Their downtown hits are now sharing a Broadway stage

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Their downtown hits are now sharing a Broadway stage
Emily Davis, center, as Reality Winner, with Will Cobbs, left, and Pete Simpson, who play F.B.I. agents, in the play “Is This a Room” at the Lyceum Theater in New York on Sept. 23, 2021. Tina Satter’s “Is This a Room” and Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.” are performing in rotation at the Lyceum. They spoke about the significance of telling the true stories of living people. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- Director Tina Satter was just hours from the first preview of her first Broadway show when she popped upstairs for an interview in the most conducive available spot: a box, house right, overlooking the Lyceum Theater stage.

“We’re doing it in here?” she said, surprised, as she made her way past the heavy velvet curtain and looked out across the orchestra. “It’s like where the Muppet dudes sit.”

On that late September morning, Satter, the artistic director of the downtown experimental company Half Straddle, settled in alongside playwright Lucas Hnath, whose previous Broadway credits are “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sequel to the Ibsen play, and the starry political comedy “Hillary and Clinton.”

One of the more adventurous programming moves of this resurgent Broadway season pairs Satter’s play “Is This a Room,” set to open Monday, with Hnath’s play “Dana H.,” also in previews and opening Oct. 17, in a rotating schedule at the Lyceum. Both were critically acclaimed off-Broadway hits for the Vineyard Theater shortly before the industry shutdown, and each is more formally daring than conventional Broadway fare.

The shows’ main common denominator is verbatim, or interview-based, theater — though they both also have smart, central female characters who find themselves, in vastly different circumstances, at the mercy of men.

“Is This a Room,” which Satter made for and with Half Straddle, uses as its text the transcript of a 2017 FBI interrogation of Reality Winner, the young linguist for the National Security Agency who went to prison for leaking classified information. Starring as Winner, Emily Davis, too, is making her Broadway debut.

In “Dana H.,” directed by Les Waters, Deirdre O’Connell lip-syncs her performance to the recorded voice of Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, as she recounts the horrific story of her own months-long abduction, more than two decades ago.

Satter and Hnath spoke for about an hour. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: Verbatim theater isn’t the standard mode for either of you. How did you know that was the right form for these plays?

TINA SATTER: I stumbled upon this transcript and was like, I think this could be a play. It was so amazing, how it was on the page. It had the coughs, the stutters, the surreal diversions in discussions of cats, the reveals — because it was interrogatory in nature. It felt all there.

LUCAS HNATH: I’ve always been under the impression that nothing was cut, right?

SATTER: Nothing was cut.

HNATH: With mine, it is not exactly the transcript. It’s many days of material. So there’s not only cutting, but there is rearranging. I break up the text into very small chunks, these little scraps, and then I move them around and arrange them into the story that I think we’re telling.

Q: Reality Winner’s actual interview with the FBI agents lasted how many minutes?

SATTER: We’re not totally sure. It’s only a little over an hour the way we do it. So that’s the weird thing. I mean, the time quote at the end, (one of the agent characters) ends the play saying that he stopped the recording at 5:17 p.m.

Q: You both use a tone of surreality to get at sometimes painful and sometimes enraging realities.

SATTER: That is a very present component of how we think about it in the play: What am I, and then us together as a collective, imagining Reality is feeling second by second? There’s the actual tangible surreality of, like, you’re talking about monkeys and then you’re asked again about this crime you’ve committed and are trying to avoid saying you did. The surrealness of moving through her head in that tension just felt like something we had to constantly tend. To me it felt like that filmic, surreal thing you might feel in your body as trauma is happening to you in the second. So we were interested in: Can that happen on this pretty simple stage?

HNATH: The thing that feels so specific in your piece is the physical protocol. I suspected strongly watching it that you must have done some research into physically what do FBI agents do when they are securing a space.

SATTER: I have to admit we did no research. I was really like, what does this script give me? Once it was cast and we were meeting in a room, the three (actors playing) male agents and Emily as Reality, that was this question: Should we? We all have all these FBI idioms in our faces. We know that stuff. But we really wanted to feel what they were finding as actors.

When I first thought the transcript could be something, I just had this idea of how it started: There’s Emily on one hand and there’s these two agents standing across from her. I didn’t want a set; I wanted this energy zone. To me it was this exchange of energies, and what laboratory holds that best? It’s totally abstraction in space. But we all started to feel what could hold the tension.

HNATH: Wouldn’t it be funny if you actually did nail the physical language of it? Which wouldn’t shock me, either. Because in a similar way, Didi (O’Connell) is so focused on that audio track. There was a conversation about whether she should meet my mother in advance, and she was really game for it. It didn’t work out.

SATTER: What were your thoughts on that?

HNATH: I, on a gut level, suspected that actually the more interesting thing would happen if Didi channeled it. I think that is exactly what happened. She does some jaw movements that are so quintessentially my mother.

Q: Why did you decide to use your mother’s actual voice?

HNATH: I worried that if it wasn’t the actual voice people would say, “You made that part up.” But also how my mother delivers it. She will laugh her way through the most terrifying things. One of my frustrations is we have a very limited idea about how people talk about horrible things that happened. We say, “I don’t really believe that person because they’re not acting like somebody who actually went through that.”

Q: That’s like the way we think about “This person doesn’t sound innocent” or “This person doesn’t sound guilty.”

SATTER: Totally. It always has blown my mind that as Reality is about to be taken away, she makes an Anderson Cooper joke.

Q: These are very different for each of you, I think, but what is your responsibility as an artist and as a human being in telling the true story of a living person?

SATTER: The most basic thing we could do with this was be like: “This is every word. This conversation happened one day in a house in Augusta, Georgia, in June 2017, in the United States of America, and this was the first word and this was the last word.”

There’s other stuff to say about having been in touch with Reality’s family. I’ve always been really clear we’re using this transcript, which is clearly a very loaded moment to them, and initially was super-loaded because she hadn’t made a plea deal yet and was trying to keep this out of court. Because she hadn’t been Mirandized.

Q: Has her mother, or has Reality, ever seen the play?

SATTER: Reality’s mom and stepfather and sister, Brittany, came to the first night it ever happened at the Kitchen. We didn’t even know what it was like in front of other people, and it was very intense. Fingers crossed on Reality. She’s still on house arrest with an ankle monitor. But things are likely to change legally for her literally in the next month, so we’ll see.

HNATH: With mine, in some ways it’s very easy. I can just show my mother a draft and say, “Does this feel right to you?”

Q: You’re putting a story of someone very close to you on a very prominent stage.

HNATH: Every step of the way I say, “We can say no to this.” That was always very clear. Like, we don’t need to do this.

Q: I assume you didn’t feel the same about this as when you’ve written plays about other real people.

HNATH: “Hillary and Clinton,” for example, there’s a little prologue, which is my way of telling the audience, “Don’t take this so literally.” That’s a different type of scenario because I don’t have Hillary to go to and say, “Are you OK with this?” But I’m building my own Greek myth out of her, and I’m taking a lot of liberty with the facts.

In this case, I’m not changing the facts, but there will be moments where I will take a bit of reflection and pair it with a different incident than it was paired with in the text. It’s all part of the same train of thought, but with the little (sound design) beeps and stuff letting everybody know we’ve moved stuff around. And that to me feels honest.

SATTER: That makes sense to me.

Q: What about the idea that these two plays might be too experimental for Broadway?

HNATH: I just don’t know what experimental is anymore. I never feel like I can speak to what does and doesn’t work on Broadway. Novelty, so to speak, can work great on Broadway.

SATTER: There’s all these layers to what gatekeepers say will work on Broadway and then what audience people — I don’t know. I don’t understand it yet.

HNATH: I don’t think about it. My job is just to sort of figure out: OK, what have I done, what do I think of it? Where do I think it’s working great, where do I think I can make it work better? And just make it work better.

SATTER: You do seem pretty — in a way that I think is so interesting — aware of the relationship with the audience, in terms of helping them understand what they are going to see.

HNATH: If I have a superpower, it’s that I don’t remember my own plays. When we started rehearsals for the first production of “Dana H.,” we had our first read-through. I mean, it’s a lip-sync through. I turned to Les and I said, “I don’t understand the story. This makes no sense.” And I took the whole thing apart and rebuilt it. Every time we start rehearsals, there will be something where I’m like, “Wait, I’m confused.”

And so it’s always for an audience of me. Because I’m a really bad audience member. I am that person that, when I’m watching a movie, I will realize very late in the game who the killer is.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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