Reality TV

Director Tina Satter On Reality Winner – Deadline

Last week, a Twitter meme gave New York theater its best tickle in ages: With news that the brilliant, unconventional and decidedly non-parade-like plays Is This A Room and Dana H. had been given a two-week reprieve from early closing – a reprieve that would extend their runs to the end of November – a tweeter named Jake, a graphic designer and theater artist, posted photoshopped images that plopped these two very serious and frequently disturbing plays squarely into the turkey-day action, was Deirdre O’Connell’s Dana H. planted in her familiar chair smack-dab in front of Macy’s, no doubt telling her harrowing tale of abduction, rape, unspeakable violence and unlikely survival. And there was Emily Davis as Reality Winner, feet planted in Herald Square, her FBI interrogators huddling together just steps away as, no doubt, a giant inflatable Sonic the Hedgehog waiting patiently out of view for his turn on TV.

In fact, though, the Macy’s fantasy is only slightly less likely than what’s actually happened to these plays in recent months, beginning last summer with the announcement that the two intermissionless productions would be staged on Broadway at all. The experimental productions had previously been staged in the likelier environs of Off Broadway, and to widespread acclaim, but the notion that they would find a home amidst the Disney musicals and star vehicles of Broadway prompted considerable speculation about the evolving nature of commercial theater in the age of Covid, about whether the shutdown had somehow cleared a path for unconventional works and the new models of production they’d require (the plays, it was learned, would perform on alternate nights at the Lyceum Theatre, a sort of Broadway timeshare approach.)

Emily Davis, ‘Is This A Room
Chad Batka

There was never any doubt that the plays – now informally and collectively known as The Lyceum Plays – were remarkable works of art, each making ingenious use of documentary-style material presented in dizzying fashion: Is This A Room, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, utilizes the word-for-word, um-for-um transcript of the FBI’s interrogation of Reality Winner, the then-soon-to-be imprisoned leaker of classified information regarding Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, while Dana H. features actress O’Connell lip-syncing to the tape-recorded interviews of the real-life title character, mother of playwright Lucas Hnath, as she recounts the harrowing ordeal of being kidnapped by an abusive, meth-addicted psychotic white supremacist.

And the plays would soon share a couple other traits: Across-the-board rave reviews, and almost immediate closing notices. On Oct. 25, a week or so after opening, the producing team behind both plays – Sally Horchow, Dori Berinstein and Matt Ross – announced that the productions would close in mid-November, a month and a half earlier than anticipated. In addition to slow-to-start ticket sales, neither Is This A Room nor Dana H. were eligible for the state’s Shuttered Venues Operating Grants made available to Broadway productions that had been running when the Covid shutdown struck, money that has provided a much-needed financial cushion for those eligible shows.

Then just as quickly came an upsurge in ticket demand and a two-week reprieve through November. Hope springs eternal, if in two-week increments.

Over the course of two interviews, Deadline spoke to Satter about Is This A Room, the early closing and subsequent extension, the play’s reception on Broadway and whether the real Reality Winner would be stopping by to see the show that so accurately depicts the most terrifying day in her life.

Those conversations have been condensed, edited and combined into the following interview.

DEADLINE: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you see a play in the transcript of an FBI interrogation?

SATTER: So this [the interrogation] happens June 3, 2017. It’s in the news, but I think if someone had asked me that summer what Reality Winner actually did, I couldn’t have told you. But then I happened to read an article about her in December 2017, and it was titled “America’s Biggest Terrorist Has a Pikachu Bedspread.” That caught my eye. And then there were the pictures of Reality. In one, I think she’s wearing the Pikachu hoodie. And there’s one of her with one of her AK-47s, and I was like, Wait, who is this girl?

I clicked on a link in the article and what popped up was the scanned PDF of the FBI transcript, and I was looking at this thing, and it was this verbatim transcript of Reality Winner, and it listed the participants- Reality, Agent Garrick, Agent Taylor, and Unknown Male. The person that caught me was “Unknown Male.” I was like, what is that? What does that mean?

So on that very first page, I was like, this feels like a play to me. It was such banal, weird conversation, and I was thinking, how is this conversation going to get to where she admits it? It felt like a thriller to me from that first second. And in the same first half-hour burst of reading all of this, I’m like, Emily Davis. I emailed Emily and said, “This could be a play. You could play her.”

DEADLINE: When did the idea of using the verbatim transcript become a firm decision?

SATTER: It was there from the beginning. For the first two weeks, I almost forgot she was real. I was so into that document as text that I never thought, oh, let’s write a play about Reality Winner. From the first two weeks we were like, can we stage this verbatim transcript? It feels like a script. It feels like this micro thriller. I was just obsessed with it.

Deirdre O’Connell, ‘Dana H.’
Chad Batka

DEADLINE: The Off Broadway production was a big success, but at that point had you even considered that it would go to Broadway?

SATTER: Had never even considered it, for sure. I just didn’t [create] work in which that was sort of the end goal. I make work in which the end goal is touring to awesome European venues, and maybe the Walker Art Center, places to us that were cool. And The Vineyard…I mean, that was wild because that was an Off Broadway debut for me. But there was Broadway interest near the end of that Vineyard run. And then, pandemic.

DEADLINE: Can you describe your feelings leading up to opening night on Broadway, and then seeing the reviews?

SATTER: Nerve racking. The work, the rehearsal room, was great. The show was running like a Swiss watch, with all that overlapping dialogue and all that choreography they do on stage. But then we had to replace our Agent Taylor, when the original actor, TL Thompson, got this really cool TV job. But we got Will Cobbs, who was totally unknown to us. He was amazing, and that felt really exciting.

But the second we got into the Lyceum Theatre to do tech, which is always stressful, and into the lead-up through previews, it was so nerve racking and scary and hard. People were, like, “but the shows have already been so well received, and Is This A  Room already got all these raves, and Emily already won awards for it. How can you be nervous?” But it was just the intangibility of it suddenly being on Broadway that really was a pressure in my own head as much as I tried to not have it there. I thought, It was already really good – Why did it have to get tempted by Broadway? What if it’s not as good there?

So I’d been sort of personally preparing myself for, like, worst case: the show already was good, but what if it didn’t transfer well? Early in tech, I was like, this is a mistake. I actually called my agent and said I shouldn’t have done this. I’m going to lose the cool projects I have upcoming because this one is going to bomb. But then you work away and work away, and we got to a point in tech where I’m like, okay, I’m proud of this show even if we get kind of middle reviews that say the show was cool before but didn’t transfer well. I felt proud of the show again. We made it work.

And then we got these really exciting reviews. It’s weird because I’ve had shows that have had a lot of success but didn’t get great reviews. It’s conflicting to sort of hang your hat on reviews, but they do feel really good. There was a lot of smart writing about the show, and it was very, very, very exciting for all of us making our Broadway debuts with this weird show that’s a transcript.

DEADLINE: So, what are your thoughts on the question of whether these strange shows that break the mold can make it on Broadway? How do we parse out whether it was the strangeness of the shows, or Covid anxiety, or any other reason, that lead to the early closing notices?

SATTER: I and the producers have been basically trying to parse that out around the clock, especially since Delta rose in July two weeks after they announced these shows were going to Broadway. I don’t know how to parse it. I don’t. All I know is the shows got really great reviews, and of course I’m sure plenty of people who have seen these shows were like, I don’t get the hype, right? I’m aware that all people don’t love me, but then we had a really, really positive response even beyond the gatekeeper critics. So I don’t know – the model and the beast of Broadway is not something I know how to parse. But I do think there’s plenty more to come with this show in the world.

Will Cobs, Pete Simpson, Emily Davis, ‘Is This A Room’
Chad Batka

DEADLINE: What happens to Is This A Room after Broadway?

SATTER: Well, that’s like super, super unknown. We were set to tour to seven places before the pandemic, places that had expressed interest – Brussels, London, Japan. That all got canceled because of the pandemic, but I think there’s a strong possibility we’ll bring it back out to [those] markets…

DEADLINE: When did you first learn that Is This A Room and Dana H. had been given the two-week extension?

TINA SATTER: The first inkling was when we heard from producers that, ok, we are having a really nice response to the show, that people are wanting to see it [because of the early closing notice]. So my response was ok, this is exciting and a little bit of a whirlwind because we had just finally gotten our heads around the idea we were going to close earlier than we’d anticipated. The producers checked in with [the actors], and no one had booked a ticket to Hawaii on Nov. 15 or anything. So it was just very exciting.

DEADLINE: Did the response – the upsurge in ticket sales – after the closing notice surprise you at all? I know you had been concerned at one point early on about whether the production would transfer well to Broadway.

SATTER: I think we have made something special, and this is separate from how audiences and critics see it, but of course you do take in that validation when  critics and audiences and friends and non-friends really like it. When we got all these exciting reviews, it was, like, the play is holding a Broadway stage. We felt that the strong response to this show and to Dana H. was earned and makes sense, and that people want to see these plays. I’m not even going to say these kinds of plays, but to see these plays – Deirdre and Emily and the other incredible Is This A Room actors. It was like, right, we weren’t all crazy.

Reality Winner, June 2017

DEADLINE: Are you hearing anything about the possibility that the plays could run even longer than the two-week extension?

SATTER: I’m hearing it’s possible but we just don’t know yet. The real heartbreak of closing early was that maybe Reality was going to miss being able to see it. I think there is this hope that Reality will see it, and [the extension] makes that possibility much stronger.

I seem to have this weird feeling she’s going to see it one day. I can’t explain it. Some form of Is This A Room, she will see one day.

DEADLINE: Have you heard from her since the show went to Broadway?

SATTER: Yes. We’ve been talking to her all summer. We weren’t able to talk to her when she was in prison, the whole time we were working on the show, but now she’s at home, on home confinement with an ankle monitor. So she’s allowed to Zoom and have phone calls and text. So we have talked to Reality.

DEADLINE: And have you seen the Macy’s Parade meme?

SATTER: I’m literally looking at the Instagram of it right now. It’s so good. Maybe I’m intellectualizing but it’s, like, this is the crux of the whole question – can these shows be on Broadway? Can you drop these shows into the Macy’s Parade? And it’s all just so funny.

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