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Waging War on a Video Screen

The Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Grounded’ depicts the costs of drone warfare

Feb. 14, 2017
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In the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s upcoming production of George Brant’s play Grounded, actress Jessi Fisher plays a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot given desk duty after she becomes pregnant while on leave. She marries the guy, gives birth to a daughter and returns to service; but rather than fly, she’s assigned to a drone trailer in the desert outside Las Vegas. For 12 hours every day, she fixes her gaze on a video screen, ready to respond to what she sees there in ways that will have real, and possibly drastic, consequences for people on the other side of the world. She’s a soldier in war via video screen who goes home to her family and household responsibilities each night. 

In the 70 uninterrupted minutes we spend in her company, the straight-taking Pilot—Brant leaves her unnamed—speaks directly to the audience about that experience. We start to understand drone warfare, its benefits and costs. The script wastes no words; it’s brisk, shocking, enthralling, harrowing, crazy—great playwriting, in other words. Sometimes I’d forget to breathe while reading it.

I know, I know. With so many issues to grapple with now, who wants to think about drone attacks? But understanding any aspect of our complicated new age can be calming; picturing the kind of war and espionage our country is conducting, as I did reading the play, made me feel saner. If you care about the country, you’ll likely be grateful for Grounded.

“I think it’s never a bad time to investigate what technology does to people,” Fisher said at the end of a rehearsal last week. “I’m interested in the idea of screens in front of us, whether it’s your phone, a computer or a screen in a drone trailer. It’s such a push and pull, making us feel incapable of doing anything and allowing us to escape by disconnecting from reality. It’s an interesting question: How are we active or inactive behind our screens? That’s a big part of what fascinates me, scares me, excites me and motivates me with this show.”

Director Laura Braza, a Mequon native and current artistic director of Attic Theatre Company in Downtown Manhattan, pointed to the play’s theatrical premise. “There’s something really satisfying about the athletic marathon this is for Jessi, talking so directly to the audience and engaging them in every moment, continually reaching out to them to know whether they’re with her, in a play that is about staring at a screen and feeling inactive.” 

“As an artist, you want to keep growing, so I pick things that scare me and this scares me,” Fisher said about the challenge. “As actors, we rely on scene partners; that’s why I love acting. I love bouncing off my scene partners and having them remind me of what matters. But here you have this sea of partners in front of you, constantly changing, who will always surprise you. You have to really see and hear and feel them, the same way you would a partner on stage. And you don’t get to rehearse with them; you just do it on the night.”

“The way this story travels,” she continues, “is, you have moments when it’s like listening to a campfire story, moments when you feel you’re talking with your best friend at a bar, moments when you feel like you’re part of the action, you’re experiencing it. It lets you go in and out, and you ask a lot of questions about identity and family, who we are when we keep those separate and when they start bleeding together.”

“It’s the crazy emotional journey of a woman who continues to disconnect so she has to claw her way back to engaging,” Braza said. “It’s such an unfair thing to ask of a person, to balance these two worlds day in and day out—the responsibility, the guilt, the weight you carry around knowing it’s not a fair fight. It’s good to come at these issues from the perspective of one person’s experience. I think it’s a really gentle, healthy way to start the conversation about this. It’s an interesting play to be rehearsing right now. We take a lot of breaks where we look at our screens and say, this is actually happening.”

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Grounded Feb. 22-April 2 at the Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. The Rep is offering a 25% discount on tickets for active-duty military personnel, veterans, children of active-duty military and military spouses. Vets and volunteer counselors will provide support to make the show accessible to all military personnel and veterans who attend. Every performance includes a pre-show conversation with the artist team 45 minutes before curtain time. Patrons can bring non-perishable food items to the lobby to donate to the Wisconsin Homeless Veterans Initiative. Call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.org for tickets.

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