Interview: Tina Satter and Emily Davis on the Making of Is This A Room
The drama uses the transcript of the interrogation of alleged NSA leaker Reality Winner.
A 25-year-old woman is confronted in the driveway of her Georgia home by a trio of FBI agents. Her name is Reality Winner. She is a former Air Force veteran and a contractor with the NSA. The agents had a warrant — it was believed that Winner had leaked a classified document about the 2016 election — and all hell was about to break loose.
In Is This A Room, running at the Lyceum Theatre through November 14 after earlier engagements at the Kitchen and the Vineyard Theatre, director Tina Satter uses the real, redacted transcript of this encounter and creates, truly, one of the scariest plays Broadway has ever seen, because it's all real. Here, she and star Emily Davis, who plays Reality Winner, discuss the pressures of creating a stage play based on these true-life events.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What went through your heads when you were told that Is This A Room was going to Broadway?
Emily Davis: I started thinking about the experience of doing this show, and thinking of our little show in that huge room. I didn't know what the theater looked like, but when you say Broadway, it conjures up a certain set of images and it evokes, for me, at least, this idea of a bigger performance, and the show is so intimate and small. I was immediately fixating on the challenges, which is probably just a part of my personality, but it was, of course, still really exciting, too. I mean, we screamed and laughed and were like "no way!"
Tina Satter: In a way, it was more present with me before the actors, because the Broadway option happened in the fall of 2019 at the Vineyard. All of the actors were just like "Whatever, we have to get through this run." And because it was so intangible then, it was this thing that I had as intellectual knowledge, but it felt really abstract and very exciting. The wildest ride ever started in June, when they were like "It's happening." And then it was the tangible things that Emily is talking about. Is this the right theater? What do we have to change? Do we want to change anything?
Emily: I also worrying, like, does this mean that Hugh Jackman is going to have to be an FBI agent? Are they going to replace all of our beloved ensemble members? Am I even gonna get to be in this production?
Tina: That was not even a question. This was all of us. This has been Emily and I next to each other from me reading the transcript for the first time and sending it to her a half hour later. Our conversation was more like, "How do we get them?" "Will they do it?"
Tina, did you look at this transcript like a script that you get from a playwright, or did you treat it with added gravity knowing that these are actual words, said by real people, on an extremely intense day? And Emily, how did the knowledge that Reality is an actual person factor into the way you built your performance?
Tina: We treated it like it was a canonical script, like it was Shakespeare. And we came to it beat by beat, trying to figure out how to make this transcript have the energy and drama we want on stage. We tried to take what we got, character-wise, from [the context clues]. What does Agent Garrick seem like because of how he stutters? There's tons to glean from what Reality does up there. And it was sort of, embarrassingly, a couple weeks into it, where we were like "She's real. She's in jail. She has a family." I was so taken with what it looked like on the page and the theatrical possibilities.
Emily: The intention around the work never changed even as we were learning more information about this in real life. But there's no part of me that could possibly know what Reality experienced that day. This is my interpretation of it as a collaborator of Tina's, but at the same time, I now have a texting relationship with this person. I think we're both pretty protective of one another's space, but she shimmers in all the ways that you can hear from the transcript. She is still very much not free and is struggling with many things as a result of this, and she probably will be for the rest of her life, but I think she feels, at this point, pretty glad that her story is getting the attention it's getting because of our show. I'm sure it's still hard for her to imagine someone trying on her persona and interpreting her words in a certain way, but I think we've struck a nice balance and I do feel we have her family's support.
I want to talk about the design work of Parker Lutz (sets) and Sanae Yamada and Lee Kinney (sound) — how did you all envision this transcript as a gray runway with ominous noises going on?
Tina: From the beginning, I had this sense that there was no set. This was a laboratory of energy. There was a young woman being talked to by these men, and we wanted to keep that as clear as we could — her watching them, them watching her — and not distract it with any literal things. I had this idea that there would be a high platform and the audience on both sides.
We knew we were doing it at the Kitchen, and we were thinking that it was maybe the place we'd only ever do it, so we were designing it to that black box, which we knew really well. We had a very small budget and Parker Lutz likes to use carpet, and the Kitchen had this gray carpet that had been in one of their art installations. We got this free carpet, and it was sort of perfect, because it echoed what we imagined the NSA hallways or something looking like. It didn't look like Reality Winner's small rental, but it had the spiritual essence of a lot of stuff around that day.
We could have redesigned it at each step, but the confinement that it puts those actors in, especially when they had the audience on each side, inherently does something energetically. They're kind of stuck up there.
I started working with Sanae Yamada, who had not done composing for theater before, and really early, I thought we would need all this thriller music, so she made this bank of eerie sounds. Some of those are in act three, when Reality confesses, but they're also being very lightly deployed in acts one and two.
Emily: Sanae was actually staying with me when we were working at the Kitchen, and I was doing dishes one day and the drain made this awful noise. And she was paying attention and asked if she could record all of these wonderful, really crazy sounds that were being made.
Does the noises affect your performance?
Emily: Oh, absolutely. With my limited knowledge of what the fuck is happening with these different layers of sounds….Like, Becca Blackwell comes on and has these arias with their walkie-talkie. It lances the tense quietness we've built before they come on stage, and without fail, it's harrowing to me every night. It does something on a molecular level. And with the microphones, I can hear my own breath.
And then the music elevates it. I kind of feel like I'm super susceptible to that — maybe because I've been with the piece so long. One night we had a tech issue in previews — a tech cue didn't go off and it's a really small, little bitty glittery noise and it didn't come on. So I was like "Wait, where's my little glitter sprinkle?" The sound and lighting are so connected with us. I've never been on stage and had that experience before.