Playwright Phelim McAleer discusses ‘dark side’ of environmental movement in ‘The $18-Billion Prize’

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What happens when a play that advertises itself as showing “the dark side of the environmental movement” is performed in the notoriously liberal San Francisco? “The $18-Billion Prize,” written by Phelim McAleer and Jonathan Leaf, seeks to answer that question.

A piece of verbatim theater, the play’s script is made up almost entirely of the trial and deposition transcripts of the court case Donziger v. Chevron Corp., in which Chevron Corporation was accused of polluting Ecuador’s rainforest. The environmentalist side was represented by lawyer Steven R. Donziger, who gained prominent attention from this case. Ultimately, Chevron lost and was ordered by the local Ecuadorian court to pay more than $18 billion.

The case was often described in positive terms when co-playwright McAleer first heard about the then-ongoing trial, wherein the brave environmentalists were heralded for bringing justice against an evil corporation. Yet after following the case, McAleer became aware that there was more to the story. Extreme fraud on the part of Donziger tore apart the environmental case, and it is this deception that McAleer and Leaf chose to constitute the play’s focus and drama.

“This complete 360 happened, where it turned out the environmentalists were the frauds,” McAleer said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I’m always interested in how the media pushes a story. I always like to follow these stories true to the end, so that’s what got me interested in this,” he said.

McAleer believes having people’s real words spoken in a theater makes for a compelling production, hence the play’s verbatim format. With “The $18-Billion Prize,” he finds that the story holds many elements that make for great drama, especially its courtroom setting. “The elements become more alive in the theater than any other way, and I thought, this is the way to do it,” he said. “It’s just spellbinding. You don’t want to miss a single word because you know that this is exactly what this person saw and witnessed on stand.”

“The $18-Billion Prize” explicitly portrays a side of the environmentalist movement that may make supporters of the cause uncomfortable — including those involved in the play. Early on in production, a lead actor quit after allegedly deciding that he felt uneasy about the play’s content.

Having actors walk out after reading his script is nothing new for McAleer. His last production “Ferguson” 一 also a piece of verbatim theater, which premiered in 2015 一 depicted the courtroom case of police officer Darren Wilson. In 2014, Wilson shot 18-year-old Black teenager Michael Brown and was not indicted. Nine of the 12 actors quit the production, claiming a lack of accuracy in the production’s depiction 一 McAleer’s selections were critiqued as overly biased in their omission choices 一 and an overall discomfort with their involvement in it.

When probed about the walkouts in response to “Ferguson,” McAleer emphasized that he pulls from real court transcripts. “It’s terrible when these actors don’t appreciate that this is verbatim theater, that they’re giving a voice to real people whose voices were ignored up until now,” McAleer said. “I think, in general, actors need to stop giving themselves awards for bravery when they run away the first time they’re asked to do something out of their comfort zones.”

McAleer is considered a prominent conservative figure. He is also a filmmaker; in 2009, he co-directed and produced “Not Evil Just Wrong.” The film challenges the science behind climate change, specifically targeting Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Despite this, McAleer insists that politics are absent from “The $18-Billion Prize.” He isn’t worried about his work being perceived as unsettling by audience members.

“There are no politics here, and if they want to get political, then that’s fine. You have to deal with the truth as it is,” McAleer said. “What’s the point of having a political agenda if it’s not based on the truth? How do you have a different political view based on a fraud? Then your ideology is a fraud.”

Considering all of the context behind this production, including McAleer’s conservative perspective, only time will tell how the play fares within the San Francisco theater scene. McAleer addressed the interesting choice of producing “The $18-Billion Prize” in the Bay Area, declaring that it was an easy — and fitting — choice.

“Amazon Watch is based here. … Chevron is based here,” McAleer said. “The environmental movement kind of sprung out of San Francisco, so I thought, where else to bring it than where it all began?”

“The $18-Billion Prize” will run through June 3 at the Phoenix Theatre.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].