RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a new show on Broadway that doesn't have a script - or at least not a traditional one. "Is This A Room" is a play based on the transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner. She's the former National Security Agency contractor who was imprisoned for leaking classified information. Alexandra Starr has the story.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Tina Satter is the conceiver and director of "Is This A Room." She got the idea for the play when she stumbled on the transcript of FBI agents questioning the then-25-year-old Reality Winner.
TINA SATTER: And I just was like, this feels like a play.
STARR: Satter started the downtown New York theater group Half Straddle about a dozen years ago. She generally writes her own scripts featuring strong female protagonists. She saw that quality in Winner. Eleven male FBI agents converged on Winner's home in 2017, just a few weeks after she leaked a classified report on Russian interference in the presidential election.
SATTER: This girl in jean shorts, standing in her house with 11 men - like, the female body in that space was what drew me to this, for sure.
STARR: Here's the FBI interrogator talking as he cases Winner's house.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: Just making sure - checking to make sure there's nobody else in there.
REALITY WINNER: Yep. And I want to make this as easy for you guys as possible.
UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: OK, likewise. So hopefully...
STARR: Satter didn't futz with the transcript. It's a word-for-word rendition.
SATTER: The more we read it in the room, once it was cast, we all were like, we think this can hold. We almost started to treat it like Shakespeare, like it was canonical.
STARR: When the agent asked Winner for a quiet space to talk, she mentions a room that she avoids.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: You said you don't like to go in there. And what's...
WINNER: Yeah, it's just creepy. It's just weird. It's like, in addition to the kitchen that's behind the house - and it's always dirty and...
UNIDENTIFIED FBI AGENT: OK. We can talk back there if you're fine going back there.
STARR: The menace that's implicit in those words is highlighted in the staging. Pete Simpson plays the interrogator.
PETE SIMPSON: We stand at a respectable distance at the beginning, but within the first two minutes, that distance cuts in half, right? And then it cuts in a quarter.
STARR: Emily Davis stars as Reality Winner. She says that when the play ran off-Broadway, women would approach her afterwards.
EMILY DAVIS: I mean, I had women come up to me after the show when we did it at The Vineyard and say - like, shaking, like, I felt so uncomfortable. And maybe guys were thinking, like, do I do that?
STARR: Alisa Solomon is a professor of arts journalism at Columbia University. She thinks "Is This A Room" operates on two levels. The agents are trying to convince Reality Winner to confess through their language, demeanor and their positioning.
ALISA SOLOMON: All of those things are a kind of con that have some parallels to the experience that we have in the theater.
STARR: Solomon also sees a political argument, that Winner was acting in what she believed to be the public good. The document Winner leaked to the media site The Intercept detailed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. In one of the most emotional moments of the play, Winner explains why she did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "IS THIS A ROOM")
DAVIS: (As Reality Winner) With everything else that keeps getting released and keeps getting leaked, why isn't this getting out there? Why...
STARR: Actor Emily Davis has exchanged emails and letters with Reality Winner, but she hasn't been able to meet her. The whistleblower was sentenced to five years in prison, and she's now under home confinement. But Winner's sister, Brittany, is set to see the play, which opened this week.
For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALARMIST'S "SAFARISOGOOD")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.