© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

Will Cobbs and Pete Simpson play FBI agents interrogating Emily Davis's Reality Winner, in <em>Is This</em><em> a Room.</em>
Chad Batka
Will Cobbs and Pete Simpson play FBI agents interrogating Emily Davis's Reality Winner, in Is This a Room.

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.

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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexandra Starr