I fell in love with GROUNDED immediately when I read it and knew that we had to present this topical piece to a Brussels audience. Drones, surveillance, work-life balance; the topics that the play addresses are in our daily news and are shaping the way we live our lives in the 21st century. Drones, surveillance and work-life do not sound like a very appealing subject matter for a play until, that is, we look closer at the human elements behind these topics. And this is the beauty of George Brant's script: he gives us a relatable, albeit flawed, persona through whose eyes we explore these weighty themes. We see her grapple with these and witness the psychological effect of the work of a drone operator, something that we hear little about. This play opens a fascinating window into that experience.
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Theatre includes: An Oak Tree (Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh), Strategic Love Play (Soho Theatre/Paines Plough/Belgrade Theatre), Scenes with girls; That is Not Who I Am; Collect, Cumin, Coriander, Chardonnay and Cashews; Maryland; Living Newspaper (Royal Court), How to Build A Wax Figure (The Pleasance/November Theatre), Connect; The Divide (The Old Vic), Square Rounds (Finborough Theatre), Mary Stuart (Almeida), Men (Arcola).
Television includes: Damage, The Crown S4, Bridgerton (Netflix), Soulmates (AMC), Doc Martin (ITV).
Film includes: Emma.
George Brant’s plays include Grounded, Marie and Rosetta, Into the Breeches!, Elephant’s Graveyard, The Prince of Providence, Tender Age, The Land of Oz, Dark Room, Grizzly Mama, Good on Paper, The Mourners’ Bench, Salvage, Three Voyages of the Lobotomobile, Any Other Name, Defiant, Miracle: A Tragedy, Ashes, NOK, The Lonesome Hoboes, All Talk, One Hand Clapping, The Royal Historian of Oz, Lovely Letters, Three Men in a Boat, Borglum! The Mount Rushmore Musical, Tights on a Wire and Night of the Mime.
Brant's work has been produced internationally by such companies as the Public Theater, The Atlantic Theater Company, Trinity Repertory Company, Cleveland Play House, The Alley Theatre, Studio Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory, City Theatre, Gate Theatre of London, Page 73, Traverse Theatre, Dobama Theatre, and the Disney Channel, among others.
His plays have been generously developed by the Metropolitan Opera, The Playwrights' Center, Asolo Rep, McCarter Theatre Center, New Harmony Project, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, WordBRIDGE Playwright’s Lab, InterAct Theatre, Theatre @ Boston Court, Playwright and Director Center of Moscow, Florida Studio Theatre, Contemporary Drama Festival of Hungary, the Hangar Theatre, and Equity Library Theatre, among others.
His scripts have been awarded a Lucille Lortel Award, an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, a Scotsman Fringe First Award, an Off-West End Theatre Award for Best Production, an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, the Smith Prize, the Keene Prize for Literature, a Theatre Netto Festival Prize, a Creative Workforce Fellowship, the David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center and three Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. He has received writing fellowships from the James A. Michener Center for Writers, the McCarter Theatre Sallie B. Goodman Artist's Retreat, the MacDowell Colony, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Hermitage Artists' Retreat and the Blue Mountain Center as well as commissions from the Metropolitan Opera, Trinity Repertory Company, Dobama Theatre and Theatre 4, and Cleveland Play House .
George received his MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. He is published by Samuel French, Oberon Books, Fisher Verlage and Smith & Kraus.
Emma Howlett is a director and writer based in London. She has staged largescale revivals at major regional venues in the UK such as Lucy Prebble’s ‘Enron’ at the Oxford Playhouse, and Michael Frayn’s ‘Copenhagen’ at Theatre Royal Bath, and has assisted distinguished British directors such as Polly Findlay and Stephen Unwin.
Emma is the Artistic Director of TheatreGoose, a creative collective staging bold new and classic works rooted in movement and a recognisable aesthetic, which she formed whilst at university. TheatreGoose’s acclaimed debut professional show, 'Her Green Hell', written and directed by Howlett, opened at VAULT Festival in February 2023, transferred to Summerhall at the Edinburgh Fringe for four weeks in August, and will tour the UK in 2024. Her Green Hell was longlisted for the prestigious BBC Writersroom Popcorn Award for New Writing at the Fringe, and will receive mentorship from BBC Commissioners for TV adaptation.
Howlett has a BA in Ancient and Modern History from the University of Oxford, and an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies from the University of Cambridge, graduating in 2020.
Ellie Wintour is a set designer and artist based in London.
As a designer, work includes: set design for Porridge Radio’s albums Waterslide, Diving Board (2022), Every Bad (2020) on UK tour; For a Palestinian at Camden People’s Theatre; A Guest at Vault’s Festival; Her Green Hell at Summerhall & Vaults Festival.
As an associate designer, work includes: An Atlas of Es Devlin at the Cooper Hewitt; Salamander at Brisbane festival; The Crucible at the National Theatre & The Gielgud Theatre; A Different Stage on UK tour; Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia US tour; Here Not Here at Gothenburg Opera House; and, as an assistant to Davy String, Dorian Gray and Twist! at the New Wimbledon theatre.
Sarah Spencer is a composer and sound designer based in London and Berlin. She has worked on a range of projects across Film (Tunnelen, 2020) TV (Sorgenfresser 2020), Radio (In His Kiss, 2019) and sound installation (EMPRES collective, 2021). As composer and lyricist, she worked on Samauel French published musical, 'How to Save a Rock' (2020).
Sarah is Resident Composer for London-based theatre companies Freight Theatre, TheatreGoose, and co-director of cabaret collective Beware the Dogs. In 2023, Sarah is touring the UK and Norway with theatre company Rhum and Clay as pianist and composer.
Ed is a lighting designer for live performance, including theatre, dance, opera, fashion shows and festivals. Having previously been an assistant to leading lighting designers at Glyndebourne Opera Festival, English Touring Theatre and Manchester Royal Exchange, in 2022, Ed was appointed ‘Lumiere’ by the UK Association of Lighting and Production Design.
Earlier this year, Ed lit choreographer Holly Blakey’s ‘Cowpuncher My Ass’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall. He was associate lighting designer to Malcolm Rippeth on a co-production of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ in partnership with Garsington Opera, Irish National Opera, and Sante Fe, and was associate to Josh Harriette on Richard Chappell’s explosive dance work ‘Hot House’.
Over the summer, Ed returned to Glastonbury for a second year to light the San Remo stage, before heading to Opera Holland Park to collaborate on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He lit A&E, a new opera from duo Muelas+Ward, which played at London’s Arcola Theatre for their summer festival.
Since assisting in the spring for London and Paris fashion weeks, Ed lit a runway show of his own for Saul Nash’s Spring ‘24 collection, which was presented at the ICA in June. In the autumn, Ed will light a number of presentations for the British Fashion Council showcase as part of London fashion week at the Old Selfridge’s Hotel.
Back in September, we sat down with the author of GROUNDED, George Brant, to hear about the beginnings of the play, its development and its future.
You can listen to the full interview with George Brant on this month’s episode of our podcast, How to Build a Theatre
I live in Michigan now but I grew up in the Chicagoland area. I actually started out as an actor and did some writing in college, but mostly with acting as the focus. And when I graduated college, I wasn't getting the roles that I wanted. And so I was like, “oh, I could write the roles that I want.” So, the first few plays that I wrote were pretty much for myself and to showcase my own acting. And then things went from there and over time I phased myself out of the acting over time. They were mostly comedies when I started out. I don't know what happened, but over time, it does seem that the dramas are outweighing the comedies, although I would love to do more comedies because they definitely put you in a better mood.
Because of my background as an actor, my primary goal is to write great parts for people. That was certainly true for GROUNDED. I think part of the fun was to write a role that was really meaty and juicy for somebody and to give them a showcase that maybe they wouldn't otherwise get to do. A lot of the women who've played this part say they are usually not asked to be this aggressive persona that the pilot is. Another play of mine, Into The Breeches! is a World War II comedy in which the women take over the theatre because the men are away and they end up doing Shakespeare’s iconic male roles. And, again, in this I was trying to give roles to people that are fun.
I probably started out with more male leads in my plays and then over time it has switched over. I think with GROUNDED, in particular, there was a feeling that we've seen war through the male persona for thousands of years, and we have all these stories from that perspective. Marrying a female soldier, which is a newer phenomenon, with this new technology seemed like an exciting combination.
A lot of it is definitely research: reading lots of interviews with female pilots and trying to get into that headspace. In one interview, the pilot says that she is not trying to be a guy but that the pilot is basically its own gender, in her eyes. And that was really intriguing to me and acted as my thesis statements as I was writing. The acting background also helps: you have to be pretty open as an actor, and you have to be very empathetic to figure out how to be somebody else. Having to feel as if I'd be able to play the part opens up one's receptors and one's empathetic feelings and you try to get inside the skin of whoever you're portraying as best you can.
I was very curious about drones when we first started hearing about them. I wrote the first draft of this in 2011, back when it was still considered a top secret programme and there was not much information out there. But the more they kept getting used in combat, the more I was curious; what are these things and how do they operate? I couldn't quite figure out a way into the subject matter until I started reading about the PTSD that pilots were unexpectedly facing. The whole project was being sold to us in America as: here's the best of all worlds; we're not putting any of our pilots in danger and these weapons are the most precise that we've ever had. And that all sounded great, but then I started to read articles about the unexpected mental strain this was putting on pilots and, indeed, that the UAV pilots were experiencing PTSD at the same rate as traditional pilots. I had no idea at the time that drones could be flown from here in the States overseas. I assumed they were flown from the country they were operating in. And that really blew my mind. That idea of that kind of disassociation and yet connection with something that's thousands of miles away. And is combat even fair if you're thousands miles away from your target? And then the last thing that intrigued me was this idea that because they're flown from here in the States, and there's not really a need for barracks, so these pilots could actually go home at night; this was a whole other way of fighting war. That seemed to me a really rich area to explore; this idea that you potentially could have killed enemy targets during the day and then go home to your family.
It depends on what is going on in the world at that moment. Sometimes different elements of the plays will highlight themselves a little more depending on current events. But when I wrote it, it almost felt like a science fiction play and some of the things seem less science fiction-y now.
There have been some directors, for example, who are most drawn to the surveillance aspects of the play; this idea that we're being seen, we are so surveilled in our day-to-day lives. And I think that creepy feeling that you're being watched all the time is one that sometimes can stand out. Certainly in the past 10 years there have only been more cameras and more of that all around us. I think the surveillance aspect that's only grown.
And then the ubiquity of these drones has certainly increased. And now we have different kinds of drones: suicide drones, naval drones, insect-sized surveillance drones.I mean, it's really trippy how much the technology has progressed. But I think that only highlights the concerns of the play.
Certainly, the aspect of work-life balance that we all try to achieve has also grown in significance. Unfortunately, our pilot is undergoing probably the worst example of how to maintain that. And that struggle is something that we're always going to feel: how much time can you devote to your family and when you have a demanding job? She's in a worst case scenario of that. And how you feel fulfilled in what you do and how much of that is what you do and how much is your family. I think these are certain concerns that have more eternal qualities.
It's been about 10 years in the making. Pretty soon after the play debuted in New York, I was contacted by the Metropolitan Opera. Then there was a little matchmaking period and Janine Tatsori and I met and had dinner a few times and chatted about it and she decided she wanted to take it on. And we took it from there. It was quite a challenge to expand this so much from what is a one person play into a very big canvas opera. We spent a lot of time in the Met staring at this empty stage and figuring out how to fill it. We even had one of the actresses who played the part before donate her time and read about 20 minutes of the play from the Met stage. Janine really wanted to hear what it sounded like in that space and what it looked like for one person to be up there. And then we just dreamed big. The challenge was to hold the focus on her while at the same time, you can only ask so much vocally of one person. So figuring out how to give her at least some breaks within this sprawling piece. It's now a very choral piece. This is my first libretto and my first opera experience behind the scenes so it's gonna be really interesting to see how this all works.
[GROUNDED the opera opened on 28 October 2023.]
Our Post-Show Talks take place in the theatre auditorium just after the end of the play. Grab a drink and join us for some head food in a curated series of discussions, framed around the themes of the play. Talks last 30-45 minutes and are free to attend.
Emma Howlett, Director of GROUNDED, on her vision for the play
Letty Thomas, The Pilot in GROUNDED on preparing for a role
Adeline Torcol, Consultant and trainer on stress management and resilience, former diplomat
Service before self: the challenge of mental health in hardship posting
Maria Peteinoudi, Defence/International Relations expert
Breaking barriers: striving as a woman in male-dominated work environments
Stef de Paepe, theatre director, producer, actor and writer and Renée Goethijn, Theatermaker and professor at RITCS (Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound).
The Influence of Technology on Theatre
Roel van den Sigtenhorst, General Director, Muntpunt
Safe Public Spaces in a turbulent digital age
Myriam Broeders, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft Belgium-Luxembourg, Candidate Reserve Officer at the Belgian Army
I’m in the army now - my story of being a reservist in the Belgian CyberCommand, a CTO and a mother of three
Dave Keating, journalist (ranked as the number one EU social media influencer for 2023)
How technology influences journalism
Alexandros Yannis, European External Action Service, European Union
War and Technology: Old Anxieties and New Nightmares - A diplomat’s perspective
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We are still finalising details for our Summer School 2024, our highly popular programme for 10-18-year-olds, but since so many of you were asking us when registration opens, we decided to open "pre-registration" already :).