In Grounded, a one-woman play by George Brant, a pregnant pilot is reassigned from active combat to handling a drone. Safe in a trailer in the desert, she’s half a world from her targets, but she can see them better, through the drone camera. Her life is shattered, not only because she misses cruising freely through blue skies: Just how do you handle everyday life at home after spending your work day killing people?
Brant’s language is so vivid, his descriptions so detailed, that readers may feel design is almost unnecessary. Turns out, designers say the play, which has been given over 35 productions and counting, is, as sound designer Lindsay Jones puts it, “a designer’s dream. It’s so vivid in so many ways and yet leaves so many possibilities for ideas.”
Should a play about surveillance and military technology be tech-heavy? Or should a character-centered story be less so? The five productions here all used projections, none to create literal locations, but they related to technology in different ways. Check out Part One on the The Public Theatre; Part Two on City Theatre; Part Three on Unicorn Theatre; and Part Four at The Gate Theatre.
American Blues Theatre
Sarah E. Ross, scenic designer at American Blues Theatre in Chicago, says the team tried to bounce between a two-dimensional world, when the protagonist piloted the drone, and a three-dimensional world for other scenes. “We built this island, so there was a real separation from the rest of us who are watching the story,” says Ross, who wanted to create a neutral space with multiple layers for the projection design. The set had solid textured walls bisected by semi-transparent wall midstage. The only props were on a couple of shelves on a back wall; these included a little pony for the pilot’s daughter, but there was little domesticity “in this whitewashed sterile space.” Sand filled an 18'' troth around the stage. The pilot could walk through projections. Ross says director Lisa Portes and the team wanted to capture the pilot’s changing mental state, creating an envelope of blue as the pilot describes the freedom of flying that turns to gray.
Projection designer Mike Tutaj notes that technology is ever-present in a play that talks about a sonogram to look at a fetus as well as the technology of a drone strike. “The play uses the same vocabulary for hopeful moments and terrifying moments,” says Tutaj, impressed by “how strong the play is when you really focus on the words. They really help to put someone in a place.” His job became less to create locale than “to create a sense of motion and a sense of emotion.” He layered projections on the semi-permeable screen in front of a wall, for instance, grainy mountain lines moved slowly in back, while a heads-up display could be seen in front, when the pilot was in her drone seat. Lines dominated images, barbed wire, for instance. “We know we’re in a place where people are being kept out of our kept in,” he says.
Tutaj says he found studying real drone footage difficult. “Even though the story isn’t true, what we’re talking about is clearly happening,” he notes.
Lighting designer Sarah Hughey used mostly white light, isolating and tracking the performer, Gwendolyn Whiteside, as she moved through defined quadrants. One part of the stage was loosely established as the home, and when the pilot went to work, light carved her path. Hughey used LED wash units on the sidewalls, adding color when the pilot talks about the sun setting and in other specific moments. LED tape ran underneath the set to light it.
Lighting helped create the impression that the stage, which was a few inches off the floor, floated. Hughey lit the backless gap, revealing sand in the space. Specific light and sound cues would recur together, associated with repeated locations. When the pilot traveled, Hughey built a runway of light that echoed in the ceiling.
Sound designer Lindsay Jones wrote music on synths and virtual instruments that created a claustrophobic environment and reinforced the sterility of a situation in which people are making calculated decisions to kill. “It all felt very modern and electronic,” he says. When the pilot hunted with her drone, he created a pulsing sound, intensifying moments without making spectators aware of what he did. “As the stakes become greater, you feel tenser,” he says.
Costumes were by Elsa Hiltner; props, Arianna Soloway; assistant sound, Eric Backus; projections assistant, Paul Deziel.