Director Julie Taymor Steers A 'Grounded' Portrait Of A Drone Pilot

Apr 28, 2015
Originally published on April 28, 2015 7:53 pm

For a certain kind of theater goer, the name Julie Taymor is enough to get them to the box office. Ticket holders outside New York's Public Theater call her a "pioneer" and a "terrific director." They're waiting to see Taymor's new play, Grounded — an intimate, political, one-woman show that seems to be the opposite of what the director is known for, which is spectacle.

Taymor was the creative force behind The Lion King, one of the longest-running and best-selling shows on Broadway, and she's also known for the notoriously expensive and troubled musical adaptation of Spider-Man. She left that production before it officially opened, something theater goer Susan Jacobsen makes note of. "Unfortunately, I think Spider-Man just undid her reputation," she says.

But when you ask Taymor about Spider-Man, as NPR did during a recent visit to her sunny loft apartment, she's nonplussed. "It [was] four years ago," she says. "I'll just say that I loved the ideas, I loved creating it and there [are] a lot of reasons why that thing fell apart. ... It's so past, it's so over."

Her new play is the antithesis of Spider-Man. It tells the story of daily life for a fighter pilot who carries out U.S. drone missions. Anne Hathaway plays the swaggering flyer obsessed with blue skies and destroying the enemy. After pregnancy and maternity leave take her out of the pilot seat, she's reassigned to a different seat. Yes, she'll be flying again, but, as she says to her husband, her new job has a catch:

I can't look Eric in the eye when I tell him. UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, drone pilot — a proud member of the Chair Force. He says, "When do you leave?" I say, "When do we leave." He says "What?" I say, "How do you feel about Vegas?" He says, "What?" I say, "I will be in the war by way of Las Vegas. I will operate out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. I will not live on the base; there are no barracks on the base. I will work seven days a week, a 12 hour shift, and each night I will come home.

For Hathaway's nameless pilot, the war takes place on a stage that's little more than a layer of sand and a single metal chair with a wall of black reflective glass behind her. Through lights, music and computer projections, the audience follows her to a Vegas showroom, along a Nevada highway and into the trailer where she spends her shift scanning gray-scale drone surveillance feeds for bodies. That's despite the fact that playwright George Brant wrote hardly any stage instructions in his script.

"It was a very interesting challenge to figure out what to do visually that would not overwhelm the solo actor," Taymor says. "The stage directions, the action that she does, is all there to support the story, never to compete with it."

In one scene, Taymor projects yellow lines onto the stage to simulate a highway. She says they "really play with [the character's] love of speed, but also the travel every day. Her life is this constant 12 hours here, 12 hours ... at home."

When the character is in the drone trailer, Taymor uses sound and music to communicate the tense nature of the work. "Her pulse is going and she's sweating and all of that," the director says. "The music is really her energy and she needs to decompress in a big way. And it's also for the audience — you need a break from dialogue."

Taymor's big production experience made her extra cautious when it came to overshadowing the pilot with effects, so she tried to keep things simple. "There's only one chair," she says. "The Chair Force — the idea of having to be stuck in a BarcaLounger 12 hours a day — is a pretty meaningful piece of furniture in her life. And we're able to then use that chair to become the bed, to become the psychiatrist couch. And Anne just has to turn it a little bit, shift her body, minimal movement — minimal — and you get a whole new location."

Grounded's political content also marks a departure from Taymor's previous work. "I somehow stayed with the classics and with other kinds of works and have never been asked to do a contemporary play, so this was fresh for me," she says. "And the subject matter was so — it was invigorating and disturbing. The last five months that I've had to do the research has been both. It has been 'Oh my God, I can't believe what we're doing,' and at the same time, 'Wow, if we can get this out.'"

Taymor hopes the play will help show people that drone pilots can also fall victim to post-traumatic stress. She says, "They have it because something that is very different that you learn in this play is that when she was a fighter pilot, she'd drop a bomb, but she was long gone — she never saw the effect. Where now they have to sit and linger over the bombs that are dropped and they see body parts. They see the destruction in a way that's a good thing because it's not a video game — it's not clean and pretty. But we, the public who ask these men and women to do this work for our country, have to understand that it is a very tough life. They are safe physically, but their minds are not safe."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For a certain kind of theatergoer, the name Julie Taymor is enough to get them to the box office.

SUSAN JACOBSON: I think she was an original pioneer.

STEVE JACOBSON: Terrific director.

MICHELLE PIRRET: You know, when she hits it, she hits it right.

CORNISH: That's Susan Jacobson, her husband, Steve, and Michelle Pirret. I spoke with them outside the Public Theater in New York before I met Taymor to talk about the new play she's directing. It's called "Grounded" and stars Oscar winner Anne Hathaway. It's an intimate, political, one-woman play - frankly, the opposite of what Taymor is known for.

What comes to mind?

STEVE JACOBSON: "The Lion King."

CORNISH: One of the longest-running and best-selling shows on Broadway. And then there's this one...

SUSAN JACOBSON: "Spider-Man."

CORNISH: Taymor left the "Spider-Man" musical before it officially opened, something Susan Jacobson makes note of.

SUSAN JACOBSON: Unfortunately, I think "Spider-Man" just undid her reputation.

CORNISH: Ask Taymor about that, as I did during a visit to her sunny loft apartment the next day, and she's nonplussed.

JULIE TAYMOR: It's four years ago. I'll just say that I loved the ideas. I loved creating it, and there's a lot of reasons why that thing fell apart. And the reputation thing that you talked about - you know, I shy away from talking about it, so you don't really hear my opinion on it 'cause I don't really want to get into it. It's so passed.

CORNISH: Her new play is the antithesis of all that. "Grounded" is grounded. It's the story of daily life for a fighter pilot who carries out U.S. drone missions.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "GROUNDED")

ANNE HATHAWAY: (As fighter pilot) In front of me is a toy throttle and a screen. I stare at the screen 18 inches from my face - a Gorgon stare. I stare at the desert. They're 12 hours ahead there at night. I stare at the screen. It's not like a video game. Video game is color. I stare at gray.

CORNISH: Anne Hathaway plays a swaggering flyer obsessed with the blue skies and destroying the enemy. Pregnancy takes her out of the pilot seat, and when she returns after maternity leave, she's been reassigned to a different seat. Yes, she'll be flying again, but as she says to her husband, with her new job there's a catch.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "GROUNDED")

HATHAWAY: (As fighter pilot) I can't look Eric in the eye when I tell him. UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles, a drone pilot - a proud member of the Chair Force. He says, when do you leave? I say, when do we leave? He says, what? I say, how do you feel about Vegas? He says, what? I say, I will be in the war by way of Las Vegas. I will operate out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. I will not live on the base. There are no barracks on the base. I will work seven days a week, a 12 hour shift and each night I will come home, home to you and Sam.

CORNISH: The war for Hathaway's nameless pilot takes place on a stage that's little more than a layer of sand and a single metal chair with a wall of black reflective glass behind her. Through lights, music and computer projections, the audience follows her to a Vegas casino, travels along a Nevada highway under a twinkling night sky and visits her at her work trailer where she spends hours scanning the gray screens of drone surveillance feed for bodies. Now, all of this in Julie Taymor's production, despite the fact that playwright George Brant wrote hardly anything in his script in the way of stage instructions.

TAYMOR: It was a very interesting challenge to figure out what to do visually that would not overwhelm the solo actor. The stage directions, the action that she does is all there to support the story, never to compete with it. So you've seen the yellow lines that go - the road - those yellow slashes that go down the highway, which really play with her love of speed, but also the travel every day. Her life is this constant 12 hours here, 12 hours being a drone pilot, 12 hours at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "GROUNDED")

HATHAWAY: (As fighter pilot) I'm tapped on the shoulder. I will go home. I drive through the desert. Static becomes AC/DC - thank you. I hold sleeping Sam against me. She is real and alive and warm. I eat dinner. I watch another screen then go to sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

HATHAWAY: (As fighter pilot) Extra special morning time and then I cross the desert to look at a screen.

TAYMOR: The soundscapes are much more subtle, and they're very prevalent in the drone trailer where you really are getting the anxiety of when she says she goes through white knuckles where her knuckles - her pulse is going and she's sweating and all of that. The music is really her energy, and she needs to decompress in a big way, and it's also for the audience. You need a break from dialogue.

CORNISH: When we spoke to ticket holders before the show, just to ask them kind of what drew you here, one person talked about the idea of someone who does shows, or has done shows as big as you have, doing a one-person show.

TAYMOR: I was very nervous about overshadowing the pilot. But I think that because we were very sensitive about that, there's only one chair. The Chair Force - the idea of having to be stuck in a Barcalounger 12 hours a day - is a pretty meaningful piece of furniture in her life. And we're able to then use that chair to become the bed, to become the psychiatrist couch. And Anne just has to turn it a little bit, shift her body, minimal movement - minimal - and you get a whole new location.

CORNISH: In the last couple of years, we've seen more writing about PTSD for these pilots and even recruitment. Do you think that culturally that this is finally kind of moving into the eye of the public?

TAYMOR: What I would say is I hope so because these people, men and women who are out there are in these trailers 12 hours a day, they do have PT. They call it PTS now. They dropped the disorder - the word disorder. They have it because something that is very different that you learn in this play is that when she was a fighter pilot, she'd drop a bomb, but she was long gone. She never saw the effect. Where now they have to sit and linger over the bombs that are dropped, and they see body parts. They see the destruction. In a way, that's a good thing because it's not a video game. It's not clean and pretty. But we - we, the public who ask these men and women to do this work for our country, have to understand that it is a very tough life. They are safe physically, but their minds are not safe.

CORNISH: You've talked about the kind of political implications of this and also the creative part of it. And in what ways did this feel like a risk for you?

TAYMOR: I don't think it was risky for me to do this. I think it was a challenge for me. I loved it. I loved it because my background - my mother, my family, my Bostonian, my - they're into politics. They're into, you know - I was brought up that way. But I somehow stayed with the classics and with other kinds of works and have never - have never been asked to do a contemporary play. So this is a - this was fresh for me. And the subject matter was so - it was invigorating and disturbing. For the last five months that I've had to do the research has been both. It has been oh, my God, I can't believe what we're doing, and at the same time, wow, if we could get this out. But now with this production, hopefully it'll reach a wider audience, and particularly, I would love it to reach a young audience 'cause it's their lives.

CORNISH: Julie Taymor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TAYMOR: Oh, it was a great pleasure. Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Julie Taymor - she's the director of "Grounded." The play, starring Anne Hathaway, is at the Public Theater in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.