Broadway World

By Jade Kops

Director Kirsten Von Bibra gives — Sydney an insight into The Seymour Centre, Red Stitch and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney's upcoming production of George Brant's award winning play Grounded.

Grounded deals with challenging and unique emotions as the sole character, a female F16 fighter pilot must give up her flying due to pregnancy and continues to serve by flying remote-controlled drones. Von Bibra shared that both her own, and actor Kate Cole's "ultimate objective" is to be "authentic" and have therefore undertaken a great degree of research to understand the world that the character lived in as an American Fighter Pilot and the language of the subject.

The two met with a retired American Fighter Pilot who had served in Germany during the Cold War where she recalls that his first words were "First, you must understand about the blue", a phrase that Brant uses at the beginning of the play, relating to the blue of the sky at 80,000 feet, a colour unknown of on earth. Von Bibra recounts that the former pilot shared the "intensity of his flying all those decades ago" with a "fierce intelligence and acuity". This insight helped Von Bibra and Cole get into the mind of the character which operated in a 'world' that neither had any "personal familiarity".

The work also addresses issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), drone operation, women in the military, and US Military strategy and operations, plus other related topics so further research was undertaken to understand the subject matter which Cole combines with her own personal life experiences and her imagination to create the role.

Von Bibra shares that "the very particular layout of the words on the page and the craft of the language" struck her when she first read the play and the "striking interplay between form and content" prompted her to direct the work. She notes that the script has very little punctuation and is written in verses or stanzas which occasionally change to prose for "significant emotional junctions". Brant uses a "purposeful use of repetition of key words, use of similes, of colour, of song and sound, of vernacular as well as biblical resonance" to create the pace and depth of the work. Von Bibra feels that Brant has blended codes into the play which can only be understood by looking below the surface and has adopted an effective method of dealing with "ethically complex" material without "risking a moral high ground". The subject matter of warfare and new technology, often explored from the male point of view, is approached from a rare point of view with the female fighter pilot as her experiences prompt the audience to think or re think the effect of evolving strategies utilising the armed drones.

Whilst Von Bibra's personal connection to the play extends only so far as a great uncle killed in World War 2 in "unethical circumstances when he was shot after having surrendered to the enemy", research has allowed a broader insight into warfare, the military and its complexities. The research has allowed Von Bibra to gain a better understanding of the changes in how wars are fought and won from the early days of thrown rocks to not even having to be present on a battlefront.

Whilst Grounded is being staged around the world including Broadway, Germany, Israel and many other cities, Von Bibra states that she wants her work to shy away from the notion of viewers "taking away" a message but rather to challenge the audience's way of thinking and drive them to ask questions and want to learn more as new issues are raised. She feels there is a similarity with Homer's The Odyssey which where Odysseus' hubris and acumen is challenged as Brant's character goes on a "physiological journey" that explores her "sense of self and her moral compass".

Von Bibra went on to highlight the work of Jonathan Shay, clinical psychiatrist who drew a parallel between war trauma his patients suffered and Homer's Achilles in The Iliad to re-examine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the use of the terms 'mortal terror' (the lasting effects of living in constant fear for one's life) and 'moral injury' (the lasting effects of guilt due to what the individual has done). If anything, she would like the audience to reflect on the relationship between the organisation (the military) and the individual (the pilot), the responsibility they have to each other and the question of what happens when that responsibility isn't met. These issues, particularly the concept of moral injury have shaped how Von Bibra and Cole have approached the analysis of the work and how they have interpreted the pilot's experiences.

For the benefit of our readers, BWW also asked if Von Bibra found the process of directing a sole character more challenging than an ensemble cast. Whilst Von Bibra felt that the difference depends on the work and the way it is approached and presented, the monodrama requires an intense focus on the sole character and the director must work with the actor to delve into the psychological and "interior world" of that character. Brant does provide stage directions in his script that required the director and actor to make defined choices about how they would interpret his directions as each choice affects the understanding and the location in time.

Von Bibra found that a significant challenge in the process of bringing Grounded to stage was the "psychological shading" where the "light and dark" is sculpted to mould the interpretation. She had to decide which aspects of the pilot's life would be considered more important from the passion for flying, her role as a loving mother and wife, and her duty to serve the military, all coloured by her own ethics. Furthermore, Von Bibra then had to determine at what point do the psychological challenges start to become clearer and how they should be portrayed.

The most enjoyable parts of the process for Von Bibra were collaborating with Cole as they delved into Brant's language and explored deeper meanings to his words and how the spoken word was delivered. She also cites that working with the creative team was an additional enjoyable component as she combined with stage and lighting designers to convey the pilot's "mental landscape" and "growing sense of unease" as per Brant's instructions.

This article was originally published at Broadway World