By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If you haven't heard of George Brant's play Grounded, then you should jot down the name. No matter where you live, it's probably coming to a theatre near you.
It's playing right now, in fact, in an Off Broadway production from Page 73 at Walkerspace. In just a few days, it's also opening in Kansas City, Missouri, and by June, when it bows in Australia, the play will have had 10 productions around the world, all of them in less than 10 months.
That makes Grounded, a one-person drama about a female fighter pilot who is reassigned to operate a military drone, one of the most produced plays of the season, which is especially remarkable when you consider that it's still brand new. Most of the time, a play gets 10 productions about a year after it proves itself, not at the very beginning of its life, when the writer is still tweaking the script.
That puts Brant in a fascinating position. As any playwright will tell you, it's impossible to know if a show really works until it plays in front of an audience, and often, it's the second or third production that clarifies what should stay and what should go. However, many new plays struggle to get mounted even a second time, which is why organizations like the National New Play Network try to shepherd multiple stagings of a script. (Grounded was chosen for NNPN's Rolling World Premiere program, which begat the Kansas City run, as well as last year's productions in San Francisco and Tucson. Page 73 found the script when Brant applied for a fellowship with the company in 2012.)
Brant has discovered, though, that an abundance of productions creates its own challenges. "I've still been tinkering with the play in New York and Kansas City, but it's interesting because since I've been living with this script, I have to be careful that I'm not changing stuff just to change it," he says. "It's tempting to fall into the trap of just trying to come up with something different because you've been listening to the same thing over and over."
On the other hand, if Brant makes adjustments to the show in one city, he doesn't necessarily have to commit to them in the next. "The changes I've made in New York, I haven't passed them along to Kansas City," he says. "It'll be nice to hear the two back to back, and it will allow me to see if those changes are something I prefer."
About halfway through the show, for instance, the Pilot is lulled into near-hypnosis as she controls a drone with a joystick instead of actually flying a plane through the sky. She tells herself she's lucky to be living safely in Las Vegas with her husband and daughter, but the job is starting to crush her. Even in her sleep, she can see the colorless blob of the screen that she stares at all day, and she feels like her entire life is limited to an anonymous room on an Air Force base.
One day, though, the distant war comes tearing into her life. She witnesses some terrible things on the screen and even makes some of them happen with the push of a button. Brant is still experimenting with what she should see and what she should say, and there are certain "New York-only" moments that may never be seen again.
Similarly, the New York production has a very different design than the one in, say, San Francisco. Here, Page 73's team has created a sparse backdrop for the Pilot. Subtle light and sound cues are occasionally used, but for the most part, our focus is entirely on the actress (Hannah Cabell) and her words. In the San Francisco version, the stage was more like a runway, with a sandy "desert" on one end and a large projection screen on the other. Ultimately, every production has had a unique design concept, and they've all taught Brant something about the show.
The same is true of the many actresses who have played the Pilot, and Brant has to be careful not to treat the latest performance like the definitive one. "As I've been working with Hannah in New York and learning more and more about what she can do, I've had this temptation to tailor the script to her," he says. "But then I remember there's another actor in Kansas City. I have to sit back and say, 'Well, is this what the script actually needs?'"
On the other hand, he adds, "It's helpful knowing that the script has worked in the hands of a previous actor, which gives you a little more confidence. If something is difficult in rehearsal, you know the actor will eventually get there. You don't need to rush in and change it."
And that's no small thing. Even though Brant says he's going to "hang up his pen" on this play after Kansas City, he can be confident that when he sends it to Australia and beyond, he'll have tested it enough to know that it's doing what he wants it to do.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Rob Strong