*Originally written for Exeunt*
In recent months, there has been a deluge of terrifying and anger-inducing statistics about drone strikes in Waziristan killing innocent civilians and children. We have heard of unwarranted attacks on schools and offices, with only a tiny percentage of those killed being reported as high profile targets. Understandably, the coverage has focussed on the casualties rather than the perpetrators, but as George Brant’s Grounded discovers, drone strikes also have a major effect on those controlling the planes. Chris Haydon, who has directed the piece which plays at the Traverse as part of the Edinburgh Fringe this month, tells me that “drone pilots suffer from the same levels of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as fighter pilots, which is really weird because you’d think a drone pilot isn’t risking any danger, whereas fighter pilots are risking their lives… What a fighter pilot does is they drop their bombs and they’re gone. What a drone pilot does is they drop their bombs and then they linger, and they literally hover over what they’ve done and they see the death and they see the destruction. They then also have to go home every night”.
It’s this “going home every night” which is at the dramatic core of Grounded, which centres around a female drone pilot who transitions into this job from working as a fighter pilot and the way in which she deals with that change so that we “get a really strong understanding of how she is finding it much harder to do what she does – which is kill the ‘bad guys’ – when she is no longer at risk. And actually her understanding of who is guilty and who is not guilty and who is responsible and who is not responsible becomes increasingly blurred throughout the play”
The play is, in Haydon’s “crass” words, “the anti- Top Gun: it has the vibrancy and pizazz of that film but it completely turns that on its head politically and what you think you’re seeing at the beginning is completely turned round by the end”. It is a play of asymmetry – of work and life, of guilty and not guilty and of risk in war, as politicians find it far easier to sell a conflict to the public where none of “our boys” are getting killed and instead pilot-less pieces of metal do all the damage. “Drones are managing – and will continue – to completely revolutionise the way war is fought, because of that asymmetry of risk that they allow for, and that’s absolutely what the play is exploring through a very particular view of this one pilot.”
In the theatrical cockpit is Lucy Ellinson, whose political activism has come in useful during rehearsals. “I cast her because she’s an actor of exceptional skill – and that’s something I’ve come to appreciate more in this show, she just pulls stuff out of the bag – but what she also brings to it is huge political commitment. And that doesn’t just mean she comes into rehearsals with loads of facts about drones – which she does – but it actually means that she thinks through very carefully the political implications of the character choices she is making, and that’s been part of our discussion”. Ellison’s political awareness has energised and coloured what the show is, Haydon tells me, to the extent that the pair had an extended discussion about the character’s hair colour, aware that every decision they make has some implication: “it’s about what assumptions do we want an audience to make about her and how do we want to subvert those in order to distort that aspect of the play’s gender politics”.
Ellinson’s involvement has, Haydon says, allowed him to learn a great deal about his own directing style, which he’s had to adapt for this solo show. “When you’re directing a show with more than one actor, a significant part of your job as a director is to manage the room, because you have actors that work in different ways, that work at different speeds, and that have different processes internally and externally… With a solo show, that management aspect – which I’m realising by not having to do it is a huge part of directing usually – is gone. When you’re doing a multiple-actor show, essentially the contract is: the director sets the rules of engagement, because someone has to otherwise you get a complete mess. On a solo show, there’s no point me setting the rules of engagement, Lucy has to do that, as she’s the one performing every night.”
Rather than stage the show and then finesse from there to find detail, which is the way Haydon usually creates a piece, Grounded worked the other way round, beginning with exploring the “emotional and psychological objectives” before then making this work within the set, which in this case is a two-and-a-half metre cube designed by Oliver Townsend. And instead of him leading the process, the rehearsal room was far more a place of collaboration, with Ellinson utilising pictures alongside cut up units of action in order to visualise what happens to her character. “[Lucy] keeps using Minority Report as an example, saying that the bit when they’re using computers to bring images in is what she needs to do in her head to make sure that each moment comes with the right image. So she absolutely led that aspect of the process.”
The play will return to the Gate Theatre in London after Edinburgh (it had a short run of previews there before the Fringe) to play as part of a season entitled These American Lives, which also features Ethan Lipton’s No Place to Go and Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American. What unites these three plays? “Work is a thing that defines many of us. If you’re at a party, one of the first things people say is: “What do you do?” And what each of these shows does is examine the relationship between the individual and the job they do… The plays all, in their own way, speak to a current moment in a world where there is massive job insecurity. Job are vital because they put bread on the table, but they are also vital because they give you purpose and they give you an identity. If you were to pay every person who was unemployed and give them a regular wage for doing nothing, that still wouldn’t solve the psychological problem of unemployment which is you’d still have no sense of purpose or identity or individuality.” It’s this that Grounded tries to capture, contemplating how our professional lives can have an impact on our sense of self. And chatting to Haydon discussing the political and human impact of drones, his relationship with Ellinson and her effect on his working style, it’s clear that, in his case at least, the play has done just that.