In Conversation with George Brant
Skyler Gray, the Alley Theatre’s Literary Manager, sat down to speak with George Brant, author of Grounded.
SKYLER GRAY: What inspired you to write Grounded?
GEORGE BRANT: I was very interested in drones in general. Just as a person—as a citizen—I wanted to know more about them, particularly as their frequency increased. I remember reading an article that said President Obama used drones 3 times as much in his first three months than Bush did in his 8 years in office. So, when I read that, I really saw how this program was increasing. It was top secret when I originally wrote the first draft of the play—it still is a top secret program—although everyone talks about it and knows about it. When I began researching in 2011, there really wasn’t too much information out there. Although, there were odd things out there like a book for young boys that was telling kids why drones were such a good idea. That is actually where I found some of my earliest pictures of what it looked like inside an actual drone trailer where they fly the planes. It was truly odd what information was in there. But I didn’t know what kind of angle to take on the subject or how I wanted to write the play until I started to learn more information about the pilots. I had certainly assumed that these planes were being flown from the country in which the planes were actively flying. I had no idea that they were being flown from right here in America. It blew my mind that the technology was at that level, that there is only a one second delay in response from moving the joystick here in America to a drone flying over Afghanistan. And then reading more and finding out that one of the main bases was in Las Vegas - Vegas just being such an unreal place with the fake pyramids and fake Paris and fake New York. To throw this kind of other- worldly military program there just seemed too perfect. Every once in a while as a writer you get one of those details that falls into your lap that seems almost too good to be true from a storytelling standpoint.
I was also intrigued when I learned that the PTSD rates were as high for drone pilots as for regular pilots. After all, one of the main selling points of drones is that we get to go on all of these missions without putting our soldiers at risk, so it was interesting to see that there is a risk after all, just not one we expected. And then finally, finding out that the pilots were expected to go home every night, that there weren’t barracks at the drone bases, so these pilots had to work twelve hour shifts at war and then go home, expected to adjust every day to being a member of a family. I was very interested in what kind of mental toll that takes to keep shifting back and forth between war and home. In the history of combat, we haven’t had that before: that someone is able to go home at the end of the day, every day. We might think of that as a positive, but when you are war you compartmentalize your life. I think in some ways it is mentally easier to be overseas in combat—to know, okay I am doing this for this period of time and then I will go home. And then at home you commit to being at home. But being a drone pilot doesn’t allow you to commit to either world. That really intrigued me and made me wonder if that was indeed part of what might be causing this mental fraying.
SG: What was the journey to the first production?
GB: It had kind of a different journey than most. I wrote the play in the summer of 2011 and then worked on it by myself for a year. The following summer I workshopped it at the New Harmony Project in Indiana and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco. It was great to have back to back workshops and really get into the nitty gritty of refining the play. Then the next summer performances began with the National New Play Network, where it had a rolling world premiere in San Francisco, Tucson and Kansas City, as well as debuting overseas with the Gate Theatre in both London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. All in all, I think eight theatres signed up to do it that first season. It was incredibly gratifying to have all these theatres sign on to do the play in its first season, but I was just terrified that if the first production got a bad review that all these poor theatres were going to be stuck with a turkey. Luckily, that’s not how it worked it out. It had quite generous notices in its beginning and had a great first year and then it has just gone on from there.
I should also say as a sidebar that Liz Frankel [the Alley’s Director of New Work] was one of the first people to write me to say that she liked the script way back when. That was quite a vote of confidence. She was the one who passed the script on to Christopher Hayden at the Gate in London. That production wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t pass it along. I’m so grateful for her support over the years.
SG: The play has achieved an incredible level of success and enjoyed productions around the world. What is like to see your work live on past the first production?
GB: This play has been an unexpected blessing and just keeps trucking along. It has been wild, particularly that first year, when I saw just about every production. It was fascinating to see what each theatre’s take was on it. This play was intended as a true collaborative affair as there are almost no stage directions whatsoever. It’s an open canvas for lighting or projections. Designers have seized that and run with it. And happily enough, the actresses have never repeated productions either so it has been fun to see a different actor at every theatre take on the part. Another thing that surprised me about seeing it, that I hadn’t expected, is that not only does the Pilot change from production to production due to the actor playing her, so does the supporting cast that she mentions in the play. For example, her husband feels different from production to production and her relationship with her child, too - the way that they relate to these unseen characters is really integral to the play.
SG: I heard something about a network of Grounded actresses. Is this true?
GB: A lot of them have gotten in touch with each other over the years. There is this a sort of Pilot sisterhood. I think one of the women in Australia reached out to the woman that played it in England to ask—in her night of crisis before opening—how she got through it. Luckily it has been a wonderful group of women. It is so fun to think that they are in contact with each other. I have this dream of writing a play for all of them; they are such a talented and lovely group of people.
SG: Have you continued to follow articles about drone warfare?
GB: I have. I was actually just catching up on some new articles the other day. There is a temptation sometimes to tinker with the script here and there as more information comes out about how the programs are run. Luckily, most of my guesses turned out to be correct in the original draft, so I haven’t had to change too much. There are things that maybe I will…I don’t know. For example, the price of a drone has gone up and that is mentioned in the play; there are little things like that that I could tinker with. But once you open that Pandora’s Box you could be in trouble, so I try to keep my hands off it. There was one article today, I didn’t know there was this thing called an Open Air program that was started in ‘92 in which countries are free to surveille each other with the idea being that this openness will prevent another war. That we don’t have to spy to see that someone is building a nuclear weapon, we are allowed to openly fly over each other’s country. And now Russia is asking to fly over our country with these new digital cameras that are much better—they are asking to upgrade their surveillance planes as they fly over the U.S. So that was a new disturbing article. There is always something, whether it is surveillance or drones. There is always something that tempts me away from work I should be doing!
SG: The Metropolitan Opera in New York has commissioned you to adapt Grounded into an opera with Tony Award-winner Jeanine Tesori. Will this be your first time writing an opera?
GB: It is. I wrote some musicals when I was first starting out in Chicago that were maybe more send-ups of musicals than true musicals. I wrote one about the carver of Mount Rushmore that was a satire of the bio-musical. I am certainly excited to be working with Jeanine, who is just fabulous. We are just in the beginning stages of figuring out how exactly we are going to do, what angle we are going to take. I’m getting a crash course now, watching as much opera and reading as many librettos as I can.
SG: It may be too early to answer this but how do you approach making Grounded sing?
GB: Paul Cremo, who is the head of new opera development at the MET, saw Grounded in its initial New York production with Page 73. He wrote me the nicest email and said that the show is almost one long aria, so that got him thinking. He brought Jeanine to the show at a couple different theatres, then we started talking more seriously. It will definitely stay the Pilot’s story but the challenge is how to keep the focus on this one person’s perspective, while at the same time, trying to explore the world more and introduce other voices. We can’t ask someone to sing by themselves for an hour and a half, particularly opera. How do we get these other factors in there? Do we add a chorus? Does her husband sing? Does her child sing? There are a bunch of questions that we haven’t answered yet. We’re just kicking things around right now. Jeanine has some great ideas and I think it should be really fun to work on.
SG: I hear you started as an actor. How did you fall into the world of playwriting?
GB: I started as an actor while in undergrad at Northwestern. My junior year, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join him in adapting King Kong for the stage - in the smallest space on campus! It was a very ambitious production, with Claymation, animation and a green screen, which was a blast. When I graduated from NU and moved into Chicago, I grew increasingly frustrated, feeling like I wasn’t getting the parts that I wanted, and writing came to mind. In fact, the first few plays I did in Chicago were all about me giving myself the parts that I wanted to play. It was a fairly selfish beginning! As things went on, I accumulated a group of actors around me that wanted to perform in the plays, so I stepped away from the acting part. Then, when I met my wife Laura Kepley [current Artistic Director of the Cleveland Play House], a much better director than I am, I took myself out of that chair as well.
SG: And you went to The University of Texas at Austin, correct?
GB: That’s right, UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. I had a fantastic time there and couldn’t have been happier with the professors. I left there with a couple plays that I am really happy with, the mentorship I needed, and the confidence to call myself a playwright.
SG: What do you draw inspiration from as a writer? Do you read something in the newspaper and think that would be a great idea for a play?
GB: I try to remain open to any possibility as far as inspiration. Historical events interest me, strange little pockets of history. Elephant's Graveyard, for example, is based on this bizarre moment 100 years ago in Tennessee, where a small town decided to execute a rogue circus elephant by hanging her. So bizarre. Grounded would be an example of present day interests. Sometimes it will come from a more personal place — I’m happy to take inspiration from anywhere. I try to read as much as I can, whether it is news articles or books to see what sparks my interest. Sometimes it will take years before my subconscious — which is constantly working on many of these things — comes up with what to do about it.
SG: What are you working on next?
GB: Well, we have the aforementioned opera to work on. I am also working on a commission called Breeches for Trinity Repertory Company that I am excited about. It’s about a theatre during World War II that is going to go dark because all of its ensemble are off fighting, but the wife of the Artistic Director decides that she is going to keep the theatre open and enlists a bunch of her female cohorts to take on the rest of the season. I have a play going up in the winter at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York called Marie and Rosetta, about Sister Rosetta Tharpe who was a gospel blues musician who had her heyday in the 30s and 40, really pushed the boundaries of what was accepted in gospel music. She dressed very demurely, usually in heels and a long gown, and then strapped on this electric guitar and just wailed away. Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley have all cited her as being a huge influence. She was bigger than Mahalia Jackson at one point but for whatever reason we don’t know Rosetta Tharpe today. I am so intrigued by her and the idea that some people are remembered in this country and others aren’t. We get fascinated by pop and gospel singers and then discard them just as easily. That said, it’s been such a pleasure to work on – it has such a different tone than Grounded and is about people that love each other and love making music. I suppose I should probably write more plays like that—it would keep me in a better mood!