Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Tina Satter
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we sat down with Tina Satter to talk about her show Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, which was made with her theater company Half Straddle, and is a verbatim staging of the FBI transcription of their interrogation of Reality Winner. Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, is one of the curated shows in the 2019 Fringe Festival, and it will be showing at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts this September 13-15.
Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.
Conversation with Tina Satter[Music Intro]
Tenara: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on The Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. My name is Tenara, and I am the Audience Engagement Coordinator at Fringe Arts. I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Here at FringeArts we’re getting ready for the Fringe Festival. This September 2019, our city absolutely explodes with the performing arts all over the place. I’m really happy to say that tickets for our curated and independent shows are on sale now, so go to www.fringearts.com to grab your tickets and don’t forget to download the Fringe Arts app to start planning your festival schedule.
Tenara: Today, you’re going to hear a conversation that I had with one of our artistic producers, Zach Blackwood you know him well, and one of our curated Fringe Festival artists, Tina Satter. We’re presenting Tina Satter’s work, Is This A Room: A Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription. Tina Satter made this with her company, Half Straddle, and it is a verbatim presentation staging of the FBI transcription of their interrogation of Reality Winner. Reality Winner was arrested and charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in our 2016 election. It’s a really, really fascinating, interesting, deeply troubling piece and we are really excited to be able to share our conversation with Tina in particular who, in parallel to this pretty pretty heavy tail, we also managed to talk about what I would argue is some pretty light things like the Kardashians and Harry Potter podcasts. So pour yourself a happy hour drink, pull up a chair and listen to our conversation with Tina Satter about her show, Is This A Room.
Zach: Hi there. Is this Tina?
Tina: Yes, it’s me. Hi.
Zach: Oh, my gosh. Hi. It’s so good to meet you.
Tina: Hi. Yeah.
Zach: This is Zach and Tenara at FringeArts and we’re so, so excited to be talking to you a little bit. So we understand that you’re in Wyoming?
Tina: Yes, I am.
Tenara: You want to say a little bit about what you’re doing there?
Zach: Unless it’s [crosstalk 00:02:23].
Tina: Yeah, I’m here because my partner grew up here and so we’re out visiting family for three weeks and it’s very, very different from anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. So I really like to come out here and sort of just hanging out, and then I’m working a lot when I’m out here, but I love a good working vacation. So that’s what I do out here, drive around in a pickup truck and then sit at the kitchen table and do my work.
Tenara: That’s amazing. Can you say a bit about what makes it so drastically different from anything you’ve ever experienced?
Tina: Yeah. I grew up in rural New Hampshire, so this is rural, but in such a different way than coastal stuff. The thing I always compare it to, and I don’t know if this will hold for people, but is if you’ve seen Friday Night Lights, the TV show, so that’s Texas. This is Wyoming and this town is called Worland, W-O-R-L-A-N-D. Worland feels and looks to me like Dylan, Texas, the town in which Friday Night Lights is set so I think that’s also part of my obsession. It’s just flat, flat, flat land and truly that thing, big sky country you hear about Wyoming, it’s so true. It’s like some way you’re kind of … A friend to me said, “Oh, I think you can see the sky everywhere,” and I’m like, “I know, but here it’s truly this thing.” And then the whole thing is just quite this extreme, extreme thing to me. It’s the opposite of New York in every single way. And there’s this very sleepy wide Main Street and cruising down that are just pickup trucks and people really wearing wranglers because they work on ranches.
Zach: Oh, I miss that.
Zach: That’s so restorative.
Tina: For me it operates totally in a restorative way because there’s no hustling to the subway. It’s getting into the very old pickup truck to drive five minutes away. But the other night there was Shakespeare in the park, too, so I got a theater hit in this tiny park. So, yeah, it was very lovely to sit on beautiful grass under trees with a whole bench of rancher’s wives and folding chairs watching this Shakespeare that had driven in from Montana so, yeah.
Tenara: I love that.
Tina: Yeah, it was fun eating pizza.
Zach: Things are not as idyllic here.
Tenara: What are you talking about?
Tina: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:05:04].
Zach: So it’s about 1,000 degrees. Our general first Happy Hour question is what are you drinking, but really we’re just drinking ice cold water here [crosstalk 00:05:12].
Tina: Yeah, I’m going to say same, I’m drinking ice cold water. I have a little leftover hot coffee and then I have in front of me a sparkling probiotic blueberry cherry drink, it says it has billions of live probiotics in it.
Zach: So we’re here to talk a little bit about Is This A Room and Half Straddle and the relationship between Half Straddle and Fringe more broadly because Is This A Room is in the curated Fringe Festival and will be at the Annenberg Center for The Performing Arts the year of our Lord 2019. And we talked more about it in the intro and the outro, right?
Tenara: So I’m going to launch in with a content related question.
Tenara: Which is that Reality Winner, who the subject of this play, is an actual real live human being and her story is currently unfolding. So I’m curious about how that affected the direction of the performance and the construction of this piece as a whole.
Tina: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question because something I have to admit was that we were … I’d come upon the transcript and read about Reality, I knew it was a real person. And then we spent a couple of months reading this transcript out loud with actors, me and Emily Davis who plays Reality, trying to figure out if there was something in this transcript script as a play and realized there was, and sort of started moving ahead with work.
Tina: So to me in retrospect, it felt really late in the game that I was like, “Wait, this is a real person. She’s alive, she has a family.” And all of a sudden I was like, “Wow, we do have to think.” I do have to think about this project differently, at least in how we just treat it and think about it going into the world, not necessarily on stage and it maybe wouldn’t even change what we did artistically, but it suddenly became something very important to think about that we were treating real content that had happened to a real person still alive.
Tina: And so I think the biggest thing that happened was that we ultimately became in touch with her mother who’s a really incredible and fascinating woman. And again, I think to the part of your question, it didn’t really ever affect anything direct totally because we were always going to straight forward this transcript and that was sort of be the bottom line like this happened and we’re going in an old fashion way to the script. This is the script of this play and we’re getting our information from here. But I think the important thing was being in touch with her mother, letting her know this is happening, that we were using the transcript and then just be in constant dialogue with her of, “Here is where the play is happening, here’s who’s playing your daughter.” That sort of almost dramaturgy that was outside the project was what I felt was important to tend to, if that makes sense.
Zach: Yeah, that definitely makes sense.
Zach: The kind of social dramaturgy of the piece.
Tenara: Yeah, yeah. But what your question sparked to me was that moment. It was really this realization like, “Oh my gosh, this person’s real. It’s not a made up witch girl who lives in the woods that I’ve created everything about her in my brain.”
Tina: Reality is real.
Tenara: I guess I don’t ask the next question in a means to provoke, but I am curious about in somebody’s artistic practice when they’re working on a piece that is about a real life person, did it feel like you needed to get Reality’s mother’s permission? What was that sort of negotiation around artistic license … or not even really artistic license because like you said, you’re working with an actual transcript. But I’m just wondering about the relationship between a subject that’s a real human being and then the artist who’s really fascinated by the themes of their stories and then sort of poking at what the story implicates, if that makes sense.
Tina: Totally, totally. So the thing was I had very naively not even considered that in the first stage of reading it. But I think it’s because really we kept being like, “Is this going to be a play? Can this project really work?” There was a mix of that for a long time sort of as an underlay, or sort of that thing I maybe always have as an artist often working in a “experimental vein” you’re like, “Is this really going to be something” and part of the process is that test.
Tina: So there was always that going, but then when I realized this doesn’t relate to the game, like, “Oh, she’s real. Yeah, and her family.” Literally this stroke of just weird luck that came is her mom got in touch with us literally within days of me sort of saying to Emily, “Wait, what do we do? Do I need to talk to her family?” I think her mom wrote an email to me out of the blue and said, “I heard this project is in the works.” And I read that first sentence expecting somehow my body was like, “She’s going to say we can’t do this.” And then her next sentence was, “I am so thrilled you are doing something about my daughter. I hope I can come to New York City. Are you going to record the show?”
Tina: So this very early correspondence that she writes to me eight months before it’s going to premiere in New York City originally, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s just given me this huge gift of being in dialogue with me and also already sort of implicitly saying, ‘I love that you are doing this.'” And so then the next thing is that I then immediately wrote back and was like, “It’s wonderful to be in touch with you. We of course want you to be there. We always record our shows.” She did end up coming and that’s the whole sort of separate special story when her and the family saw the show in New York.
Tina: So then we just kept having back and forth in which I never ever said, “Do we have permission to do this?” But I would say, “I want to lay out for you what we are doing. We are using the transcript,” which had actually been a pretty loaded document to them in a way because they had wanted to keep that out of court if Reality had gone to trial. And so she was always very clear what we were doing and never said no, don’t do that at all. And the other thing that I think … I could do a whole podcast sort of on Billie Winner-Davis because she’s a really incredible human and she’s advocating for her daughter, but at the same time she is also advocating to the larger issues she sees operating around what has happened to her daughter.
Tina: And so one thing that felt important to me as the maker, even though this was real, was to be able to treat it as a script. Like I said before, our information comes from what we see on this page and to be able to stage it our way and not feel beholden to necessarily their family’s emotional truths of that day, which is a really loaded terrain to get into. But what’s so incredible about Billie is she is somehow implicitly … or not so much, she’s smart, implicitly let us do that. She never ever said something like, “Make sure you that Reality is shown in a good light.” I think somehow she trusted us from our back and forth. It turned out Emily Davis had grown up and had relatives really near to where Reality’s family is from in Texas.
Tina: So there started to be these sort of heartbeat connections between us and Billie that like allowed her to trust us and then us to trust her that she was would have let us make this thing and we were really trying to honor the transcripts. And as I had first written to her, I was deeply inspired of Reality’s story myself and in the transcript. And we always felt the strongest thing was to just show that conversation and the happens at that day and the transcript and let this story come out without sort of loading it either direction with any sort of political or editorial feedback about it, but let this event be restates and get into discourse that way.
Zach: Yeah, I think there’s a few different reasons that that approach is so, so resonant to viewers. I think part of it is just that in this whole 24 hour news cycle as we understand it. To really dig into one thing that happened with fidelity and thinking about it objectively in that way is still so powerful because we’re in a place where we’re data is subjective and truth is objective, likely due to larger things than just this administration and kind of the trajectory in American media more broadly. But it’s really interesting especially because your work in the past has really played with documentary and played with biography in a certain way, but this is just so kind of denuded in that way. It’s just-
Zach: … what happened on the page objectively up on its feet. And, yeah, I just think that that’s so deeply interesting. One question that we had is, so your primary source is the transcripts, but what other active research maybe bled into the process of creating this piece? What else maybe were you looking at and thinking about as far as maybe documentary and other kind of theatrical projects or what’s the secondary source in Is This The Room?
Tina: I know there’s a deep history of documentary theater, which I’m not very familiar with at all. And at a certain point, again, I had this realization, “Oh, I’m doing something that actually comes out of a lineage of a kind of work.” I tend to have as an artist and theater maker, a sort of naive approached like, “This is what I want to do and this is how I think I’m going to try to do it,” and then very closely working with whoever comes into the room with me. I’m not a big research kind of theater person no matter what the topic is. I know what I’m doing and then I’ve got my various, often secondary, sources which I’m collaging into something, but it’s very instinctual and developed its own poetics of what that’s going to be.
Tina: Of course this was a little different being this real life verbatim transcript, but I didn’t look to how other documentary theater had been made as whether I wanted to or not do that. I sort of was like, “I’m going to stick to this thing.” And I think it was partially, we were then making this project very fast once we realized this is the play we were going to make. And part of me is like, “If we’d had more time would I have spent a lot of time looking up things on the NSA and leaking and whistle blowing and the laws on that?” There was so much actual information, truly specific real intellectual information that is in this play at almost every sentence. But we didn’t go super deep into that and we also didn’t go to for super deep into Reality’s life.
Tina: If I had said to Billie’s mom, “Could I interview you about that day or could me and Emily?” I think they would have done that, but something about me wanting to get the information from that script, I’ve said that a couple of times. But we did do things like look at Reality’s Instagram, what had she been interested in. Not that we were going to fill up the play with that design-wise, but it was sort of … My works also are very interested always in aesthetics and especially sort of female or clear signifiers from … you know what I mean? That texture of personhood, we’re always really interested in. I don’t know, we just wanted that kind of thing to be in the atmosphere.
Tina: We did definitely read sort of news stories about the thing. And then the other thing, I’ll kind of get too long winded, but there is a lot of jargon in there. And so once we were really rehearsing it, once we cast it with the four actors we were going to do it, they as good actors would do, and I’m always kind of whatever, but they sort of want to understand what they were saying. And so then when Reality and the agents can banter around something called PKI passwords, shouldn’t we know what a PKI Password is? And so that meant doing our research into some security speak, some of which is hard to research a little bit and some which isn’t. So we started to sort of … informally as a group, the actors, me, our Assistant Director, Marianna Catalina, getting that stuff. Anything they would say, we want to know what this is, we’d all sort of each go do our like Google search due diligence on that and then come back and talk about what we thought it meant so they had context.
Tina: And then late in the process we met a documentary filmmaker named Sonia Kennebeck, who had made a movie called National Bird about young drone operators and Reality had been working in the drone system when she was in the Air Force. So this woman Sonia knew of Reality and she is now, I believe, making a documentary on Reality and her family. But before she was a documentarian, had been a journalist covering national security. So she came to one of our rehearsals and then I had a coffee with her and she was able to answer questions for me that I was not able to find answers to other ways like, where the guns showing the day the FBI pulled up to Reality’s house? Because this woman Sonia had gone to Reality’s trial, she’d been in the courtroom and so she was like, “No, that day their weapons were all concealed.” And we were like, “Would they have had FBI on their jackets?” And it’s a total case by case thing on these FBI raids or when they arrive at a house, it’s not standard. And she was like, “No, they didn’t.” We, of course, have taken artistic license with that sort of so we can make the show have its potency in the room. But she was able to offer some really interesting dramaturgical research directly to me about her knowledge of FBI space.
Tina: The most fascinating thing she told me, I assumed through this whole process, it would be very standard that they would record these things and having a transcript was the standard for an FBI interrogation, and she said it’s actually extremely unusual and that usually these things are just captured in notes that the FBI agents write up afterwards and that the fact that they recorded this as sort of very unusual. So we sort of got a gift in getting this transcript word for word as this young woman faces these 11 agents in her house.
Tenara: Why would they choose to record Reality’s interrogation? Maybe that’s the question that you don’t have the answer to and maybe we need to just go see the show, but-
Tina: Yeah, I don’t. Sonia knew a lot more of this space in an actual way than me. That was sort of up for debate among those people in that world. Did they want to make sure that if they were going to be alone with this woman in their house, they had that recorded? Was there something they thought she could say they could use in court? It’s unknown. Someone more involved in that than me would have that answer because it didn’t really at all matter to our show, I don’t think. Something was very interesting about learning that fact that then we were actually sharing something. It added even more relevance a bit that we are sharing this kind of conversation that is just in general, we’re not going to ever get to hear.
Zach: That’s so interesting. There’s all this fixed material in the show and the transcripts, but then you have to do things like design a set and-
Tenara: Yeah, I’m really curious about … I guess I shouldn’t be so bamboozled by this process. Almost all traditional theater is working from a script, but I think what makes me feel so excited about this is that you have a fixed document of a moment in time that genuinely actually happened so any decision to deviate from what’s on the paper, you’re really changing facts. I guess I’m curious about where artistic license popped into this process and what you felt like you could interpret and what you were like, “No, no, no. This is within the script and we just have to treat it like it’s sacred.”
Tina: Right. So we treat all the language sacredly. It starts when the transcripts starts and then we say every single thing they say and denote the redactions, the black stripes over the language that are in the transcripts. That’s all in there. And there was a period through the process I kept thinking we weren’t going to be able to keep all the text, that we would have to make cuts, because I was worried that it gets too repetitive because it’s this interrogation. And even after the big moment where she admits, which we don’t care to have be a secret, it doesn’t matter, they keep interrogating her.
Tina: So I was worried that there was this rhythmic setup that was going to be too hard and we might have just cut some sections. But the more we worked on it and refined our approach, the dream was to keep all this text in there. But as I was saying, the more we refined it and figured out how to play it and the four actors that are doing it got it in their bodies and in their mouths, we were like, “This could hold, we can hold with all of it.” So we say everything that was said in that house, that was recorded that day.
Tina: We made a big choice to not try to set it in any realistic way inside what Reality’s house should have looked like and we know that now. We know her house, what it looked like, we know that they took her to this one room. But from the beginning I thought I wanted to just have the language, but that we needed these actors sort of in this abstracted space because to me it was very much about hearing and watching people listening to each other in this kind of stark way. Just conversation that unfolds is what is highlighted and not be distracted by any other set or context for it. We could see if all the details that come out in the transcript can hold said among these actors on this stark stage.
Tina: So removing it from any realistic “set space” is one artistic choice. And then we have this very loose, but very specific choreographic movement they are doing on stage. Choreographed makes it sound like a dance, but they’re really just moving on the stage as often as in plays, it’s a very directed way they move. And that is something we just felt out and I felt out directorially to keep energy flowing on stage because we don’t know at all how they moved that day and probably didn’t move that much once they had her in the small room. We know she just sat against the wall. So those are the biggest choices, the artistic choices were that interpretation to set it not in any set and make up this kind of movement score for it.
Zach: Yeah, I’m also interested in … The first experience that I had as an audience member seeing the piece was entering into the theater and the kitchen and there being this wall of haze, probably the most haze I”ve seen outside of a haunted house environment. And I was wondering kind of about that choice, to me it really made me feel as though I was passing through some threshold, through some membrane and that was deeply interesting to me. I feel like I was listening differently in the haze, it was really effective.
Tina: Oh, that’s really neat to hear about the listening differently thing. Yeah, and very early on I was like, “I think I want the bare stage with audience on each side.” I had that really early in the idea process and then it was like, “Can we test that out and will it work when we load in,” but I had no ideas of haze. The lighting designer, I’m sorry, is someone named Thomas Dunn who’s wonderful and his idea was sort of what he was doing was lights to try this really, really hazing it up so that that could sort of fall away with the lighting he wanted to try. And in this first look, if one sees it you see that falls away and you’re left with Reality. And so we tested that and it became very exciting in the room and then the things you sort of just spoke about, Zach, we realized we’re operating. It has this immediately metaphorical thing of not necessarily making one hear more or differently, which the play is all about is hearing literally this transcript said.
Tina: So, yeah, that’s sort of where we came to with the haze because immediately once we opened it to audiences we realized it was doing something even more special than just the cool way it drifted from the lights, it was adding a whole other layer to what it meant to enter into this space. We were also always trying to figure out how to capture that feeling that Reality walks into this thing, not knowing it all what is about to happen and that in an hour from now her life’s going to be really different. So it also became a sort of way of her second-by-second trying to navigate through this foggy situation as it slowly comes to view, “Oh, these guys are here to like get something very specific out of me.”
Tenara: I really feel like we’re on a true crime podcast right now.
Tina: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Zach: [crosstalk 00:25:10].
Tenara: I just feel like we’ve got two hosts that are talking to somebody who has a wealth of information about the event and we’re just trying to figure it out.
Tina: Yeah, I have so much thoughts on it because I’ve been with it for so long I’m obviously-
Tenara: So we want to ask some highbrow and lowbrow influences.
Zach: Yeah, this is our current obsession part of the podcast. But kind of what are you obsessed with right now that you would say is … What are we calling foods that are good for us now, nutritionally dense? What is your most frivolous obsession at the present time?
Tina: My most high brow obsession, it’s something I’m truly obsessed with recently is this … It’s a podcast going right now called 13 Minutes To The Moon. Do you know about that?
Tina: Oh, I’m obsessed with it so that’s an easy answer. It’s rolling out right now weekly and it’s about the Apollo 11 1969 moon landing with someone. And it’s like, “Duh. Yeah, that was a crazy big deal,” but I had not paid really one ounce of attention to it in my life and then actually how insane it was that we went and tried to do that. And so this podcast just breaks down when JFK says in ’61, “We’re going to get to the moon,” how crazy that was. But all the amazing science and risks and possibility at work in doing it, and I’ve kind of really gotten obsessed with this podcast and it’s kind of amazing. So, yeah, it’s about the moon landing.
Zach: It is on my list.
Tenara: Would you consider that to be nutritionally dense?
Zach: Oh, yeah. That feels dense.
Tenara: I don’t know. That’s for Tina to decide.
Tina: Well that’s what I wasn’t sure. Yeah, but I think for where I am right now, that’s my high brow obsession. Yeah, and I think it is. Yeah, it’s not Henry James, but it’s pretty intense, yeah.
Tenara: Do you have a low brow influence right now?
Tina: Well I was trying to think of my most immediate ones, but my ongoing one that’s a little shame-filled kind of is I don’t hate the Kardashians. Let’s just say that.
Zach: I need to rewind that track for me because I think what I like about your work, what I find really stimulating in your work is that it really does not try and make overtures to an intelligentia at all. It’s very much measuring itself by its own measures, and the language and the movement, it’s very … I don’t know, it’s not interested in what kind of norms are out there or something. And I am also a huge reality TV fan. What I’m trying to say is I feel validated by you also consuming this media. But one thing that it does do is it kind of releases expectations in some way and that’s really cool to me.
Tina: So I really like what you just said about my work. [inaudible 00:28:05] the norms are our own. For the record, I just think that’s what Peter Canon should do. It’s like we have this space, let me make what it maybe feels like inside us or not. So I just love that you said that and want to note that because I think that is what theater can always be doing. Yeah, and I’m obsessed with the Kardashians. I love sisters, I love a family that’s obsessed with each other dysfunctionally and they do all this amazing gestural stuff like the way they all eat these salads a certain way or they touch their hair a certain way because them have that hair sewn in, extensions.
Zach: They feel like Tina Satter characters.
Tenara: Yes, isn’t it research for you?
Tina: I don’t want to make a Kardashian Show, but I can’t help but see these sort of formal things in it that I do of course get excited by and I know that would be officially low brow.
Tenara: Tina, thank you so much for joining us today.
Tina: Oh, thank you for having me.
Tenara: And we’re really, really all thrilled to be back there with the show, very thrilled. It’s going to be special.
Zach: We’ll see you very soon.
Tina: Okay, awesome.
Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on The Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram and download the Fringe Arts app. Tickets are on sale now for our 2019 Fringe Festival, visit www.fringearts.com or call our box office at (215) 413-1318 for more information. And if you haven’t already grabbed a Fringe Festival Guide, you can drop by our building on the corner of Race and Columbus, or to La Peg, and get your copy. We’re also going to be spreading them all around the city, so make sure you keep an eye out for the 2019 Fringe Festival Guide. Thanks everybody for listening and we’ll see you at the Festival.[Music Outro]