Deafinitely Digital Theatre’s production of grounded uses the power of visual storytelling and British Sign Language to create a truly unique performance. The play was written as a one-woman show by George Brant but the addition of an actor signing not only makes the performance more accessible, but also adds a layer of physicality.
The plot is based on a fighter pilot who loves her job and feels truly free in the ‘blue blue sky’. On a leave visit, she meets Eric and shortly after finds out that she is pregnant. On returning to work after taking time off, she is told that she will be flying a drone from the ground. This disappointment sparks the plays’ theme of being a woman in a male-centric environment, balancing a career and motherhood, relationship breakdown, mental health and war.
In a way, this production is difficult to watch, especially online rather than in the theatre. The intensity of the fast-paced rhythm combined with the unapologetic language of the female character can be challenging. At times, the main character felt unlikeable, however this challenge is clearly intentional as this female fighter pilot represents an ambitious, career driven woman, a character which traditionally we haven’t seen much of on the stage. Ellison, the actor of the London production, commented on how she ‘expected the monologue you expect as a female actor…Nine pages in, an insight into the character’s fragility or frailty, some sort of hidden sadness – and it never came.’ This is a story which platforms a woman who feels at home in a traditionally male world and highlights our societal expectations of where a woman should and shouldn’t be on stage.
From the outset, we are shown how she can ‘keep up’ in a male-driven, military environment from ‘grabbing a beer with the boys’ to driving down the freeway blasting AC/DC. However, this pressure to be constantly ‘on’ is carefully shown to take its toll. The fast-paced nature of the language mirrors the fast-paced lifestyle. How can you live in the real world when twelve hours a day your world is the war on your screen? This line begins to blur and as signs of instability start to creep in, we are at the hands of an unreliable narrator and the audience must decide what is real and what is not.
This was perfectly shown through costume, notably through the suit the pilot wears. As the play progresses, she starts to keep it on when she goes home, despite her husband asking her to change. The way the writing directs our imagination is brilliant as the actor on stage never physically takes the suit off, while we wonder whether she has in the story. Although she has no costume changes, the power in the moment of it staying on remains. This is particularly powerful when she puts her suit back on after sleeping with her husband; in this moment of vulnerability, she feels exposed when her workwear isn’t portraying an outward sign of her identity.
The plot and production of this play work perfectly together by creating an accessible space for voices, which historically have been marginalised, to be heard. Nationally, we are seeing progress in the accessibility of theatre for people with disabilities but there is an incredibly long way to go. Culturally, accessibility is shockingly low for people with disabilities. The company Graeae are part of a movement hoping to change this by collaborating with the Ramps on the Moon programme through building a consortium of six venues (including Nottingham Playhouse, Stratford East, Sheffield Theatres, New Wolsey in Ipswich and Leeds Playhouse) which have one mainstage show each year which is predominantly cast with deaf and disabled performers, as part of their season.
This production of grounded challenges our perceptions of being a woman in both a male centric work environment and a female actor on stage, whilst doing this within the context of making theatre accessible for those who are deaf and traditionally have been marginalised in theatre spaces.