Drone strikes by the United States seemed to be in the news only sporadically in 2011, when George Brant chanced on a statistic that said the Obama administration was using them at least four times more than the pace they were employed by President George W. Bush. His curiosity ignited, the playwright delved into the subject and emerged with "Grounded," an award-winning play that explores the life of someone who pushes a kill button while 8,000 miles from the target, then goes home to her family.
The solo play opening at City Theatre this weekend stars Kelly McAndrew ("Precious Little" at City) as the unnamed Pilot, a hot-shot flier who becomes pregnant and lands at a present-day drone-launching facility, where a day at the office is a 12-hour shift checking spy data from drones -- and also might include the order to kill.
The play juxtaposes the job with the Pilot's military and family lives and how one affects the other.
"I had a hard time deciding how to proceed when I thought of the play as a normal group of scenes with a number of other characters and moving between home and work. I realized that back and forth might be a little hard to dramatize if I went the way of a conventional play. And then Pilot can't talk about her work with her family, so you'd wind up with a lot of quiet scenes with very heavy subtext," Mr. Brant said.
When he settled on a one-woman show, it was freeing in terms of time, location and the inner life of someone in Pilot's position.
The play won the National New Play Network's 2012 Smith Prize for a new play on American political themes and was produced in San Francisco, Arizona and Kansas City, Mo. Before it hit New York to positive reviews, it won the Fringe First award at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and went on to a twice-extended run in September at the Gate Theater in London. In a New York Times piece on the play, it was noted that The London Evening Standard and The Guardian both listed "Grounded" among their top 10 plays of 2013.
Mr. Brant said his work is partly riding a wave of increased interest in and concern over U.S. use of drones. Just this week, The Los Angeles Times, reporting on tensions in Yemen, said "a concerted campaign of U.S. drone strikes aimed at militant figures has stirred popular anger, with outrage fueled by ever-mounting reports of civilian casualties alongside intended targets."
Initially, the playwright fed his "fascination with drone tech in general," but he wasn't sure what approach he would take to the topic. New themes emerged as he investigated further. His play explores many themes that bring up the differences between, say, a pilot who drops a bomb from on high and can't see the human damage, and a drone pilot, who may be ordered to hit specific human targets and then has a satellite close-up on what he or she has done.
"I was learning that pilots are fighting war in a new way," Mr. Brant said. "They go to work in a building on a 12-hour shift and then go home to have dinner with their families. ... There's a question of what the human psyche can handle."
He had assumed that the person controlling a drone had to be near the target.
"I had no idea they were here in America, 8,000 miles away. That really blew my mind. It takes 1.2 seconds from the instruction they give it here to program the drone. That was pretty eye-opening."
There was a different climate concerning drones when "Grounded" was first workshopped in June of 2011, Mr. Brant noted. "It still seemed like secret tech then. ... It's an open secret at this point."
Mr. Brant has lived in Cleveland in recent years, where his wife, Laura Kepley, is artistic director at the Cleveland Playhouse. He has seen his play performed in many spaces and is looking forward to the production in City's intimate Hamburg Studio Theatre.
He continues his reading and research on the subject, which he said makes it hard to put his pen down.
The latest report that caught his eye was revealed last month, when The Boston Globe reported that the Pentagon "is exploring a novel way to extend troops' attention spans and sharpen their reaction times: stimulate the brain with low levels of electricity." It's aimed at "digital warriors who must spend hours monitoring spy drone footage and other streams of surveillance data."
"They are going to give them electroshock to keep them awake," Mr. Brant said. "I think I have to find a way to use that."