Palo Alto author Loree Draude grew up loving theater, and even considered going into acting professionally. In college, however, her life took a different flight path when she unexpectedly fell in love with aviation. And after a career as a jet pilot with the U.S. Navy, she's now come full circle. Her autobiographical one-woman play, "I Feel the Need" — based on her first book she penned in 2000 — will be performed in New York City in November as part of United Solo Theatre Festival.
"The show covers all of the various forms of flight that I've had in my life," she told this news organization in a recent interview.
Draude spent her childhood moving around the country thanks to her father's career in the U.S. Marine Corps. Studying dance became one of the few consistencies in her life.
"Dance was a form of flight for me. Dance studios were a home for me," she said. The bulk of "I Feel the Need," though, covers her experiences as one of the first women to fly combat jets in the Navy. In the show, she shares "what it's like to land on an aircraft carrier; the culture of naval aviation; and of the challenges and the losses, because it is a dangerous profession," she said.
While she hails from a military family, she didn't have much childhood experience — or interest — in flying. Draude said it was a pivotal University of San Diego field trip to military air stations that inspired her Navy career, despite the fact that at the time, women were not allowed to become fighter pilots.
"That was the first time I had any idea flying was a possibility for me. I was fascinated by the machinery. It was thrilling because it looked like it was really challenging," she said. "I looked at all the pilots who were showing us around and they were all white men. I thought, 'This looks really cool, but I don't know if this is even an option for me.' One of the pilots said, "You know, you can be a pilot, too. You can't fly in combat but you can be an instructor or a combat support pilot.'"
She promptly changed her major from theater to mathematics and joined the aviation club. The film "Top Gun" had recently been released and naval aviation was at the height of cool, she recalled with a laugh. After graduation, she earned a place at flight school and earned her wings, qualifying to fly Navy jets.
In 1993, when then-President Bill Clinton lifted the Combat Exclusion Policy, she transitioned to a combat jet aviation squadron, flying the S-3B Viking, deploying to the Persian Gulf and completing her Navy career as a Fleet Replacement Squadron Instructor pilot.
While many pilots go into commercial aviation after military service, Draude decided that was not a path she wanted to follow. She found that while she loved to fly, she also loved working with people — coaching, teaching and helping develop their leadership skills. She went to business school, earned an MBA and ended up in the Bay Area as a compromise between her then-husband's desire to move to Los Angeles and her own to head to New York. She spent the next two decades working in Silicon Valley, including at Google and Facebook. She also runs her own executive coaching business.
"I've always enjoyed leading teams. I feel like I'm helping people be better leaders, and happier," she said. Now, she's also enjoying getting back in touch with her artistic side.
She published her first autobiography, "She's Just Another Navy Pilot: An Aviator's Sea Journal," in 2000, which she co-authored with her former husband's brother. But around six years ago she began enrolling in writing workshops and eventually decided to pull the autobiographical monologues she'd been working on into a live show, working with respected director Beth Dunnington.
"I finally felt like I was at the point I had some stories to tell, and the confidence to go up on stage and do it," she said. She had Palo Alto High School's historic Haymarket Theater reserved for the show's local debut but the performance was, like many, stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic. She and Dunnington reworked the play — titled, with a "Top Gun" reference, "I Feel the Need," for the small screen, did some Zoom performances and submitted it to the United Solo Festival in the heart of the theater world: New York City. It was selected, and will be performed Nov. 17. She also plans to take the show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next summer.
"I'm super excited," she said. "It's really interesting to be the writer, the subject of the show and the actress. It's been fun."
While the book and the play both cover Draude's experience in the Navy, she said the two works differ in tone, as well as content, as her life has changed considerably since the book was published more than 20 years ago.
"The show is a more authentic representation of my life now. It incorporates the lessons learned from the experiences I've had since writing the book," she noted.
Ultimately, she'd love to be able to stage "I Feel the Need" locally, as originally intended.
"I definitely had to strip some of the tech value off the show" for the festival presentation, she said, including planned immersive videos of flying. "It would be great to do a run somewhere locally with production values."
Her busy life has not left her much time for piloting recently, although she still holds it dear to her heart.
"I don't own an airplane — not yet. Someday," she said. "Right now I am spending my money on the show. I picked two of the most expensive hobbies," she joked. "Trying to put on a show, and flying."
Reflecting on her journey from theater to military aviation and back again, as well her career in leadership coaching and passion for writing, Draude said she's proud of how her story has unfolded so far, with all its ups, downs, incredible accomplishments and surprising detours.
"After leaving the Navy, trying to determine what to do with my life, I felt like the sacrifices my friends made as aviators in service to my country should be honored by going out to live a life I really love," she said. "Unfortunately it meant the end of my marriage, but I rediscovered the things I really love and care about in the world."