By Matt Yuyitung
What happens to you when the job you love is taken away and you are forced to confront a new life that challenges your mental state?
That is what happens in the play Grounded written by the American George Brant and staged by Ottawa’s Bear and Co. at the Gladstone. The one-woman show features Alexis Scott as The Pilot.
The play tells the story of a female fighter pilot who is prevented from flying by a pregnancy. She is grounded. Then she is reassigned to a desk job where she pilots drones. In this new post she is forced to reconcile the tensions between her military duties and her family life. Her new role takes a large toll on her mental state and puts a heavy strain on her professional and personal life.
“It’s an amazingly powerful show,” says the play’s director Eleanor Crowder. “It’s an incredibly hard-hitting and sweet show at the same time in that it brings you inside the fighter pilot to the extent that you utterly empathize with her.”
The play explores themes such as drone warfare, trauma and constant surveillance. It uses paints a picture of modern warfare, one where fighters are thousands of miles away from war zones.
To prepare, Scott learned about the experiences of other drone pilots, particularly those who have been traumatized by using weaponized drones.
“Not every drone pilot gets PTSD, but there are many that have, and just watching that hit me really hard,” she said.
In the play The Pilot experiences significant mental trauma as a drone operator.
“She’s deeply traumatized by what happens, and we see that happen,” Crowder said. “We see the military persona, the front she keeps, and it lasts a long time . . . She doesn’t crack for a really long time.”
The play also focuses heavily on the humanity of those wrapped up in conflict, and this is a large factor behind The Pilot’s mental deterioration.
“(The Pilot) starts to see (the enemy) as human, as exactly the same kind of humans operating under the same set of stresses,” Crowder said.
Another important theme for Crowder and Scott was the treatment of soldiers affected by trauma.
“One thing we can do in Canada is stop treating soldiers like machines,” Crowder said. “The more everybody knows the effects of that kind of work on people, the more impetus there is to dismantle that way of working.”
Crowder noted there’s a significant number of people entering the military who enter the military “without many options.”
“We don’t treat people without many options in an honourable way at all,” she said. “Not in Canada, not in the States.”
Crowder also emphasized the theme of “the eye in the sky,” and the notion that modern military technology is capable of tracking anyone in the world at any time.
“Yes we’re here and safe, but our safety depends on that kind of surveillance, and how do we feel about that?” she said.
In the end, Crowder and Scott say the play will always hold some kind of relevance as long as there’s instability in the world, highlighting events such as the ongoing protests in Iran, the Arab Spring, and the Israel-Palestine conflict as recent examples.
For Scott, working with Bear and Co. was her first job out of theatre school. Her first role was Adriana in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. She was also Crowder’s primary choice for the main role in Grounded.
“I saw a match between Alexis and the script, and thought she’d be brilliant at it,” Crowder said, a sentiment Scott echoed.
“I read it and I had this visceral reaction to the play and I was like ‘I have to do this,’” she said.
Bear and Co. was founded in 2012 by five partners. The company’s first production was John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Bear and Co. stages a mix of classics, Shakespeare, contemporary theatre, and musicals.
According to company member Rachel Eugster, the company’s guiding principle is “compelling theatre, close to home.”
“I think we feel that if we find it compelling and meaningful, then our audience will as well,” she said. “We like the breadth of that guiding principle because it allows us to do theatre that interests us.”
“So if we choose something that we find has meaning, speaks to us, and speaks to our audience, then that’s a worthy project for Bear,” she said.
The Pilot is at The Gladstone until Jan. 27. Tickets and information: thegladstone.ca
This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.