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.
Riccardo Hernandez, scenic designer at The Public’s Anspacher Theatre, says director Julie Taymor “wanted whatever we did to have an honesty in the way we use materials. We didn’t want to create anything that had opulence or scenery or automation.” There would be projections that everyone seated around the three-quarter thrust would see, but there could not be a projection screen.
Taymor came in with inspirational research, photos of a jeep and a pyramid in Mexico, small ruins and castles. “From the start, Julie talked about burying objects in the sand,” says Hernandez. Light and projections could be thrown on desert sand and dunes, and reflected on the wall.
Hernandez considered a two-way mirror as a projection screen. “Julie liked it a lot, but she asked for something darker,” he says. They decided on a huge, monolithic black mirror wall that would be tilted behind columns at an extreme pitch. “Usually, when you want to project on black, it doesn’t work,” says Hernandez, explaining that a two-way mirror would pick up images and allow for different compositions because of how the sand reflects on the angled wall.
Agamemnon Returning From War
When spectators enter, they see sand and black. Then images appear, including numbers moving, as if on a drone screen, and live feed, the pilot’s face blown up, for instance, as she searches for a man many miles away she is to kill. “When Anne [Hathaway] walks into the room, she’s dressed in full regalia with a helmet. Sand falls on her helmet. The reflection starts growing and growing, and she looks like Agamemnon returning from war.” You see her and this face on the sand and in this very thick, very black Plexiglas mirror.
The idea, says Hernandez, was to suggest ruins, almost like the end of civilization. Corinthian columns in the theatre could contribute to the almost mythological installation. “Chris Akerlind did beautiful side lighting, skimming the sand, which is fairly deep,” says Hernandez. “When you see the reflection on the wall, it feels like you’re in a desert, after the kill. Out of nowhere, white crosses rise up out of the deck, creating another triangular composition. In a final gesture, she takes her uniform off and puts it in the middle of the space, almost like a cross, and sand falls onto it.”
Projection designer Peter Nigrini says that since the pilot lives in a Las Vegas desert and flies a drone over another desert, both deserts and duality informed his work. “Her entire experience of these distant places is mediated via technology and cameras and image,” he says, noting that drones view the world from above, with cameras mounted on the underside of the plane, so the pilot is always looking more or less down. “Where is the ground and where is the sky? We did a lot of bending of perspective, flipping images upside down,” says Nigrini. “The way the mise-en-scène is constructed, it’s always changing. The play is about a society that may have lost its moral compass. There is uncertainty about which way is up and which is down. It’s exciting the way the design is serving that function.” Nigrini composed every image to be seen twice, distorted by the sand, then reflected in the mirror.
While the representation of the drone control screens had realistic elements, everything else was “an abstraction or a fantastical representation of places,” Nigrini says. “When she goes to the mall after killing someone in Afghanistan, the grotesque commercialism of it hits her,” he says, explaining that he wanted to convey her psychological state, rather than literally represent the mall.
Nigrini, with associate editor Dan Vatsky and editor Anna Henson, built a simulation to see what happens when something falls on the sand, and then is reflected; story-boarding helped them previsualize. What effect would sand have on color? What would the person in the first row see, and how would it be different from someone in the last row, on a different side of the thrust? Controlling and capitalizing on the visual disorientation was key to the design.
Akerlind says initially nobody knew how projection and light would interact. Finally, he and Nigrini sculpted the space together. “What we did know is it would be as simple as possible to give a lot of good space for Anne Hathaway to deliver an intense performance,” says Akerlind. “What Peter and I knew was putting a couple of followspots in the room was going to be our friend.” Akerlind avoided full body shots most of the time, and sometimes tinted them in a smooth and quiet way. In early tech rehearsals, he swapped out 19º units and used 14° units, upping the intensity and shifting followspots between tints, mostly cool. Sometimes he filled a little gray light into the internal portion of a projection to ground Hathaway.
Creating An Installation
Akerlind, who often leads the process in techs, found himself “riffing on what Julie and Peter were doing, fleshing out and filling in. Most of my work is invisible,” he says. “What we found in almost every case was that one light was always better than two or three or four,” he says. A group of Philips Vari-Lite VLX fixtures on the top of the sand grounded Hathaway by getting light underneath her feet. In one or two moments, she’s suspended in low fixed units. “Not one element or portion of an element could be out of place in a very specific design that was almost an installation,” says Akerlind, whose 177 lights also included ETC Source Four LED Lustr+ fixtures, as well as Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, Clay Paky Alpha Profiles and Sharpy Washes, warm-white LED tape, and Look Solutions Tiny Foggers.
“Originally, I came at the show a bit like a radio play, a little literal and trying to create the world of the pilot as she conjures it for us as an audience,” says sound designer Will Pickens, who worked closely with composer Elliot Goldenthal. Richard Martinez wrote electronic music. Pickens quickly found that literal cues muddied a story that was better served by focusing on the emotions of the pilot. “The play has a great rhythm and repeats ideas over within variations. It was exciting to me to establish a shorthand with the audience to hit the rhythmic moments quickly and clearly,” he says.
Pickens says in a three-quarter thrust it was tricky to make the pilot come across in a coherent and clear way. “We used a radio mic on Hathaway so that we could support her vocally and help those who would be behind her as she moved through this thrust space,” he says. “There is a part of the time in the show that wants to be very natural as she tells us this story of her life. To achieve that, I split the stage up into zones so that we could always focus to her. Each zone is delayed differently to each sitting area to help. I also wanted the ability to lift her out of reality into her own head. What does it sound like to hear or feel her story from her perspective?” Pickens told this story using a Yamaha DM 2000 console, with a Yamaha AD8HR and DME64N for processing, a Meyer Sound loudspeaker system, and Figure 53 QLab 3 software. Mics included a Sennheiser SK 5212 and a DPA 4061.
The play lends itself to many interpretations, and theatres around the country have been making it their own. Read about the City Theatre production in Part Two, and stay tuned for coverage of four other productions, including Unicorn Theatre, The Gate, and American Blues Theatre.