With its opening work of the 2016/17 season, InterAct Theatre Company takes a personal look at the hot-button issue of drone warfare in George Brant’s GROUNDED, which opens this week. Kittson O’Neill plays a fighter pilot and expectant mother living in a desert suburb in the U.S. Southwest, controlling weapons which kill people in a distant foreign desert. Kittson got firsthand research in taking work home during rehearsals for the one-woman play, which took place in her home studio. She talks to Phindie about these rehearsals and the issues raised by the production. [The Drake, 302 South Hicks Street] September 30-October 23, 2016; interacttheatre.org.
Phindie: What attracted you to GROUNDED?
Kittson O’Neill: I don’t think there is an actress in her right mind who wouldn’t want to tackle this complex woman. A script this well written? A woman this unabashedly herself in the world? It’s the kind of play you dream of. After a recent preview an audience member said to me, “”I loved her and I hated her. I don’t know how I feel about her, about myself, about America.” Yes! That’s a magic place to be as a storyteller: Compelling, repelling, provoking and enlisting all in one show. Also, she gets to swear a great deal. Which I am also fond of doing.
Phindie: In what ways do you relate to your character?
Kittson O’Neill: In so many ways
I am an unabashedly patriotic person. I cry EVERY time I go to the Constitution Center. Every time. I wasn’t able to enlist in the military as a young woman, but had it been available to me I would have seriously considered it. The Pilot does a job she loves. She does it very well and when she completes it she she knows she has served her nation. That is a straightforward life that I really find appealing.
She is so passionate about flying. As an actor I have sacrificed so much in order to do what I love and am good at. I feel much kinship there.
She also has a deep well of violence and power in her. I do to. I think a lot of women do, but we are conditioned to cover, to suppress and to turn that violence and power into ourselves. This is a scary kinship, but it’s real and I am lucky to be able to explore it in this safe space.
Phindie: You obviously feel a kinship.Have you ever flown a drone?
Kittson O’Neill: I have flown a very little kiddy drone. It’s got nothing on a plane, which I have also briefly flown.
Phindie: What are the negative consequences of drone war which GROUNDED brings up?
Kittson O’Neill: Oh boy. This is a really complex issue and one the play really deftly raises without getting didactic on either side. For me as the performer the most potent issue is the mental cost of a technology that allows us to exist in our own flesh, our own time and space, but at the same time interact with and effect lives thousands of miles away. Is that warfare, espionage, self defense?? Are you a warrior or an assassin? Are you yourself or the machine? It really messes with your head.
Phindie: Does it provide any justification for their use? Do you see any?
Kittson O’Neill: A couple yes. Drone pilots are not at risk of being shot out of the sky and killed in action. That’s a pretty big upside in my mind. Drones are also a really effective weapon. They are good at their job. How we use them is the question I think the play poses really well.
Phindie: Rehearsals took place in your home, right? Why did this seem fitting?
Kittson O’Neill: Hah! That was a happy accident. The new rehearsal space at the Drake isn’t complete yet, so InterAct used our studio, Nine Hostage Arts, which is located on our ground floor. It is such an intimate process, creating a one person play, that doing it in the safe harbor of my own studio felt great. It also highlighted some of the difficulties The Pilot wrestles with as she balances home and war. One day my nine year old interrupted rehearsal because he needed me to tell him where the goldfish snacks were. We were in the midst of some heavy work and I could feel in that moment of profound imbalance how damaging it is to be a killer and a mom all in the same day.
Phindie: Are there any other current or forthcoming Philly productions you’re excited about?:
So many!! I can’t wait for Georgia McBride at the Arden. Jackie Goldfinger’s got a new play, The Arsonists, coming and that always make me happy. Orbiter 3 is going to do Sam Henderson’s The Brownings in the Spring. It is one of the most exciting scripts I have ever had the pleasure to read. Mary Tuomanen has two new plays coming: at InterAct and with Orbiter 3. Oh My Lord! New plays everywhere!
Phindie: Exciting stuff. Thanks Kittson!