Actor Joan Smith on Performing One-Woman Show Grounded in Partnership with the Touchstones® Discussion Project

SHOWING August 4-20, 2023 at Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts
(tickets can be purchased HERE)

Interview by Lysithia Page, Touchstones social media coordinator

In January of 2023, I met with actor Joan Smith to talk about her August theatrical performance, Grounded, a play by George Brant that chronicles the story of an ace fighter pilot whose professional demands pose enormous challenges for her as a mother. Clocking in at 90 minutes in duration, the play is minimalist in design—one prop (a chair) and one actor (Smith). Grounded is playing at Maryland Hall Friday, August 4th through Sunday, August 20th, (Friday and Saturday at 8PM and Sundays at 2PM).

Touchstones has partnered with Smith to hold discussions after each of the three Sunday matinees. These public discussions will provide opportunities for the audience to delve more deeply into issues raised in the play. These topics include tensions between personal life and military service and causes and consequences of moral injury.

Moral injury—the psychological aftermath of acting in contradiction to one’s values—is a theme that figures prominently in the play. Touchstones programs with veterans in the past have explored the intersections between private and professional life. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dialogues on the Experience of War grant, Touchstones developed a program for veterans called Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home, which explores concepts of duty, service, belonging, and community as part of a continued homecoming.

Bryson Popham, who works with Smith, joined us for a conversation. Popham will assist in promoting this production of Grounded, which is produced by In Character LLC, a newly formed production company.

Bryson: When Joan decided to return to the stage with this work, Grounded, it happened to coincide with a request I received about a major military installation in Nevada. The result of that request was the introduction of Joan to a newly retired Brigadier General, whose service included a command post where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) like those central in the storyline in Grounded are deployed.

Joan: I presented the idea to the Brigadier General and showed him a mock-up of the posters, told him what the play is about, and sent him more information about the show. I told him that it takes place at Creech Air Force Base, and he said, ‘I know the commanding officer out there quite well.’ So he got me in touch with a Colonel at Creech Air Force Base. In our email exchanges, I asked if I might come visit. To my surprise, he said, ‘Sure, come on out.’ I sent him a copy of the play, and he gave it to his captain and two or three other people in public relations. When I got out there, they just rolled out the red carpet. I spent all day with Creech personnel.

Bryson: Just think about that as a normal person—how cool is that to get a chance to expose yourself to a way of life you’ve maybe seen in the movies, and you get to see it in real life?

Joan: While I was there I tried out a flight simulator and spent a lot of time with the chaplain, who guides the Air Force personnel through hard times. A lot of times, they have difficulty—even with no physical harm to themselves—because they’re making life and death decisions about real people. And they’re seeing, in real time, the consequences of their professional responsibilities, right in front of them.

Bryson: This tells you something about Joan. She could’ve chosen My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music, but what did she choose? A play about moral injury and a one-woman show.

Lysithia: I’d like to ask you Joan, how are you feeling about performing Grounded after having these experiences and seeing everything up close?

Joan: It’s a lot of pressure. I haven’t been on stage in 10 years. And I’ve never done a one-woman show longer than 40 minutes. This is 90 minutes. And I certainly haven’t done something where there are no props. There’s just a chair and me in a flight suit. That’s why the set, lights, sound, and projection are so important—I have a production team you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got to stand up to their critical eye. Musicians practice their instruments, well, the body is an instrument, and the actor’s body is an instrument, as well. What my visit to Creech did was bring this very much ‘under-the-skin’ and will make it more three-dimensional for the audience.

Bryson: It’ll inform it.

Joan: Oh yeah, definitely. It’ll inform it. But, well, to answer your question about the performance—I’m afraid. I’m scared.

Bryson: Joan’s passion and commitment will, I predict, combine to make this a terrific performance.

Joan: But I would be crazy if I weren’t afraid. Going out on stage—it’s very frightening. But it’s exciting. You never know what’s going to happen, because it’s a live performance. And not one live performance is the same as the next. It’s always different.

Lysithia: Like discussions!

Joan: Yes. The impetus of the lines may change from night to night, depending on how I feel and where the moment takes me. I discover things from the first time we start rehearsing until we close. If we ran for eight weeks, I would discover things all the way through to closing. I don’t believe an actor should arrive at something and say, ‘I get it,’ you know, the opening night is just another night. So yes! Very excited and very nervous. With all the support I’m receiving, financially and emotionally, just ‘wow.’ If it’s the last thing I do, I will die happy. I’m serious.

Joan: I’d be lying if I said I don’t hope that “In Character” will go past Grounded, and we’ll do something else. I hope Bryson will stay involved.

Bryson: That’s my intention as well. When I said, ‘Why wait?’ I had no idea it would get this far, much less where it could go from here. Joan has a dedicated group of supporters—Stef [Executive Director of Touchstones] and Howard [Co-Founder of Touchstones] chief among them—her husband, Joe, who is a major backer of the play, a veteran himself, and a big supporter of Touchstones. And then I’ll be doing my bit to support Joan. The team she’s assembled is the result of decades of her experience as a professional actor. I had no idea when we first talked about this that she’d be able to pull together this whole thing. And she did.

Lysithia: Joan, could you tell me more about your company, In Character?

Joan: Yes! In Character LLC is a newly-formed production company. I got the name because I opened a bookstore back in the ‘90s called In Character Bookstore. I had the bookstore for five years, and then I had to let go of it. It was a drama and film bookstore—plays and acting scripts. We were the only one in the southeast, and then the internet came along.

Lysithia: It sounds like Grounded has taken different parts of your life and just brought it all together. That’s beautiful.

Joan: I have a degree in acting from Florida State University, a degree in theological studies from the University of the South, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts from St. John’s (College). And I did two years of internship at Alliance Theatre. I’ve also been in network television—Heat of the Night. But I prefer the stage. That’s my first love. Now, I have to pinch myself when I wake up every morning and think, ‘I’m really going to do this.’

Watch a short interview with playright George Brant about Grounded.