By Jerome Langston
“I got wild in New York!” That’s almost the opening line of director Laley Lippard’s part of our recent conversation about Grounded, the last full run play of Virginia Stage Company’s current season. Lippard is not yet here, of course ─ she flies into Norfolk tomorrow, but more importantly, the New York “turn up” reference relates to last weekend’s events, in celebration of her birthday. Apparently there was merriment ─ some fine dining, drinking, dancing and play hopping…for days.
It’s also cool to learn that Lippard grew up in Hampton Roads, having attended Cox High School, and having been raised by a mother who was a professor at Old Dominion University. Lippard has quietly been a part of VSC’s extended family for years, having even performed on stage at the Wells, as a student. Now the current executive producer of the Chicago Home Theater Festival gets to finally do what she’s wanted to do for a while, and that’s to direct a play for Virginia Stage. She discovered the perfect one in Grounded.
“The language of this play…completely transported me,” she says, with clearly sincere passion. “I read it in one go. I never lifted my eyes off the page, and I was totally engulfed by this woman’s story… The pilot is so funny ─ just so fierce, and tender, and brave.”
“It’s about her single journey, as she attempts to be loyal to all of these different worlds,” continues Lippard. “What Brant puts at the core of the play is the piercing humanity of one American fighter pilot.”
It’s interesting to note that the pilot in this stage work is unnamed, so to speak. It’s a one woman play, with no intermission, so there’s that. However, her life as an ace fighter pilot, who is now relegated to operating military drones from her Las Vegas locale, is clearly articulated via her reflections as a mother and wife. “I grew up around service men and women,” recalls Lippard. Being from Hampton Roads, with its military iconography, makes that very likely for most of us here. The play, a drama, honors those men and women, she believes.
“It’s both this personal and intimate story and it also kind of reaches through time and place to talk about the experience of the warrior,” Lippard says. “And what’s so fascinating about it, right─ is that it’s a feminine perspective.”
Which is also fascinating to note, is that the writer of this strong, multi-dimensional female character is very much…a man. The Cleveland based award-winning playwright, George Brant, explains the genesis of Grounded. “I started out with a general interest in drones,” he says, during a recent phone interview. His research would later lead to many discoveries, including the existence of the drone program in Las Vegas.
“…Vegas being such a surreal place to begin with, where you know, you got a fake Paris and fake New York…and so the idea that this program was there, as well, is kind of unreal,” he opines. Brant also discovered that PTSD rates for drone pilots are similar to those of standard fighter pilots.
The emotional ramifications of military drone piloting, where you are dropping bombs on foreign country deserts, is explored here in Grounded. Since premiering just several years ago, Grounded has been, rather miraculously, produced by over fifty companies, including in the UK. It has received almost universal praise from prestigious pubs like The New York Times, The Nation, The Telegraph and the Guardian. And it was also popularly produced by The Public Theater in 2015, under the direction of filmmaker Julie Taymor. That production starred Oscar winner, Anne Hathaway, and was notable for its higher scale of production.
“The play has almost no stage direction, so it’s a pretty open book, a clean slate for a director and actor and designers to decide what they want to do with it,” Brant explains. As far as the VSC production is concerned, the playwright is “excited about the production,” as he’s had multiple conversations with Lippard about her vision for the play. He’s also heard a lot of good things about actress Kate MacCluggage, who stars in VSC’s production of Grounded. “I think it should be a good combination with the two of them.”
“She just blew me away,” explains Lippard, regarding the casting of the NYC actress, who is new to both VSC and the role. “I feel so honored to be sharing this experience with her, because she strikes me as someone who is fearless.”
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