From Hell’s Angels to Top Gun, Hollywood has had a love affair with the image of the fighter pilot. The modern-day gladiator in the blue yonder. The cool head in hot pursuit. The cocky maverick who saves the day.
American playwright George Brant’s monologue Grounded turns that well worn image completely on its head to present us with the face of modern warfare as it is now – a face that is, in this case, female.
First performed in 2013, Brant’s monologue traces the trajectory of a United States Air Force F16 pilot forced to walk away from her beloved “big blue” and join what she dismissively calls “the chair force”.
Her new job is flying pilotless hunter-killer drones over the Middle East from a base in the desert outside Las Vegas. She can take out a target from thousands of miles away having never left the ground.
But as the drudgery of 12-hour stints in front of a screen and the day-to-day horrors of her work take their toll, our grounded flyer finds it harder and harder to maintain her sense of purpose and ultimately, her sanity.
Brant’s play is a window into war in the 21st century, says Dom Mercer, director of the National Theatre of Parramatta’s production of Grounded at the Riverside Theatres. It also alerts us to a new set of moral and psychological hazards that come with killing an enemy from the safety of an air-conditioned bunker on another continent.
“We’re in a universe where we can send people to war without physically sending them anywhere,” says Mercer. “It completely changes the experience of something that should be unusual and extraordinary and makes it, for want of a better word, normal.”
“We know that soldiers can’t be deployed on the front line for more than a couple of months without needing to be brought out to recover. But what happens to people who do this for a living? I think that is a very new experience of war and it’s one that I think is really important for us to think about.”
The United States has used drones in military and intelligence operations since 2004 but their use became a political issue during the Obama administration, when activists voiced concern over what many saw as a secretive program that deliberately downplayed civilian casualties.
According to researchers, 1,878 drone strikes were carried out during the eight years of the Obama presidency.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the number of drone operations has substantially increased (by upwards of 40 per cent) and very recently, an Obama-era order requiring the public release of summaries of US drone strikes and assessments of how many died as a result has been revoked.
Last year, it was announced that Australia would spend $7b on unmanned aircraft, largely for offshore surveillance patrols.
Brant’s play isn’t an anti-drone or anti-military polemic, Mercer says.
“This piece engages with the technology and the psychology of war. Brant isn’t saying that soldiers are inherently bad people or that the military is an inherently corrupt thing. He’s more interested in how we manage people who do something entirely new in terms of war and how close the frontline is to home.”
Flying high and low
Grounded’s wingless pilot is played by Emily Havea. Rehearsals have been a huge learning curve, she says.
“Before I started, my understanding of drones was like everyone else’s,” she says. “They were things you bought from K-Mart for a couple of hundred bucks and flew around the park. And I’m like a lot of actors, I don’t know any military people. But now I’m starting to understand what it takes to serve, and how modern warfare has changed.”
On stage for 75 minutes, flying solo, Havea says Grounded is the most challenging and complex role she has played. “Nothing has come close to asking this much of me before,” she says. “But I think that’s when you get to do your best work – when you have to put so much more of yourself into the role.
“And just the opportunity to stand on a stage alone and have the responsibility of holding a show … it’s terrifying but incredibly empowering as well. It’s the kind of challenge I want to rise to.”
Mercer adds: “The script needs an actor who has a visceral presence, someone who can walk into a room and immediately have a sense of gravitas and be able to look you in the eye and speak directly. It also requires an actor who is incredibly technical and able to be – we use this word a lot – ‘grounded’. This is a woman who has thrived in a masculine world and has never apologised for her femaleness.”
While it’s a play about military personnel, Grounded also speaks more broadly to women in the workplace.
“The wonderful thing about the play is how it encapsulates a human experience,” says Havea. “What she does is secondary to who she is. It’s not asking you to buy into a stereotype. It’s the full range of a human being.”
Grounded plays in the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 14-23