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Meet the pregnant F-16 fighter flying drones in the Las Vegas desert

She’s the main character in one-woman show Grounded, in the Tiger Fringe this month.


She’s a hot-rod F16 fighter pilot. She’s pregnant. She’s grounded. Her career in the sky is over. Now she flies remote-controlled drones over the Middle East.
She struggles through surreal twelve-hour shifts far from the battlefield, hunting terrorists by day and returning to her family at night.
As the pressure mounts, the boundaries begin to blur.

HOLLYWOOD STAR ANNE Hathaway recently starred in the off-Broadway show Grounded, playing a US Air Force F-16 fighter pilot who’s ‘grounded’ due to pregnancy and winds up controlling drones from the Las Vegas desert.

The award-winning play – written by George Brant – is a one-woman show, with all the focus on the character and her experiences.

It follows her journey from fighter in the ‘big blue’ to being stuck in the desert, and the impact killing from afar has on her mental health.

Grounded Celebration At The Public Theater Anne Hathaway, left, and Julie Taymor attend the Grounded celebration at The Public Theatre in New York Source: Associated Press

Now the show is being brought to Ireland, with Clare Dunne starring and Selina Cartmell – fresh from By The Bog of Cats at the Abbey – directing.

Drones are somewhat controversially being used by the United States in conflict against the Middle East, and the play explores the “paranoia that goes with that when you are a drone pilot and how it eats into our subconscious, into your private life”, said Cartmell.

Find your pilot

The director of Hathaway’s play, Julie Taymor, is Cartmell’s mentor, and encouraged her to go “find your pilot”. She did so in Clare Dunne, who “is pretty extraordinary”.

For Cartmell, the play is rich: ripe with discussions of gender and war, how the pilot is grounded through pregnancy, but winds up in drone warfare.

It’s very relevant in terms of the impact of sitting in a trailer in Las Vegas for a 12-hour shift staring at a screen, how that desensitises you. You press a button and 12 hours ahead in the Middle East, you drop a bomb and kill someone. There are bigger questions around that for me: what media does to us, how we desensitise ourselves from reality.

The play brings the audience into the pilot’s private world, with her husband and child, and into her professional world of death and war.

“She still dreams of being ‘in the blue’, wanting to fly again,” said Cartmell. “There are really interesting parallels, how realities warp and merge and how it impacts on her. It’s a real emotional rollercoaster for the audience as well. It’s very funny, it’s really moving, it’s a real personal piece in some ways. The audience witnesses the events unfold at breathtaking speed.”

With its short, snappy lines, Cartmell said it is a very challenging role for an actor.

Drone warfare

Grounded e

How did directing a play on this topic change Cartmell’s own understanding of drone warfare? She outlined what she stood out:

“Finding out more about it and how relevant it is and just, in terms of the training costs of it and the psychological impact of warfare on the ground, plus also the difference between that side of military warfare versus the drone warfare which happens with one person sitting in front of the screen.”

The difference between being live and real and witnessing and being implicit.

Dunne – like Hathaway – went to military bases and spoke to pilots in preparation for her work.

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“It is a fascinating area, especially from a female perspective,” said Cartmell. “We were really overwhelmed by the ability and the training involved for a man or woman, how they become an F16 pilot in the first place.”

She was also struck by what it takes “for a woman to rise to those ranks and what she has to sacrifice in order to get there” – the play explores how the fighter meets her husband, and how men were put off by her job.

Slowly she starts to show she needs both: she wants to be a mother but she also wants to be a pilot, and is it possible to have both? Those questions go across any profession.

Grounded also asks the audience questions, making us look at drone warfare. As Hathaway says in the video below, it looks at just one aspect of the situation:

Source: theatermania/YouTube

“I think it really does touch on something that is right bang on something we need to talk more about,” agreed Cartmell. She wants people to leave the play and talk about these issues – about war, about drones, about death and life. 

Grounded also raises the issue of surveillance. The fighter talks about “the God in the eye”, how the drones have cameras in their bellies, like ‘God’s eye’ looking down at their target.

The play, said Cartmell, asks: “Who do we think we are, sitting there above and just pressing a button?”.

Grounded is on at as part of the Tiger Fringe from 7 – 12 September at the Project Arts Theatre. To buy tickets, visit the official website.

Read: The US military wants to build a drone carrying “mothership”>

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