Second Thought Theater is preparing to present the regional premiere of George Brandt’s Grounded, a one-woman show about a fighter pilot who’s also a wife and mother. The show will mark two firsts for its seasoned Dallas actor, Jenny Ledel: She will command the stage all by herself for the first time, and she'll also be directed by her husband, Second Thought artistic director Alex Organ.
Organ, who is also a Brierley Resident Acting Company member at the Dallas Theater Center, came across the play last year when he was in DTC’s co-production of All the Way with the Alley Theatre in Houston. The wife of one of Organ’s co-stars was preparing to do Grounded. It got Organ thinking about his own wife back in Dallas.
“I’m pretty much always thinking about Jenny when I read plays,” he says. He shared it with Ledel and they started discussing including it for Second Thought’s next season. Organ says because of his schedule — he’s a staff member at DTC in addition to a company member — directing at Second Thought can be tricky to schedule.
“It really helps that we are married and live together,” he says. “I’m not sure when I would have had time to work on this if we hadn’t been able to discuss this and develop it at home.”
Still, Ledel says because of her husband’s schedule she did much of the initial work on her own and with assistant director and dramaturge Laura Colleluori, who did extensive research on the military for the play.
The challenge in a one-woman show, Ledel says, is incorporating dialogue between characters that exist in the pilot’s world, but that the audience never sees — like the woman’s 3-year-old daughter and husband.
“There are ways to distinguish other characters in the play,” she says. “It calls for a lot of attention to detail.”
Ledel played a mother in another Second Thought play last season, A Kid Like Jake, about a couple trying to find the best school for their potentially transgender child. She says the two characters could not be more different, but she’s learned a lot about the demands placed on women and mothers.
“I remember our director’s wife for that play talking about ‘having it all’ and being a mother in this world. You can’t have it all. That’s ridiculous.”
Ledel’s character is simply referred to as “Pilot” in Grounded, and Ledel says it’s for good reason.
“She gains her identity as a pilot, but then she’s forced behind a desk during her pregnancy. She feels like she has to choose.”
Both Organ and Ledel were interested in another looming issue in the play. As the pilot is “grounded” she becomes a drone pilot — attacking the enemy from inside a trailer rather than thousands of feet in the air.
“It quickly becomes clear to her that it’s not a fair fight,” Organ says.
“She needs to have skin in the game for it to be fair,” Ledel finishes.
The couple agrees that the play is not just about these things, but also about the toll they take on the pilot and how she must navigate two vastly different worlds.
Organ and Ledel had worked together many times as actors, but they had not worked together as actor and director. Organ says it has been invaluable to have his wife there to bounce ideas off.
“I’m not on the staff at Second Thought, but we talk about everything,” Ledel says.
When Ledel started working on the role, before Organ could join, she says it was a great opportunity to make a lot of decisions on her own. If she got stuck somewhere she was grateful for her husband’s input once they began.
“It made it easy once he was here to hammer things out because I’d already been working on them,” she says.
The couple met in 2004 during a Shakespeare Dallas production of As You Like It, though each was already in a relationship. They reconnected in New York years later and eventually moved back to Texas. They’ve been married for five years.
They both agree their closeness lends itself to a large degree of unspoken direction and good communication between the two.
Organ says that to complement the simpleness of the play, Grounded utilizes some very complicated technical elements, beyond what Second Thought typically employs.
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“With one person on stage it can be a lot for one person to keep the audience’s attention,” he explains. The technical components, like projections, are there to boost the story and support the script.
As thoughtful as both Ledel and Organ are about the play, they are even more thoughtful about the future of Second Thought. Ledel acted in the company’s first play and has a special connection to it as an actor. After her mother passed away several years ago, she says the theater was a huge support system for her. Second Thought recently announced their leap to becoming a Small Professional Theater under the Actors Equity Association. Organ says despite their relatively small size it was important for STT to make this change.
“It’s all about artist retention — this is at the center of our mission and why we exist. We are hoping to keep the artistic community full and strong and doing that means offering competitive wages and benefits.”
Grounded runs Jan. 11 through Feb. 4 at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater Campus, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Tickets are $25 at secondthoughttheatre.com.