Grounded, directed by Kirsten von Bibra, is the latest production to come out of Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors Theatre, a group that produces some of the hottest plays from around the world. Kate Cole, one of Red Stitch’s founding members, plays the solo, unnamed lead in George Brant’s highly stylised monologue. She is an F16 fighter pilot, who after proving she is a rock star in the sky, finds herself pregnant, grounded and instead resigned to operate drones from a distance, from the confines of an air conditioned room in the US desert.
I recently caught up with Cole to talk about Grounded. The narrative, ostensibly, is an exploration and if you will, critique, of the highly topical theme of the moment, modern warfare. The production, Cole explains, explores the “moral injury put upon the people who have to push the buttons and pull the triggers. Some can handle it, some can’t.” It is this moral ambiguity that plagues her character, who is suddenly detached from the act of killing, no longer on the frontline and instead operates drones, inflicting death from a distance.
“She was an F16 fighter pilot, the cream of the crop. You watch videos of fighter pilots and how they talk about what they do. It is people’s dreams to fly jets, you see them talk about it and they say ‘Its all I ever wanted to do’…And then, it is taken away from her – her vocation, everything she loves, and is just made to sit in a room and push buttons.”
Many stories have been told before about war from the perspective of men. Grounded instead offers a new perspective and raises important questions over gender roles in the military and contemporary society. Cole explains that Brant chose to focalise the narrative through a female lead as a means of examining the choices women must make, in order to balance their polar opposite, dichotomous selves. Her character struggles with the “idea of home life being nurturing, protecting, loving versus I go to war and I kill.”
It is in this sense that the production also explores the inner war that wages inside each of us. “It’s the worse case scenario for the question of whether it is possible to be in two different places at once for those trying to have it all.” The lead is a “fully fleshed out human being. She can be a son of a bitch and she can be amazing.”
It is the exploration of these internal conflicts that women experience which Cole finds refreshing. “I’m so sick of boxed in caricatures of what women are. Just because women have babies doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy dropping bombs. They do!” The narrative, Cole believes, will speak to “anyone who has to go to work and deal with high stress jobs and if they have families at home and then have to be another person – this play is an extreme version of that.”
Grounded is an examination of the new kind of warfare that has emerged, where those who kill are disconnected, but at the same time are seeing it up close. The use of drones to conduct military operations not only redefines the way warfare is conducted, but also raises questions surrounding security and surveillance and it is these themes that underscore the narrative. The idea around drones, Cole explains, is to be more accurate, resulting in less collateral damage and reduced combat. Often, however, this results in pre-emptive strikes, where the mentality prevails that “we have heard you are up to no good, so we are going to get you before you get us.” But is there a price to pay for gaining too much information? Grounded raises very timely and important questions surrounding the morality of contemporary war and explores the internal conflict that wages inside those who kill in the name of their country.
Grounded runs from 11th June – 12th July at Red Stitch Actors Theatre, St Kilda East.