As Lucy Ellinson continues to perform one-woman show Grounded to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Phosile Mashinkila asks her about stage fright, performing alone, and engaging with dubious moral issues

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Produced by the Gate Theatre and part of the Traverse’s programme at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Grounded is about a female fighter pilot who leaves her job after falling pregnant and returns to work as a drone pilot. Lucy Ellinson plays the pilot, “a strong, complex woman who is very straight-talking and confident. The play deals with the character’s role as a parent; she’s a mother who has to juggle work and parenthood. Being a drone pilot is a 9-to-5 job: there are no barracks and you go home after work which makes for a strange transition compared to being on a tour of duty.”

Grounded examines the debate about the use of unmanned aircraft, which Ellinson sees as, “a fascinating and terrifying subject”. RAF Waddington is the first military base in the UK to operate unmanned drone aircraft, which it began doing earlier this year, and there have been protests against their use due to the various problems they pose: “There is a huge cultural shift going on: the use of drones is rapidly growing and the ethical issues of civilian deaths and the unwarranted constant surveillance of innocent people are becoming more pressing,” believes Ellinson.

The balance between career and family is a problem for many mothers today, but even more so in this play considering the nature of the character’s work as a drone pilot: “many drone operators end up suffering from serious psychological issues such as post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety,” says Ellinson. As they are no longer deployed into war zones in countries far from home, they can no longer establish a clear separation between combat and their personal lives.

Grounded is Ellinson’s third one-woman play: in 2009 she performed in an abstract solo piece, Land Without Words, for which she was nominated for the Stage Award of ‘Best Solo Performance’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Earlier this year, Ellinson did the storytelling piece, A Thousand Shards of Glass, for the Jane Packman Theatre Company. For some, the thought of doing one solo performance would be too daunting, let alone three: “Rehearsing for a solo performance is an intense process, because you are constantly on your feet working: there are no other actors and it is just you on the stage. It is like writing a love-letter in that is a very risky endeavour. You have to trust the decisions of the writer, director and creatives.” There is a vast array of pressures placed on performers involved in any production, but this must be taken to the extreme when performing in a solo show: “It requires a bit more work because the actor has a different relationship with the audience and has to serve the script all on their own.”

What’s more, dealing with the performance space all by yourself might add to the pressure, but for Ellinson, the space has been an advantage: “The Traverse Studio and the Gate Theatre are both nicely intimate. There is an immediate sense of closeness between the audience and the character, especially in the private moments when the character is sharing secrets with the audience.” Then there is the unique experience of doing a show at Edinburgh, but Ellinson takes pleasure in it: “I love Edinburgh every time I go: the full-on energy and high level of output are a great thing to be part of.”

One would assume that the more you perform, the easier it gets, but for Ellinson, her stage-fright is increasing with age: “I have more love for what I’m doing and I just want to do a good job. Minutes before the opening show I’m terrified but I always enjoy the experience.” From our conversation, Ellinson comes across as an enthusiastic and passionate actor who keeps a positive and thoughtful approach to what she is doing.

Grounded is at the Traverse Theatre until 25 August. You can read our review of it here. It is also playing at Gate Theatre London from 28 August – 21 September. More information on their website.

Photos (c) Iona Firouzabadi.