Lauren English as the Pilot in Grounded.
What if Odysseus had come home from Troy every night—and gone back every morning? That’s the question at the center of the new play Grounded, which has its world premiere on Saturday. The one-woman show, featuring Lauren English, focuses with spare and poetic language on an American pilot, who after finding herself pregnant, becomes a Predator drone operator. Instead of being stationed in the Gulf, she finds herself working from a trailer near Las Vegas—and instead of a years' long deployment, she comes home to dinner with her husband and daughter every night. She can’t talk about what happened during the day—that’s classified—but she does wear her flight suit home on days when she has killed someone. Her young daughter can’t decode the message, but her husband does.
“The average person, myself included, is pretty divorced from the military—to some degree happily,” says playwright George Brant, whose Elephant’s Graveyard received the David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center. “That’s disturbing and it allows for a certain degree of willful avoidance around the drone question.”
That was smiliar to the position that English found herself in before she began to work on the play. “I feel a huge obligation. We’ve killed many members of Al Qaeda. But we don’t know the consequences of putting a human being into combat for twelve hours and then send them home. The drone war is, in a word, crushing.”
One of the most striking components of the play is how empathy can grow like a weed. “The pilots will be watching their targets and their families for days or weeks,” says Brant. “When you spend all that time monitoring people, you can’t help but get to know them.” What’s more, instead of flying away, the drone operators often watch as their missile strikes—and continuing watching during the aftermath, in case anyone escapes. “A drone pilot has to hover over the carnage,” says Brant.
Though the play hinges on a strong argument about the human costs of remote warfare, it tries to avoid simply coming off as agitprop. “It’s about the emotional journey, not the political one,” says director Susannah Martin. “We want people to sit with the questions.”
But is it sufficient to simply ask a piece of art to raise awareness? English reacts strongly to the question. “It’s like when I saw Black Watch. It was stunning, but then everyone wanted to talk about the staging. Often, art can be about going to see the ‘war play’ or the ‘black people play’ and finding yourself personally enriched and then that’s it. I felt like that after I saw Fruitvale Station—I donated the price of the ticket to the Oscar Grant Foundation. I’m not saying that makes me a better person, but I’ve seen enough plays that just raise awareness and then don’t do anything.”
The producers of the play have reached out to several veterans’ organizations, and have plans to, at minimum, turn the lobby into a kind of information station. Martin also mentions ideas for audience talkbacks at some of the shows.
Though Brant has been working on the play for a few years, he has been surprised at how drones have risen in the public consciousness recently. He points to weighty events like Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster speech last March, and ones less so, like Buster Bluth’s subplot as a drone pilot in the new season of Arrested Development. “There’s actually video game where you play as a drone pilot,” says Brant. “I didn’t get very far. You get points for things like kissing your wife goodbye and driving to the base.”
Grounded runs from August 14th to September 7th as part of SF Playhouse's Sandbox Series (1119 Market St. at 7th St.) For more information, click here.