Kate Cole had the audience on the edge of their seats from start to finish of George Brant’s Grounded, which has just finished it’s season showing at the Seymour Centre in Sydney. Brant’s monologue makes for a fierce interrogation into the age of drone warfare and a seemingly “costless war”. Previously a fighter pilot, this female top gun becomes pregnant and when she returns to active service she is relocated to a trailer in the Nevada desert from where she manoeuvres drones. Watching the”guilty” through a small screen, she observes the obliteration of her targets like figures of grey putty disappearing under the combustion of her hellfire missiles that she launches from behind a desk. Locked away from her blue sky, she spends countless hours staring at grey grids, and becomes painfully aware of the all-pervasive nature of surveillance technology including the consumer palaces of Las Vegas. Finally acknowledging at the end, that the audience too is watching her, she reminds us that nobody is spared.
This poetic monologue became fully grounded through Kirsten von Bibra’s meticulous direction. With incredible sensitivity to the language and its tapestry of meaning, von Bibra punctuates thestream of consciousness narrative with effortless rhythm. I was privileged enough to get a glimpse into the creative process behind von Bibra’s successful interpretation of the text.
Q. What was the process in terms of dissecting and reassembling the text, and did you work through it thematically or chronologically?
A. The verse-like structure of the play is deceptively simple. The way in which the language is laid out on the page strongly alludes to ways in which it could be played, especially in terms of rhythm. The use of short lines without punctuation, the repetition of words, similes, and the spacing between lines or verses, and its shift into prose all contributed to a complexity that in the first instance needed to be worked through in chronological order. To understand these elements entailed a sort of decoding process. But ultimately, patterns became the dominant feature and revealed major themes, including the encounters with her daughter who becomes the catalyst forthe dramatic climax of the play.
Q. The text uses the colours blue, grey, and pink to illustrate the character’s values. How useful
were these colours in your interpretation of the text, and bringing the story to life?
A. Jackie Parker was the first American female air pilot in the Air National Guard. It was said that she was never one to back down from a fight. During George Brant’s research, he heard about Jackie Parker’s first day on the job when she arrived with a bright pink equipment pack on her belt. This caught George Brant’ s imagination and he linked the colour pink to The Pilot’s daughter’s toy pony. While blue came to encapsulate The Pilot’s professional world, pink on the other hand epitomized the “hair tossing” world of young girls. The Pilot despairs at her daughter’s preoccupation with the seemingly superficial and gender clichéd symbol. However, towards the end of the play, the pink pony undergoes a mythical transformation. This surprising and redemptive twist in the narrative is the most tender of moments in the eye of the storm. As an aside, I would like to point out that in one hundred years of Australian aviation, there has never been a female fighter pilot.
Q. How did you reach the decision to use such a minimalist set?
A. This decision was reached through a process of collaboration. First off, it felt important to place the language in the center of the space. In the simple tradition of story telling, the power of Brant’s narrative could then be given priority to conjure our imaginations and engage our emotions and thoughts. The story unfolds in numerous locations, but essentially The Pilot’s psychological experience becomes paramount in the ethical debate about military warfare and modern technology, so it felt apt to create a more abstract space which could allude to a
multiplicity of environments and symbolize some of the key elements such as the computer screen, desert and bunker. There’s also the question of how to support the actor in the undertaking of an 80 minute monologue. Should we use a chair? Do we need to have a bottle of water on stage? Ought there to be any props? Should we use split-levels in the space? After some discussion, Kate and I resolved to keep the space empty of all ‘accessories’ allowing the text to be delivered through the actor and her craft.
Matthew Adey, who designed both set and lights for Grounded, also works in contemporary dance and performance installations. Sculpting space through use of light is one of his many skills, and this approach enabled him to create an integrated dynamic between space and light, opening the epic story through the use of a cyclorama and closing it down through intense shafts of light. Using a simple box- like structure with curved edges between the walls, ceiling and floor also provided an abstract environment in which to place Elizabeth Drake’s composition. The spatial design of the aural world was also an integral component using eight speakers, four on either side of the down stage area. Specific sound elements were run through upper, middle or lower speakers to fine-tune the atmosphere and the way it enveloped the audience. So, although minimalist in design, the set embodies many palpable elements.
Q. Who was the nameless pilot addressing, and how did you visualise this dialogue?
A. The very act of speaking always assumes an addressee. One cannot escape the notion that even in our most private thoughts there is a real or imagined person whom we are addressing. So, in the instance of a monodrama, there are commonly multiple addressees who bring the outside world onto the stage to provide important perspectives on the protagonist for the purpose of complexity and depth of meaning. In Grounded, The Pilot speaks to a number of characters, including her husband, daughter, and commander. Also, in the stage directions, the audience isdesignated as The Pilot’s confidante to varying degrees of familiarity. The challenge for the actor, therefore, is to be very specific with her technical and mental focus as there are numerous shifts, often in quick succession. For instance, the task of operating a drone requires a pilot to watch a screen 18 inches in front of them. In our version, Kate, who plays The Pilot, splits her eye focusmbetween an imagined screen and the audience when she is at work. One moment she is in the reality of what she is witnessing on the screen, and the next moment she is explaining the event to her confidante. What is so clever about the writing is that it allows for different temporalities to co-exist. In other words, one experiences the timeframe of the narrative both in the present and retrospectively.These decisions about the addressee also affect the balance of pathos – how much is the pilot reliving her story, or how much is she recounting an experience through the coolness of time? All in all, we spent some considerable time in the technical tuning of the dramatic element of the addressees.