Technology and its ensuing impersonalization of our lives is making waves onto the stage at Manbites Dog Theater.
“Grounded,” a one-woman show by playwright George Brant, will open tonight in the downtown Durham theater space. The production is brought to life by actor Madeleine Lambert (T'08) and director Talya Klein (T'02), both Duke graduates who subsequently attended Brown University/Trinity Repertory MFA program.
While Brant’s previous plays never saw the national spotlight, “Grounded” has erupted globally as a phenomenon in theater. After winning the 2012 Smith Prize, which honors new plays on American politics and receiving a Fringe First Award at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, “Grounded” has elevated Brant’s prominence as a playwright to new heights.
Audiences everywhere have been held captive by the play, a monologue about the life of an F-16 pilot whose unexpected pregnancy results in her reassignment to controlling drone strikes.
“What’s really captivating about ['Grounded'] is that it looks at modern technology in relationship to war. Throughout the play, the audience understands the psychological ramifications and repercussions of drone warfare and the effect it has on [the pilot],” Lambert said.
While technology may seem to have created an increasingly impersonal war—marked by the notion that the push of a button can decimate targets millions of miles removed—“Grounded” turns this idea on its head. It's often easy for audience members to simply sit back and observe the show rather than personally invest in the narrative. But in not specifying the race or name of the pilot, Brant doesn’t allow for such disengagement; he forces every audience member into the pilot's shoes.
“What’s most amazing about her is that she doesn’t have to be a woman. George is allowing this woman to be every character…and that a woman’s voice can legitimately be the voice of every drone pilot…is revolutionary,” Klein said.
“We always look for excuses to say, 'That’s not me, that could never be me, her choices are not my choices,’” Klein continued.
But at the end of the day, the play compels audiences to identify with the pilot. In Lambert’s words, “You’re on a ride with her. You’re on a journey with her.”
While “Grounded” is a political play, it lacks a political agenda and motives. Instead, it raises a great deal of questions on technology, warfare and morality, brought to the fore by a character that is extremely ingrained in the military system.
“I think people with any sort of political interest will come to the play and find themselves shaken up by it,” Klein said. But at its heart, “Grounded” simply focuses on the pilot and the honesty of her story, which Klein described as “refreshing” and “very real.”
“The play is political, it’s personal, it’s scary, it’s moving and it’s…surprisingly funny. She’s got moxie, she’s got gut and she’s also a mother. That’s a big part of the play too, how she plays the role of the pilot and how she plays the role of a mother and a wife,” Lambert said.
To bring such a complex play to life is no small feat. Both Lambert and Klein are well-seasoned in all aspects of theater, having previously acted and directed, respectively, at both Manbites Dog and Duke.
“Duke is such a renaissance study of theatre. When I was at Duke, I directed, I acted, I produced, and that…has made me a complete artist,” Lambert said.
While Duke and Manbites are not officially affiliated, Jeff Storer, Duke faculty and director at Manbites, has encouraged student participation in the theater company's productions.
“Jeff really pushes cutting-edge plays that really ask questions, plays that make you uncomfortable, plays that push boundaries, and that’s such a great gift to the Durham and Duke community. I love that Duke is involved with Manbites,” Lambert said.
Klein added, “Manbites Dog is a rare gem. It’s a magic space."
This magical space is precisely where audience members can enter into the world of the pilot in “Grounded,” whose story will be told by nothing more than a “folding chair, a Pepsi bottle and Madeleine,” as Klein put it.
"Grounded" will be on show at Manbites Dog Theater beginning Thurs., March 20 through Sat., April 5. For showtimes, ticketing and more information, visit the theater's website.