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This new Broadway play doesn't have a script — but it does have a transcript

Oct 12, 2021
Originally published on October 12, 2021 9:57 am

By 2017, Tina Satter's New York downtown theater company Half Straddle — which she had founded nine years earlier — had toured the European theater circuit and mounted productions at esteemed off-off Broadway theaters. But to pay the bills, Satter still needed to take temp jobs on occasion.

While she was — in her words — waiting for the phone to ring at a law firm where she was filling in as a receptionist, she read a New York magazine profile about Reality Winner, the 25-year-old National Security Agency contractor who had leaked a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the Intercept. Satter poked around on the internet and found the transcript of the FBI interrogation of Winner. As she read it, the theater director in her saw artistic potential in the document.

The language was reminiscent of theater

"I thought, this is a play," she says. So she made it into one — called Is This a Room.

The language reminded her of downtown theater. There was unmistakable tension: The FBI agents were pressuring Winner to confess while she attempted to evade their questions. Satter was also taken with the verbal tangents they embarked upon. In addition to remarks about Winner's fluency in Pashto, Dari, and Farsi there was talk about dogs, cats, and CrossFit. The seeming non-sequiturs and stutters and interruptions reminded her of the work of experimental playwrights like Richard Maxwell.

After Satter cast the play, she and the actors decided not to make changes to the transcript. "We were all like, we think this can hold," she says. "We almost treated it like Shakespeare. Like it was canonical." The actors learned every last verbal tic and stutter that had been uttered the day Winner was interrogated and arrested in Augusta, Georgia in June 2017.

Gender dynamics at work on stage

Satter's plays often feature strong female characters. Is This a Room not only stars a strong woman protagonist, but implicitly addresses gender dynamics. One of the first lines Reality Winner says to the agents is, "I want to make this as easy for you guys as possible." When they ask if there's a private space where they can conduct the interview, she describes a room in her house that she avoids. "Yeah, it's just creepy, it's weird, in addition to the kitchen it's behind the house and it's always dirty," she tells them.

We stand a respectful distance in the beginning. But within the first two minutes, that distance cuts in half, and then it cuts in a quarter. - Pete Simpson

The lead FBI interrogator, played by the actor Pete Simpson, selects that room for the interrogation.

The menace implicit in those words is highlighted in the staging. "We stand a respectful distance in the beginning," Simpson says. "But within the first two minutes, that distance cuts in half, and then it cuts in a quarter." It's hard not to come away with the impression that Winner is being hemmed in and threatened. Emily Davis, who stars as Reality Winner, says audience members have certainly come away with that impression during the play's off-Broadway run. "I've had women come up to me after the show after we did it at the Vineyard, like shaking," she told me, saying that they "felt so uncomfortable."

Life imitates art

Alisa Solomon is a longtime theater critic and a professor of arts journalism at Columbia University. She points out that Is This a Room has an internal dynamic that is reminiscent of the interaction between theater-goers and performers. In the play, the FBI agents are — through their words, demeanor, and staging — trying to coax Winner into confessing. Actors use similar tools to coax the audience into suspending disbelief. "All of those things are a kind of con," she points out, "that have some parallels to the experience that we have in the theater."

Solomon also sees a political message in the play. The document Winner leaked to the media site the Intercept detailed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. As Winner says in the transcript, she thought the U.S. public needed to know that. "She committed a crime that she committed for a greater good," Solomon surmises.

Actor Emily Davis has exchanged emails and letters with Reality Winner. But she hasn't been able to meet her. The whistleblower was sentenced to five years in prison and she's now under home confinement. But Winner's sister, Brittany, was slated to be at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway on October 11, 2021, to catch the play on opening night.

This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer and adapted for the web by Alexandra Starr and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a new show on Broadway that doesn't have a script - or at least not a traditional one. "Is This A Room" is a play based on the transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner. She's the former National Security Agency contractor who was imprisoned for leaking classified information. Alexandra Starr has the story.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Tina Satter is the conceiver and director of "Is This A Room." She got the idea for the play when she stumbled on the transcript of FBI agents questioning the then-25-year-old Reality Winner.

TINA SATTER: And I just was like, this feels like a play.

STARR: Satter started the downtown New York theater group Half Straddle about a dozen years ago. She generally writes her own scripts featuring strong female protagonists. She saw that quality in Winner. Eleven male FBI agents converged on Winner's home in 2017, just a few weeks after she leaked a classified report on Russian interference in the presidential election.

SATTER: This girl in jean shorts, standing in her house with 11 men - like, the female body in that space was what drew me to this, for sure.

STARR: Here's the FBI interrogator talking as he cases Winner's house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: Just making sure - checking to make sure there's nobody else in there.

REALITY WINNER: Yep. And I want to make this as easy for you guys as possible.

UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: OK, likewise. So hopefully...

STARR: Satter didn't futz with the transcript. It's a word-for-word rendition.

SATTER: The more we read it in the room, once it was cast, we all were like, we think this can hold. We almost started to treat it like Shakespeare, like it was canonical.

STARR: When the agent asked Winner for a quiet space to talk, she mentions a room that she avoids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: You said you don't like to go in there. And what's...

WINNER: Yeah, it's just creepy. It's just weird. It's like, in addition to the kitchen that's behind the house - and it's always dirty and...

UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: OK. We can talk back there if you're fine going back there.

STARR: The menace that's implicit in those words is highlighted in the staging. Pete Simpson plays the interrogator.

PETE SIMPSON: We stand at a respectable distance at the beginning, but within the first two minutes, that distance cuts in half, right? And then it cuts in a quarter.

STARR: Emily Davis stars as Reality Winner. She says that when the play ran off-Broadway, women would approach her afterwards.

EMILY DAVIS: I mean, I had women come up to me after the show when we did it at The Vineyard and say - like, shaking, like, I felt so uncomfortable. And maybe guys were thinking, like, do I do that?

STARR: Alisa Solomon is a professor of arts journalism at Columbia University. She thinks "Is This A Room" operates on two levels. The agents are trying to convince Reality Winner to confess through their language, demeanor and their positioning.

ALISA SOLOMON: All of those things are a kind of con that have some parallels to the experience that we have in the theater.

STARR: Solomon also sees a political argument, that Winner was acting in what she believed to be the public good. The document Winner leaked to the media site The Intercept detailed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. In one of the most emotional moments of the play, Winner explains why she did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "IS THIS A ROOM")

DAVIS: (As Reality Winner) With everything else that keeps getting released and keeps getting leaked, why isn't this getting out there? Why...

STARR: Actor Emily Davis has exchanged emails and letters with Reality Winner, but she hasn't been able to meet her. The whistleblower was sentenced to five years in prison, and she's now under home confinement. But Winner's sister, Brittany, is set to see the play, which opened this week.

For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARMIST'S "SAFARISOGOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.