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Writer and director Tina Satter making her Broadway debut with Is This A Room was not on my 2021 bingo card. But there she is, with a play she conceived and directed from a transcript of whistleblower Reality Winner’s arrest, and staged to acclaim at the Kitchen Theatre and the Vineyard Theatre in 2019; previews start at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre on Sept. 24 (in repertory with another unique Vineyard docutheatre piece, Lucas Hnath’s Dana H.).
Satter never imagined she’d be on Broadway either. “I had dream boards with places you aim to have work, and like, the Kitchen was on it, not Broadway,” she shared in a recent Zoom interview.
The Kitchen is the Off-Off-Broadway space in New York City’s West Chelsea neighborhood where Is This A Room premiered back in January 2019. Satter thought the show would do the usual international and national tour, a common practice for Satter’s previous productions. But then Off-Broadway’s Vineyard added it to their season for the fall of 2019.
Off-Broadway was an exciting leap for Satter’s queer feminist company Half Straddle, which she started in 2008 and whose New York City venues have included Abrons Arts Center, the Incubator Arts Project, the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, as well as the COIL and American Realness Festivals. The Vineyard seemed like it would be the show’s last New York stop before more touring. But Is This A Room surprised its fans, and its creators, once again. “They’ve really been these kinds of bolts of lightning,” Satter said of the steps to Broadway.
The show did tour, although seven dates in cities in the U.S. and abroad were cancelled when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. By that time producers were already talking about a possible Broadway run, paired with Dana H.
The show’s brief tour taught Satter and her team one valuable lesson that will help them on Broadway: They had to rebuild the simple yet precise set—a platform expanse with the audience on either side—for every location. “We’re really always trying to recreate the Kitchen space inside or on whatever stage we’re on,” she said. “We sort of need to make that room in whatever room we’re in.”
While Satter didn’t write a word of Is This A Room—the script is verbatim transcript of Winner’s interrogation by FBI agents about her leak of national security documents from her U.S. intelligence job—she still approaches the piece as a writer would.
“It was the writer in me that had the first attachment to the transcript as the possibility for dramatic text,” she explained. “It was the writer in me that could feel the rhythms of this language being in such an incredible play space…It was a writer that was working with the actors at that level, and since I almost always directed what I wrote, I had to put myself inside it, not in an ownership way, but to get inside the poetics of that language.”
Indeed, when she first encountered the text, linked to from a New York magazine article she was reading about Winner, she saw it as a play in the style of fellow downtown theatre artists. “My first read-through I was like, this reads almost like a Richard Maxwell play,” she said, referring to the experimental writer and director, whose plays often find the theatricality in quotidian speech and behavior. But as the transcript grew into Is This A Room, Satter began to see the greater implications of the text. “It holds this larger world in it,” she said. “It’s not just this incredible story of this young woman. It steps into geopolitics and our current contemporary moment and all these larger, very potent real issues.”
For those who have seen Satter’s previous work, such as 2013’s House of Dance, set in a tap dance studio with dance numbers, or 2011’s In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, which explores high school sports with deconstructed pop songs, Is This a Room may at first not seem like a Half Straddle show.
“There are people who are like, wow, it’s so different from everything you’ve made, and there are people who are like, oh, I really get where this comes out of your larger trajectory,” Satter said. “I really appreciate that latter thought, because, to me, I really do think this show holds so much that I was working at within it.”
Half Straddle’s shows often have complicated female characters, and Winner, a gun-owning, multilingual yoga teacher working as an intelligence specialist, is no exception. Unlike Satter’s previous invented stories, however, this character is a real person, and the events of the play actually happened, specifically on June 3, 2017, word for word, stammers and all. Is This A Room is also more forthrightly political than anything Half Straddle has done before, as it concerns Winner’s leaking of documents that show Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The show will open on Broadway in a different political landscape than when it first began: Trump is no longer president, and Winner finally is out of prison, though in home confinement. But Is This A Room remains connected to what Americans must still contend with: questions of government transparency, and what information should be made available to the public.
“The show offers no solutions but just continues to open windows that I think feel really important for understanding just how dynamic and nuanced it means to care about our country, to be a patriot or not,” Satter said. “That conversation still feels so far from over.”
Satter said she spent the pandemic lockdown teaching, working on new projects, and developing theatre over Zoom as she awaited the Broadway announcement and opening. And while her work being on Broadway is a monumental landmark for her (and for Broadway), in a sense the work hasn’t changed—only the room.
Shoshana Greenberg (she/her) is a musical theatre writer, theatre journalist, and host of the musical theatre podcast Scene to Song.
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