The FBI’s Interrogation of Reality Winner Was Like a Play — and Has Now Been Turned Into One
The experimental theater maker Tina Satter saw something familiar last winter when she clicked on a link from a journalistic story about Reality Leigh Winner, the federal contractor convicted in June of leaking a classified National Security Agency report describing a Russian attempt to hack American voter databases on the eve of the 2016 elections. “It looked like a play,” Satter said of the document that opened on her screen. At the top of the first page, the phrase “Verbatim Transcription” appeared like a title and, below it, the list of “participants,” like dramatis personae. In fact, Satter was reading the official record of FBI agents’ June 3, 2017, search and interview of Winner at her home in Augusta, Georgia. But to her, the dialogue in the transcript — its stutters, short sentences, and strained geniality — resembled the emotionally cool neorealism of the contemporary American playwright Richard Maxwell. Then, the more absorbed she became, the more the text started to seem like a thriller. Satter knew the outcome of the case but still couldn’t help getting caught up in wondering, “How is she going to get out of this?”
“How is she going to get out of this?”
By the time Satter was some two-thirds of the way through the transcript, she had become fascinated by the interrogation’s structure and language, what she calls the “shifts in conversation” that bring Winner to admit — on the 56th of the transcript’s 80 pages — that she had printed out and mailed the intelligence report to an online media outlet. (While the name of that news site is blacked out in the FBI account, several publications reported that Winner sent it to The Intercept, which published a story in June 2017 based on a leaked NSA document detailing Russian phishing attacks against the U.S. election infrastructure. The Intercept has said that it received the document anonymously and has published a statement about its role in the case.)
The transcript set Satter’s theatrical imagination ablaze. “As soon as I finished reading it,” she said, “I’m like, God, I think there’s something I’d love to do with this.” After a year of workshopping the material with actors, designers, and a musical composer, that something has turned out to be an artful staging of the unadulterated FBI text — right down to silent pauses for redacted passages. Titled “Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription,” the play runs at the Manhattan performance space The Kitchenfrom January 4 to 12. (The show takes its title from a question an FBI agent asks during the interview, interrupting at a pivotal moment as he presumably looks at a door inside Winner’s house.) Considering the events through an artistic lens, Satter has said, “allows the story to move beyond the headlines into a larger, necessary discourse.”
The play can do so precisely because of its nonrealistic form. Though it stays entirely faithful to the FBI transcript, Satter does not see “Is This A Room” as lining up directly in the tradition of documentary theater, which includes plays like Peter Weiss’s “The Investigation” (based on the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid-1960s), Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice” (drawn from Dan White’s trial for the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone), or Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s “The Exonerated” (built from first-person narratives and legal records of people wrongly convicted of capital crimes). Satter’s play, she said, isn’t trying to capture “the moral outrage on the surface” of Winner’s story — though she and the rest of the artists involved certainly feel it. Nor are they trying to present a biographical re-enactment of Winner’s life at the moment the FBI snags her — though they have been in touch repeatedly with her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, who said she is “thrilled” by the project; and the actor portraying Winner, Emily Davis (no relation) has corresponded with Winner and visited the town in central Texas where she grew up.
Rather, Satter has set out to “track the dynamics” of the encounter between Winner and the agents. Tightly choreographed and performed on a bare stage, “Is This A Room” unpacks the power relations at play when a 25-year-old woman, a decorated veteran of the Air Force, is cornered by an all-male law enforcement team. What’s more, it reveals how an FBI interrogation resembles the con game of theater: Both try to persuade an audience — the interviewee in the FBI case — to believe in the world created by their language and movement. It feels as sinister as the creepiest Strindberg drama.
“Reality and her story are literally at the center of a vital conversation about patriotism, honor, access, and power in this gut-wrenching American moment.”
“Is This A Room” is the most overtly political piece Satter and her company, Half Straddle, have made throughout their decade of work. As Satter wrote on the project’s Kickstarter page, “Reality and her story are literally at the center of a vital conversation about patriotism, honor, access, and power in this gut-wrenching American moment.” (The Kickstarter campaign raised $15,062 from 206 donors.)
The play is also, in some respects, a formal departure for Half Straddle. For starters, their work typically collages a variety of found and invented texts into a complex set of revelatory, high-jinks juxtapositions. “In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL” (2011), for instance, cast nine female and transgender actors as the players, cheerleaders, and coaches of a high school football team and combined gridiron lingo, sports movie dialogue, and adolescent chatter into a hilarious and insightful parody of masculine athletic culture. For “SEAGULL (Thinking of you)” (2013), Half Straddle mashed up Anton Chekhov’s play with contemporary conversation about love and Russian-inflected metal songs. “Ancient Lives” (2015) followed a teacher and several young students into the witchy woods, quoting Emily Dickinson, “The Crucible,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Shakespeare, and 1980s movie plots, among other texts; while “Ghost Rings” (2016) twined a personal story about estranged siblings around the recounting of a fictional romance, all through the medium of an original song cycle. With puppets.
“Is This A Room” — apart from relying on just the single FBI text — has a more sober tone, despite some humorously absurd moments. (The agents’ subject-changing non sequiturs, said Satter, sound just like downtown playwriting.) But at the same time, it extends Half Straddle’s longstanding interest in themes of belonging, commitment, and self-sovereignty, as well as in deconstructing gender. Their work always centers female and/or queer and trans characters and paradigms, and the new play is as much an exploration of male power as it is of nationalistic hubris or, more, of their inextricable connection. As the composer of “Is This A Room’s” score, Sanae Yamada, put it, the play focuses on a young woman of conscience working in intelligence, “at the heart of the patriarchal machinery.”
The play — and FBI transcript — begin with Winner arriving home from grocery shopping one early June Saturday to find a bunch of men looking for her. Two end up conducting the interview — Special Agent Justin C. Garrick (played by Pete Simpson) and Special Agent R. Wallace Taylor (played by T.L. Thompson). A third, “Unknown Male” (played by Becca Blackwell), pokes around, taking photos, and reporting back to Garrick and Taylor, with an occasional remark to Winner. More men helped search Winner’s small, red brick house and Nissan Cube that day — about a dozen agents swarmed in on her in all. Satter represents them through the grunts and unintelligible sounds coming through a walkie-talkie and a cellphone that Blackwell carries. The transcript describes these interactions simply as “noise” or “background conversation”; Yamada has woven them into a soundscape of growls, grumbles, zhoozhes, faint gongs, chimey arpeggios, and low drones, all contributing to the increasingly surreal space of Winner’s world on that stifling day.
The interrogation begins outside Winner’s house, then moves inside and, eventually, into a space behind the kitchen that Winner tells the agents she never uses because she finds it “creepy” and “weird.” We see the feds maneuver the encounter there exactly for that reason, though in the production, that space is established by language and action alone. The set (designed by Parker Lutz) is an unadorned long platform, raised an additional couple feet at each end and covered in thin, gray carpeting — the sort that both Winner and the FBI agents might find in their workplaces. Spectators are seated on either side of the stage, as if we’re watching a sports or chess match, in which we can scrutinize each move and assess its impact.
Satter has staged the action meticulously to highlight this effect, engaging the company in finding what Davis called the “molecular” relationship between Winner and her interrogators at any given moment. The rhythm of Winner’s speech has guided her physicality in the role, Davis said, while Simpson noted that Garrick’s coughs and stammers have been keys to his character-building. Sometimes the three agents flank Winner, sometimes they stand in a wall-like line. Sometimes one gets quietly right up in her face; sometimes they give her room to stride up to their limits, just like her dog, which they secure in an outdoor pen upon their arrival. “She does not like men,” Winner warns drily when they ask if her dog is friendly.
The men never directly threaten her — part of the FBI’s dubious claim that this was a “noncustodial” interview, which meant that they did not have to read Winner her Miranda rights — and they spend a lot of time ingratiating themselves by shooting the breeze about pets (Winner is a devoted animal lover, who expresses concern about her dog and cat throughout the encounter) and CrossFit training (she is a competitive power lifter and fitness enthusiast). They never mention that she could face up to a decade in prison, but cajole her with feigned sympathy. “I don’t think we’re coming in here to say you’re some big, bad mastermind, prolific spy kind of thing,” Taylor tells her. “What we both think is that maybe you made a mistake.”
The staging subtly uncovers the actor-like nature of the agents’ job. The theatrical metaphor keeps resounding once one’s ears are tuned to it: “Look, you’ve had a good career. You have. If there’s something that just pushed you over the edge on this, now is the perfect time,” Garrick says as he and Taylor close in. And he essentially invites Winner into the spotlight: “This is a podium.”
Satter noted, “I really do like the meta-ness” of reminding audiences that they are in a theater space. Even the characters’ names support this distancing effect: The hero happens to be called Reality and the lead interrogator shares a surname with David Garrick, the legendary 18th century actor, who, as any undergraduate student of theater history can tell you, revolutionized his art, replacing a bombastic style of proclaiming from the stage with a quieter new style of realistic acting.
Avoiding bombast and outright bullying, the agents assert their dominance in a way that displays an unspoken principle of masculine power: They simply assume it, as “Is This A Room” lays bare. Simpson comes off as especially menacing when he keeps his deep eyes cast down at the floor, and his voice low. Satter said she knew the show needed to exhibit “male energy” and, simply by casting artists she has worked with before, ended up with two of the agents — “these archetypes” — played by trans actors. “Fuck yeah,” Satter exclaimed, delighted that such casting is inherently political.
The show frames the way the agents are, as Thompson put it, “performing masculinity,” and, as a result, heightens the ways in which Winner is in part defeated by her feminine accommodation. In one telling moment, Garrick compliments her linguistic skills in Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, then quips, “I’m barely able to speak English.” Winner replies, so reassuringly, “English is hard.” Davis pointed out that Winner frequently intersperses a “just” into her sentences — “such an inherently apologetic word.” The men seize on her well-trained girlish solicitousness.