George Brant's epic play, Grounded, is a Sound Designer's dream. A Pilot (Anjanette Hall) tells the harrowing story of her life as an Air Force pilot, then an unexpected mother, and finally as a drone pilot struggling to balance her work and family with her mental health. The tale is interwoven with vivid emotions ranging from anxiety, love, confusion, fear, instability, and everything in between. In enhancing these emotions and the action of her story, sound becomes a character of its own.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with Director Alice Reagan on Dobama Theatre's 2018 production of this piece. My approach to this enormous task was to create a soundscape that builds and deconstructs with the Pilot's mental journey. Whether the audience consciously noticed it or not, there was almost always sound. Several times in the play, I slowly built a soundscape slowly over several pages of lines only to cut it away suddenly at a key moment. The absence of sound can be just as powerful as its presence, so I used this tool to set the audience on edge.
I also created movement as often as I could. During scenes where the Pilot is flying the Reaper drone, I had the sounds circle the audience to create the feeling of danger. I tried to keep sounds constantly moving between speakers so they did not become monotonous and lose their effect.
In the script, it is mentioned that there is a 1.2 second delay between the actions of the Pilot in the Nevada desert and her Reaper drone half a world away in the Middle East. I used this concept of delay to create a parallel in the sound. Booms that represented bombs or dramatic moments began in the overstage speakers and repeated 1.2 seconds later in the outer ring behind the audience. I also used this delay when the Pilot flies the drone. As the Pilot's mental health declines due to PTSD, the delay begins sneaking into her non-flying moments as well. This created a disorientation and anxiety that corresponded directly between the Pilot and the audience, bringing them fully into the story.
The Pilot states at the very beginning of the play that her favorite thing about flying is being "in the blue" sky. The blue is freedom, exhilaration, pure joy. My challenge was to create a sound that felt like soaring. I drew from my own experience and described the closest thing in my personal life: the sensation of writing a piece of music I truly love. I used a glass drone, ambient guitar, panning textures, and low tones to create this sound.
In contrast to the Blue is Grey. Instead of being up alone in the sky, the Pilot gets stuck staring at a grey screen for twelve consecutive hours every day. The Grey begins to infect her family life and her sanity. My goal with the Grey sound was to create a stark disparity to the Blue. Where the Blue is full of tone and shimmer, the Grey lacks tonal qualities and is reminiscent of muted white noise with subtle crackles of static, which I used to enhance moments when the Pilot felt out of control.
When the Pilot comes back to the Air Force after three years leave to raise her daughter, she becomes a drone pilot. The drone she learns to fly is called a Reaper. I wanted to give this plane a sound that shows its power as well as its danger. I used ascending Shepard Tones to create constant tension, along with vaguely Middle Eastern textures. I also used crescendoing
and de-crescendoing bass/cello to create movement and suspense. By separating these sounds in the cueing,
I could adjust the sense of danger to fit the moment.
When the Pilot begins breaking down from PTSD, she stumbles across a patch of desert containing crosses. She uses this makeshift graveyard as a way to deal with her guilt for the lives she takes. The crosses are eerie and represent a turning point in her mental journey. I used high textures, a moving 16746 Hz tone, and a rattling Shepard Tone to achieve a sense of unease and guilt. These elements constantly moved through the speakers to make the audience feel off-balance.
The majority of this show was subtle and was meant to be subconsciously felt rather than actively heard. This meant precise and intense cueing. I ended up with over 200 cues in this ninety minute piece. One of the most heavily cued moments was the final drone attack, during which the Pilot experiences a breakdown and believes she sees her daughter on the screen. I repeatedly built tension and then cut to only one or two sounds. Along with Hall's tour de force performance and Marcus Dana's lighting design, this created a climax that kept the audience hanging on every word.
Director: Alice Reagan
Production Design: Tesia Dugan Benson
Lighting Design: Marcus Dana
Stage Management: Joel Rathbone
Sound Design: Megan Culley
Assistant Director: Anne Karyna Bakan
Pilot: Anjanette Hall