Laura Norman is an actors' actor who's been on the theater scene for years, but hasn't made much of a public splash. In his recent True West Awards, arts journalist John Moore called her "the best local actor you hardly ever get to see." Perhaps that's because she's quietly self-effacing in person. Or perhaps because, while some fine actors dazzle and flash, Norman sinks deeply into her roles to reveal the gleaming souls of apparently unremarkable people.
In 2013, however, she moved into the spotlight, winning universal critical praise -- along with Best of Denver and Henry awards -- for her subtle performance as a devoted typist in Ghost-Writer. And last year she sealed the deal, playing a pilot in George Brant's searing one-woman play, Grounded, presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company at Denver's Avenue Theater. Now the production is returning to home ground, with a two-week run at the Dairy Center for the Arts that starts with a preview January 8 and officially opens January 9.
Grounded tells the story of a pilot grounded by the Air Force when she becomes pregnant. Instead of carrying out air strikes on Iraqi targets from the wild blue freedom of the sky -- "I'm long gone by the time the boom happens" -- she's now assigned to launch drone attacks from the safety of an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert. Thanks to a camera in the belly of her Reaper, she can see the results of her work. Over time, the mixture of stress and boredom takes its toll.
For Norman, preparing for the role took its toll as well. "I had never seen footage of a drone killing someone," she says. "On the Internet, you can find a lot of stuff. I thought, 'I need to watch some footage. I need to know what I'm talking about.' I found that very difficult. You can find a scene where they're following a vehicle and they lock in, there's a kind of rhythm. They're about to fire, there's an explosion. Some of the comments on the site were eye-opening, too. I realized, 'Oh, so some people actually enjoy watching this.'
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"In the play, initially when she sees it there's that adrenalin rush, but at some point it crosses this line. She suddenly can see all the deaths, what's happening on the ground. Before she didn't see the aftermath. With this, they're orbiting above these scenes for hours afterwards. I learned from an interview they'd often have to keep watching because they had to have a report of everything that happened, see the guys come and clean everything up. You're right there. You're so close to it. But then you're so far away at the same time. Some people compare it to a video game. A game is not real; this is completely real. You're right there, you're seeing all of it, and yet there's this complete detachment from it. I don't think human beings are meant to ... that's not normal to process that."
Grounded is a one-woman play, and that fact is stressful in itself: "I said yes to the role because I read the script and felt drawn to the story, but I didn't really consider that it was a one-woman show till we were in rehearsals and I realized how scary that was," Norman says. "It's a big challenge for me. Josh [Hartwell, the director] was a huge help in making it not feel presentational. You're the only one on stage and you're talking to the audience but it's not a PowerPoint presentation. You have to make the audience another character. Halfway through the process, I panicked and was thinking there was no way I'd be able to pull it off. Somehow it all came together, and by the end of the run in fall I was sad it was over."
Grounded is beautifully written and full of passionate insight, and although the topic is difficult, the play is in many ways inspiring to watch. And the portrait of the Pilot is complex and fascinating. "Grounded tends to automatically sound like a political play," Norman says, "but one of the things I love about the script is that it's more about the humans involved -- both the people piloting these drones and the toll it takes on them and, of course, the humans on the other side of the planet who have these drones hovering over them as they go about their day. Brant captures this without making it preachy. It informs but without telling the audience what they should think."
In choosing her projects, Norman is highly influenced by the quality of the writing: A good script "makes the actor's job much easier," she notes. "If you go into it trusting the writing, it's almost like a ride. I want to make sure when I'm working on something that it's worth the time and energy. I plan to wait and see what's next and be really open to whatever that is. Ghost-Writer and Grounded both showed up that way, and I'm very excited that I get to do Grounded again."
As for the attention she's been getting lately, "It's a little surreal," Norman says. "It feels really nice. And very unexpected. I'm glad that people are enjoying my work. I certainly have been enjoying it and it helps to be told you're on the right track. I don't think this changes why I'm doing it, but it is a real honor."
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Grounded will run through January 18 at the Carsen Theatre, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street in Boulder. Tickets range from $16 to $27; for showtimes and more ticket information, call 303-444-7328 or go to thedairy.org.