A 12-hour shift hunting terrorists in the Middle East would be hard on anyone. George Brant’s one-woman play “Grounded” goes one step further.
The play looks at the toll a combat mission takes on a fighter pilot assigned to fly drones — a mother who must find a way to reconcile the challenges of her job with the stability she seeks at home.
“I keep seeing the headline, but I don’t see the person behind the headline,” said J.P. McLaurin, the director of Boots on the Ground’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival production of “Grounded.” “(There’s) so much going on in the Middle East right now. The great thing about this particular text is we get to delve into the psyche of this woman.”
This is McLaurin’s second chance to dive into this pilot’s mind. He and actress Mikayla Goetz (who plays the drone pilot) originally presented this play in 2017 in Myrtle Beach.
“It’s interesting to come back after that initial wave and say, ‘Okay, but what’s really under this?’ ” McLaurin said. “It’s not just a play about this advanced technology and our relationship to it, but it’s also about these men and women, who are surprisingly young.”
To prepare for the role, Goetz interviewed veterans about their experiences, especially female veterans and pilots. She also talked to people at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the setting of the play.
“It’s important to me to accurately represent the military community on stage,” Goetz said. “They make up less than 1 percent of the population. That makes their stories less readily available and much harder to understand.”
One thing that struck Goetz during her preparation for the play was the diversity of opinions regarding programs like the ones using drones.
“I would speak to some pilots that had absolutely no problems,” Goetz said. “They would get to go to work and then go home and see their family. It was the best of both worlds.”
Others, she said, straddled the line less successfully. Hearing these diverse opinions helped Goetz understand that each individual has a specific story.
After each performance, attendees can join a discussion moderated by Jessica Wilkes, a U.S. Air Force veteran. Counselors also will be on hand to provide support during difficult discussions about PTSD, drone ethics, moral injury and more.
“I think it’s created space and it’s allowed a lot of our audience members to actually speak up,” McLaurin said. “There’s a lot of the I-didn’t-know-that-this-was-going-on kind of mentality.”
J.R. Pierce is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.