Actress Mindy Woodhead’s Diligent Character Research Keeps Us Grounded

Actress Mindy Woodhead performs the last four nights of the one-woman show Grounded by George Brant at Cockroach Theater. The play takes place in Las Vegas and is about a confident unnamed fighter pilot who is transferred to a drone program after becoming pregnant. It touches on multiple themes including the emotional and psychological challenges of being a remotely-piloted aircraft pilot. Woodhead, who graduated from Harvard and Moscow Art Theatre, diligently prepared for the role and even met the physical requirements of the United States Air Force. We discussed her character research and the connection this play has to our city.

How do you personally relate to the character?

Two fun things that didn’t require research is that the play takes place in Las Vegas … I think it’s a lot of fun for the audience to have all the local references, and then there is a strong plot element about her having a family and a 3-year-old daughter so that required no research … And a pull back to a career that she loved even though she feels like she should be at home. That required no [investigation].

Were you able to speak with any of the Nellis and Creech Air Force pilots?

I was able to speak to both communities and I interviewed fighter pilots. I never got to speak to a woman fighter pilot but I did speak to a lot of drone pilots as well and one was a female. I found it really helpful and informative. I casually knew a few drone pilots [from] just living in Las Vegas, which is wild. I was fortunate to know a neighbor and meet with that pilot in very casual circumstances and ask “How do you deploy a missile?” or “How do you maneuver the joist stick?” Then I did some more official meetings with the female drone pilot. Then totally wildly, coincidentally we have a person who was a part of the drone program as an intelligence officer in our production. She was our stage manager.

That makes for a more authentic production.

This play needs to be done in Las Vegas because it’s a story about Las Vegas. It’s about our fellow Las Vegans and a lot of people don’t know this is the job that our neighbors have. It’s not only timely for what is [happening] on the world stage right now and the political environment we are all living in, but I think it’s important for the audience members to have an experience where they understand what the people of their town experience every single day—this disjointed experience of going to war, being down range, being on the battle field and then being in the grocery store with one of us going grocery shopping. And being on security clearance, which I think is a difficult part of the job that RPA pilots do where they can’t discuss anything [or] decompress in a normal way.

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

The character in the play show signs of PTSD. Did anybody open up to you about their experiences with this?

Yeah, I was able to have really candid conversations with the RPA pilots and the fighter pilots. I find when you are honest and you ask honest questions about an emotional realm and their experiences people are very open. All of them were able to talk about the research they have personally done, how it is not in our nature to kill or to want to kill, how they actively sought to find techniques to decompress and resolve the feelings after experiencing the battle field. In this play she has a hard time going from being a fighter pilot where she wasn’t seeing as closely the cost of war, the collateral damage of war, the human toll that it takes and then becoming a RPA pilot you are very close up and seeing physically what’s happening on the ground and the aftermath. You stay for a long time to linger, to watch what happens.

Even though your physical presence is further away.

Exactly. You are visually there in a much closer way than you ever have to be physically there. All of the pilots talked about how they coped with that and how they’re able to find resolve and what they do to get away from that world.

I can’t even imagine.

I can’t even imagine. Well, I can. It’s my job to imagine [laughs].

After being so connected, what are your thoughts on the drone program?

I am certainly not a politician, but as a citizen I can see the benefit of not putting troops on the ground—the benefit to us as a nation, to us financially as tax payers. And I see the efficiency that the technology has lent to it, but in doing all the research of the drone program, how it’s proliferated, I think it is definitely disconcerting how much collateral damage there can be if not kept in check. I do believe that the people in power are trying to keep the checks and balances in place. I think the intention is there and is right. What I love is that our production doesn’t take any stance and the play itself doesn’t have a really clear message that it’s trying to communicate about the drone program, so we have a lot of Creech audience members and we have a lot of audience members that are anti-drone program and they sit side-by-side and they experience the story in a very pure way. Neither side comes out of it saying, “Oh, that was speaking to the other guys.” In order for art to be universal, it needs to be specific and this play is a very specific exploration as this women’s journey as a pilot for the United States Air Force.

Grounded

8 p.m. Dec. 10-12 and 2 p.m. Dec. 13, $16-20, Cockroach Theatre, 1025 S. First St. #110, 702-818-3422, CockroachTheatre.com.

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