The chair force: an uneasy play about drone warfare

‘Grounded’, George Brant’s well-travelled play about a female drone pilot, puts words on a growing sense of moral anxiety

 

Much like its subject, George Brant’s play seemed to swoop in from nowhere and become a talking point everywhere. An hour-long monologue play inspired by drone warfare, by a little-known American playwright, seemed to put words on a growing sense of moral unease. In the endless half-life of the “war on terror”, where drone strikes in the Middle East are so routine they go almost unreported, the distance between human actions and their consequences seemed more and more remote.

These new weapons, more precisely known as “unmanned aerial vehicles”, suggested the US could conduct a war without getting its hands dirty, robotically commanding surveillance of countless Middle East battlegrounds while raining down destruction on carefully monitored targets. But as drone attacks have continued to claim civilian lives with little accountability (the first CIA drone attack, in 2002, mistook an innocent Afghan for Osama bin Laden), and where “military-age males” are deemed legitimate targets, they have become one of the most troubling characteristics of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. He has relied more heavily on the drone programme than his predecessor.

Drones, sleek invisible killing machines with names such as Predator and Reaper, have created the appearance of warfare as something both unmanned and unhuman. They have become so normalised they now have commercial offspring: drones for aerial photography, providing internet service in remote places, delivering Amazon purchases to your door.

 

Who’s in control?

In 2011, Brant began wondering about the people behind them. “I guess I wrote the first draft when the [drone] programme was certainly more of a secret than it is now,” he says. “I was curious about what these things are exactly and what’s being done with them in our name.

“I didn’t have an entry point for writing about the play until I started reading about these pilots, and I just became fascinated by what they had to go through. I had no idea that the drones are being flown from within America and not the country in which they were engaged. That was just so bizarre to me, and so surreal. The fact that the pilots spend their days having 12 hours at work, then 12 hours at home. They’re the first arm of the military to do that, to have re-entry every day, to go to war for part of your day and then come home and be a family member.”

The domestication of a warrior became an opportunity to fold a political and personal story into one. The protagonist of Grounded, a terse, unnamed female fighter pilot, begins the play in possession of an F-16 jet, firing missiles “on the minarets and concrete below me” during the Iraq war, but after she has a child her wings are unceremoniously clipped.

“You want me in the Chair Force?” she spits at her commander when told she’ll be returning to work as a drone pilot. Defined as “one of the guys” – her Air Force associates are all male – the pilot is anxiously aware of the threat of emasculation as she watches the world through a grey screen, operating a drone 8,000 miles away from a bunker in the Nevada desert. “First day on the job,” she says, then corrects herself: “The war. Whatever.”

In creating his character, and her complex psychology, Brant was inspired by the stories of two female pilots, a minority in the US Air Force who make up just 2 per cent of its personnel. The first was Jackie Parker, one of the first women to fly in combat. “She said something like, ‘I’m not trying to be a man. I’m a pilot.’ She was effectively arguing there was almost a whole other gender when you’re a pilot. I found that very interesting. She was fascinating.”

Another was the photograph of a pregnant female pilot, in the New York Times, taken just before she left the service. “She is all things in this picture,” Brant says. “She even had her flight helmet under her arm. She is a warrior, she is a woman, she is a mother. It inspired the whole plot of the play and the character herself. And this woman was very conflicted. She had fought her whole life to get to this level and now she didn’t know what was going to happen with the rest of her life.”

When Grounded took off, in 2013, the play did not so much strike a chord as rouse a symphony. It was awarded the Smith Prize by the National New Play Network, which recognises plays about American politics, and it received simultaneous world premieres in San Francisco, Arizona, Kansas and Edinburgh, a launch pad with a far reach, where an intense production from London’s Gate Theatre entombed its performer, Lucy Ellinson, in a translucent box, bombarding her with video design.

Within a year, it had spread from New York across the US, to Australia and throughout Europe. In 2015 alone, it will have received 20 productions worldwide, including a virtuoso staging directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anne Hathaway at New York’s Public Theater – “which was probably the most elaborate,” Brant says, “that was wild” – and its forthcoming Irish premiere from Siren Productions at the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, directed by Selina Cartmell and performed by the remarkable Clare Dunne.

These days Brant’s feet barely touch the ground – when we speak, he is in France for one production, en route to Germany for another. With some of his earlier plays still lying unproduced, it has been an overnight success story built on a 20-year career.

 

Observing from afar

There are now too many stagings to keep up with, he says, and, like the drone pilot, Brant increasingly observes the distant trails of his play from afar. The volume and urgency of those productions suggest that different companies have seized the play for different reasons.

“I think there are several entry points,” Brant says. “If you have a military interest, there’s that.” (One grateful Texan serviceman, who attended two separate productions, sent Brant a gift of a camouflage backpack.) “If you’re curious or worried about drones, it’s another way in. It certainly has the dynamic of being a woman in the workforce while raising a family– to an extreme example. Then, a lot of theatres may have had the perfect actress in mind.”

In an arch character description in the text of Grounded, not often shared with the audience, Brant’s pilot is described in invasive detail: “She should have no allergies or asthma after 12 years of age” along with 20/20 vision, “a sitting height of between 2ft 9in and 3ft 4in”, “no more than 32 per cent body fat”, be able to complete “50 sit-ups and 27 push-ups” in one minute each. Some actresses have approached Brant guiltily during rehearsals, assuring him that they’ll nail the sit-up challenge before opening night. “You don’t have to worry about that,” he assures them.

The description is taken directly from Air Force requirements, which already suggest a dehumanising process long before the drones take over. When the pilot, besieged by dislocation and the fraying of her conscience, begins to think of bodies shredded “too fine for my resolution” or to imagine her family in thermal vision display, another reason for the unsettling appeal of Grounded is its description of people steadily transforming into things, whether military or civilians.

“We are so engaged as well, as pilots in our own little way, with this world in which we find ourselves in symbiosis with our computers and phones,” says Brant. “The surveillance we allow in our lives: some of it is welcome, but all of us feel a little strange when we walk past a camera that is pointed at us. There’s something magical about the play in that it is confronting the technology that is all around us, and yet at the same time, we’re in this room where we’ve turned off our technology to listen to one woman sharing her story.”

Brant has seen almost every possible interpretation, from multimedia assaults to a lone speaker in an empty room, but the play’s purpose is always the same: to raise questions and restore connections.

  • Siren Productions’ Grounded runs from September 7th-12th at Project Arts Centre, at 6.30pm and 8.45pm daily, as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe, fringefest.com
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