATER, a contemporary fable about the Louisiana oil spill. Tell me a little about the play.

Dianna Martin HeadshotDM: Dark Water is a beautiful tale about a mother trying to save her children during one of the darkest times in our history on an environmental scale (and basically, in my opinion, on any scale). In the play, the oil has spilled, it’s headed toward all the marine life in the area as well as the land, and I am trying to get my children to safety. Barnacle encounters all different types of people (animals) as she tries to make her way to her kids, some of whom are not very nice. It brings together a myriad of characters that we may recognize for whom they represent but their story is unique.

We discover things about the spill as well as these characters, while showing the day in the life of what it must have been to try to live through this. Empathy is one of the greatest gifts we have been given as a species, if we care to use it, in my opinion, and it is my belief that this production engages the audience in a way that will provoke discussion and indeed empathy for creatures whose desires in life may not be so different from our own as a species.

All of the characters are animals. As an actress, how do you work to find that sweet spot which blends animal characteristics with human expression? How do you find that truth in order to bring BARNACLE to life in the purest way?

DM: Well, regarding general physicality, it’s been a group effort in finding what are some mannerisms that are human, but that seem appropriate for the particular animal, at least in way of greetings and whatnot.

However I find the majority of it is in focusing on my journey, which is very human: to save my children. Add in that I’m a loving mother who has lived a long, long time and seen a lot in this world; and keeping in mind what my creature is (a lumbering, much older turtle who can go slow on land, fast in the water, and who is also very grounded and powerful). Also bringing in location and the lovely dialogue that has been provided gives me a way to go forward.

My boyfriend teased me that I was going to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for his first time seeing me on stage, and I laughed because that is so NOT what one will see in this production. We are seeing characters who are animals in a set of given circumstances within a parameter that we as humans can understand. And as we work on characters we realize more and more their lives and live their plights and their joys. I think people will be surprised and delighted at what they see.

This play is very multi-dynamic filled with music, dance, puppetry, projections and song. Do you find this taking you out of your comfort zone? 

DM: Indeed! I am very much out of my comfort zone, but that’s a good thing…it’s the only way one grows. I am singing in the play, which is new to me. Although I have sung once before in a play, it’s not something I am used to at all. I used to do choir in college, used to do back-up vocals playing out in NYC for a singer/songwriter, and I can do a mean karaoke when among friends. It’s actually very scary for me. People don’t realize this but I’m really shy about a lot. That’s one of those things.

Even though my uber dream is to rock out in a chick rock band.

Has this role brought up any discussions – either with other cast members or with friends and family – about the oil spill that were deeper, richer, or more heartfelt than what was sparked by the original incident? 

DM: Well, I won’t go into conversations, since they sometimes ended up with me yelling at someone using language not appropriate for this interview. ;) However, I can tell you that I have learned so much from doing this play.

As you know, I am an animal person and have always considered myself a champion for the environment. However, I have to be honest that originally the reality of all the marine and avian life that were affected by this crisis for a long while was more of a concept or idea. A concept that I saw but didn’t feel as deeply

As I searched YouTube trying to find imagery of the fish in its natural habitat, all I could find was video of how to cook it, how to catch it, how to kill it – videos of a fisherman holding the poor thing and laughing, while the animal is drowning on air, basically.
as I feel, say, when the ASPCA sends updates about dogs or cats. A fish can’t lick my face or purr next to me, so I was slightly less horrified about what had happened – and this wasn’t a conscious decision. I felt for the ecosystem and was dismayed that it happened, as anyone even slightly concerned about our planet should be, but as the months gave way to years, I forgot the urgency and outrage that should have been present to try to prevent this from happening again. There was this weird dichotomy going on where I have always felt so sad for dolphins (my Dad used to tell me tales that they were the descendants of Atlantis!) but was only mildly upset about fish or birds. Which of course is a problem I think that so many people have – and they don’t even start to think about the ocean, the reef, the land, all of it. It blows your mind, man, because I think that’s what the big companies who spill this stuff are hoping and betting on…that people will say “Aw, that’s a bummer…but it’s just some fish.” – well, no, it’s a whole underwater world. A universe, actually.

I mean, do folks know that they set the oil on the water on fire to try to burn it up to “get rid of it” and hide their tracks? Think about that for a minute…any animals caught up in the water that might have actually survived suddenly just set on fire. If we put ourselves in their shoes…well, that must have been even more terrifying.

When doing research for the play, I started looking up the different animals with whom Barnacle comes into contact in the show. Of course I grew up with channel 13 animal specials and have seen these creatures, but as I began to really look into them, I felt for them more and more.

Then one day I was looking up the Sheepshead fish, of course kind of blown away by the teeth on the critter. But as I searched YouTube desperately trying to find imagery of the fish in its natural habitat, all I could find was one video after another of: how to cook it, how to catch it, how to kill it; lengthy videos of a fisherman holding the poor thing out of water to show to the camera the teeth and laughing, while the animal is suffering. Drowning on air, basically.

I was aghast at the casual cruelty and inability for me to even see what this animal looks like living it’s life because all that was available were vids of people killing it. That kind of hit home. I eat fish, but I eat them, I don’t torture them.

On top of it, in this production we are all actors who are animals – but they appear as humans in this play. They have the same needs and desires as we do – to live, to eat, to love, to endure. Being able to play it on that level also really made their plight all the more real for me.

What are some moments of the play that are your favorites to perform?

DM:  Well, I would tell you, but that would give it away…

Suffice to say that for the most part it is anything having to do with either being a devoted mother…or taking to task those who get in my way.

Dark Water Sketch Rendering

There’s an extraordinary team being brought together for this production. It’s clear that a lot of thought is going into the set design, the costumes, etc. Share with us some of your impressions of what we’ll see, and what kind of world this team has created for DARK WATER.

DM: I am truly amazed at the level of ingenuity and talent that has lent itself to this production. Some of the artists I have worked with before, some I have not, but I am thrilled to be a part of what is happening here. We have seen renderings, and I can’t wait to see what they bring for us to work with. The fact that we are being transported under the ocean as well as on land is just amazing. It’s going to be like a playground for the actors.

My costume is going to be great, too. I’m really just so excited, I can’t wait until we can get into tech and play.

Finally, Diánna - anyone who knows you knows you’re a big animal lover. For other animal lovers who may want to know, will this play leave them broken hearted, galvanized or uplifted?

DM:  Oh, man – I hope it’s a combination of all three. That’s what the play does for me.

I hope it’s a wake-up call to those who are desensitized to what the reality of this oil spill meant and means to the thousands of creatures who died slow and painful deaths, the animals that continue to be born with defects, and to the pollutants that effected the ecosystem, the plants, ocean, and humans as well.

It is an uplifting play that will break your heart while calling you to action. ;)

Thanks so much for hanging out with us, Diánna, and for giving us so much to think about!  For the rest of you, don’t forget to check out DARK WATER – info below.


DARK WATER plays the following schedule through Saturday, March 29: 

Week 1:
Friday, March 14th at 8pm
Saturday, March 15th at 8pm
Sunday, March 16th at 2pm

Week 2:
OPENING NIGHT :: Monday, March 17th at 7pm
Thursday, March 20th at 8pm (followed by panel discussion)
Friday, March 21st at 8pm
Saturday, March 22nd at 8pm
Sunday, March 23rd at 2pm

Week 3:
Thursday, March 27th at 8pm
Friday, March 28th at 8pm
Saturday, March 29th at 8pm

Opening Night performance followed by short reception.

Advance tickets are $18 ($15 Students/$12 Seniors) and are available online or by calling 866-811-4111. Tickets may also be purchased in-person at the theater ½ hour prior to performance.

Running Time: 90 min. One intermission.

The Theater at the 14th Street Y is located on 344 East 14th Street (at 1st Avenue)

By Subway: L to 1st Avenue
By Bus: M14 or M15 to 14th and 1st

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