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Checking in with Tina Satter: An Interview

By Dahlia Bloomstone and Rayna Holmes

Jan 4, 2019

Tina Satter is an experimental playwright and director based in New York City. In 2008, she founded the Brooklyn-based ensemble Half Straddle; a group of performers and designers that make plays, performances, video, and music via her writing and direction. Since then, Half Straddle has premiered nine full-length shows, a number of shorter works and video projects that have been seen at festivals and theaters throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Asia, and won multiple awards. The group has presented work at The Kitchen numerous times, including: The Kitchen L.A.B, 2013; Ancient Lives, 2015; Here I Go, pt. 2 of You, 2017.

This month, Tina Satter and members of the Half Straddle team return to The Kitchen to premiere a new work titled Is This A Room: REALITY WINNER VERBATIM TRANSCRIPTION; a staging of the FBI transcript and interrogation of Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist accused of leaking evidence of Russian interference in our voting system. In bringing a very real moment in time back to life, Satter and her team provoke questions of morality, truth, and what it means to have honor in today’s America.

We sat down with Satter discuss the process of staging real drama, the correlation between this residency and Half Straddle’s past Kitchen showcasings, and the motives behind this upcoming show.

Is This A Room will premiere at The Kitchen from Friday, January 4th to Sunday, January 12th. Please click here for the full schedule.

How did you arrive at Is This A Room? It seems so different from more of a fantastical approach to the questions of humanity and relationships between people in your last piece here, Ancient Lives in January 2017. How did you go from A to B?

It’s pretty different for us...When I read this one particular profile last December about Reality Winner, she was this fascinating young female protagonist—and now I’m using the word protagonist (laughs)—but at the time, she was just a fascinating human being, but she was also this young woman and [I] immediately was just like, "this person is really interesting.” And in that article there was a link to the transcript.

When I was reading the transcript I felt, “Oh, this transcript is like a play,” like it immediately felt like a play…it listed the four participants and it was amazing the way it would capture the language of all the stutters…it would say sighs, it would say coughs, it was this really rich document…
But there’s also…this, really really specific dynamic or trajectory because it’s an interrogation. They surprise her. It’s not like they called her to an office downtown. Even weirder and raising the stakes even more, they surprise her at her home, [and a] very specific line of action unfolds as they try to ask these questions to get this person to admit something. Built into [the script] there were all these amazing rises and falls of drama and exposition because…she has to answer these questions, so you’re learning all these facts [about her life]…

So it’s at once really different from past [plays], because I usually write it and make up these worlds that the characters move in. But the crossover is that usually in my work there is always female-centric characters or worlds being played with so [Reality Winner’s identity] was a huge resonance. The weird surreal humor of life and this day [being] really dark but totally bizarre in the level of language and action…the FBI agents get obsessed with her cats in this really weird way, like where her cats are and they move between these hard lines of questioning to really banal questions like “how’s the neighborhood?” which I think is a part of their tactics, so we’re playing with that as a tactic [as the text] offers all this texture in conversation and action.

It felt like a really cool step to take on something I didn’t write, to take on something real, and something that I knew pretty early on I wanted to have this pretty realist acting on it…Usually [Half Straddle’s] acting idiom isn’t super realist or naturalistic the whole time in a show, and it became pretty clear when we would do readings of this early on last winter that that was the clearest way to do it; with really good actors treating it naturalistically, and then with this slight edge we break that apart a little bit at a certain point. I was just really excited to take it on, because I never really had a script of my own or anyone else’s that I’d got to do that with.

Could you speak a bit more about your attraction to Reality Winner as a female character and your individual practice with the feminist structural framework that’s heavily associated with your work?

[Reality Winner] was just immediately this person that at once had so many things about her life that were other to me—she’d been in the military for 6 years but starting at age 18, she learned 3 Arabic languages because she was a linguist. Things you learn in the transcript that you’ll also learn in the play is that she owns three guns, but she also teaches yoga. She’s worried in the transcript that they’re going to take her phone because she needs the music to teach yoga. She’s super into her animals. [So] as she speaks in the transcript, it’s this amazing morphing between a 25-year-old, giggly-ish, kind of apologetic young woman, merged with someone who can talk deep national security coded language around TSI clearances [and] PKI passwords. So she can dip totally into a shared language with FBI men, and then she’s also herself and makes these really weird awkward jokes. So its just this incredibly rich character and…I think if I had read about another person that was male-identified who had the same basic story happen to them and they had been arrested for this thing, I would probably be very interested in the story,…because it’s a space I don’t know very much about…But I would not, I don’t think, have had any impulse to go further and stage this and show this…

…Even read the transcript, that’s probably further than most people would go.

Even that! Now that you say that, I probably would have just been like, “oh just some other dude.”
And to go to your second question, I mean I think I sort of just answered it in a way…it’s really a heartbeat thing. I mean, I do have feelings: I don’t need to see as many straight, cis men on stage really and I’ve always been like, not super interested in that [identity] or that sort of heteronormative dynamic...I’m just like there is a lot of that out there. I want to continue to put more of other things that are less seen on stage.

It feels natural to you.

Yeah, it’s not even something I do from top-down, but then people are like “oh, there’s not a lot that’s offered there” so then it becomes sort of political and a mandate and I’m fine with it being that too…for those things to be seen as paradigms on stage and get to cast the kind of people who then fill out those kinds of shows means it’s just a more expanded version of actors, more trans, queer, female, etcetera getting seen.

We spoke a bit about this in terms of the setting of the space and you thinking about audience experience and atmosphere. And in the past you’ve done others shows like Ghost Rings and Ancient Lives too where you were experimenting so much with music and the way the music plays a role. I wonder, in your own work and Half Straddle’s work beyond this show, is music something you feel you’re moving towards? Or was that a tool just for those specific shows? Is that something that is on your radar for this show in terms of telling a story and setting a scene?

Music is something that’s been a core part of the work from the very very beginning. For all the work up to this show, I worked super closely with this composer Chris Giarmo, who’s been the Half Straddle composer and we have an extremely close working relationship. He just was on tour this whole past year with David Byrne…so he couldn’t unfortunately be here…I found Chris thankfully from the very beginning because I wanted music in the shows. The very first show I made was called The Knockout Blow—which we weirdly realized 10 years later has so many resonance with Ghost Rings—which was these characters singing and Chris making the music live on stage. That was our first show and I still didn’t really know what I was up to or what was happening, but that set a tone or an interest…that music was always going to find its way in and if it could, [it would] be as original as possible. It’s such a pleasure to have someone [like Chris] who will lean into this work with me and [who is] so talented as [both] a composer and performer himself…Ghost Rings was a point where Chris was like, “let’s do what we do together, but I want to make music for really good singers…let’s make a whole music project.” It ended up being, as we worked on it off to the side, this whole rock project and it’s almost all sung. Chris is in it, and it’s always performed by really good singers.

This [show] is sort of a jumping off point…not away from music, but just feeling like Is This A Room had to have a huge musical component, I just had to [realize] I can’t work with Chris on this and snap out of it, and sort of lament that. He was off doing something amazing, things don’t always last forever, [and] hopefully we’ll work together again. [But] it also opened this exciting space for Sanae Yamada, who is actually someone I’ve known since college, but we really reconnected as friends because of each of our art pursuits 4 or 5 years ago. She’s a working musician: she’s in a couple of bands [that] tour…and I shot and directed a couple music videos for her. [So] when Chris wasn’t gonna do this, and [knowing that Sanae] makes this synth driving, thriller-y music…[I wondered] if Sanae who’d never done theater would actually do this. Would this rock star come do this? And she was really excited by the possibility.

Not all the Half Straddle [shows] have been music driven. Music will be totally sewn into this, but…she and I are still figuring things out in this residency now...A lot of these ideas that were all help[ful] in getting to this point are morphing and switching as the actors have gotten more off-book with this really crazy text and are running it. I really do stick to that adage that if things can hold without too much tech on them, let that happen and then figure out what you need to manipulate. [I believe that] especially with this show more than ever because it’s holding in super interesting ways because they were real conversations. So that’s a lot of the dance that were doing down [in the theater] now…“where do we need to more this along?” “Where can we excitingly do something with it?” “Where is it cleanest just heard without anything?”

[Music] is definitely in there: [Sanae] is also doing sound design stuff…and composing together with some of the sound design…and there will be plenty in there but we’re not afraid—I mean we’ve been pulling it away from places right now…I mean it may end up back in there—we’re not like afraid to not have music in it. Sanae even said, “I’m going to put together some of these songs in an album even if we don’t use them.” All of these things, even if they’re not there now have informed how we’ve gotten to a certain place. Some of the things she was playing for me in June may not end up in [the play], but they helped us at a certain point or are wonderful songs in relation to the show.

Part of me feels like things should remain a surprise for the show, but how are you experimenting in new ways in Is This A Room?

Sometimes I’m just like, ‘oh well who cares too much about surprises’ (laughs), because hopefully it works when you see it. But the biggest thing that was interesting to me for this show more than others is that this person is real, they are alive now, they’re in a really specific situation…so, what is helpful and important, I don’t even know the right words still, to know about Reality Winner before you sit down and watch this moment in time unfold? And since we can’t really control anything about that—even if we handed out some big thing someone might not read it, or even if we put wall text someone might walk by it—but what can we do that gives them some images or feeling about who that person is?...We have plans to do this, and we’ll see how that goes when we get closer to opening, of having that start from when you walk up to the lobby and some of these images and stuff happening that would be in your brain’s eye and heart’s eye before you got to your seat. 

It’s kind of like priming people to think, maybe not think in a specific way, but priming people to come to it from a specific place.

Yeah with a way that feels possible within the space. We might do a program note, but I don’t want to rely on that. I want it to be artistically present somehow, that felt important. That’s the way we’ve been using the whole space as a conduit into this experience. It’s not this big experiential thing, but getting the heart and brain primed a teeny bit, and seeing if it works. That’ll be an experiment too.

Could you speak to the various ways that you use humor to make meaning? Could you call it dark feminist humor? Has the political climate made that process in general even darker?

Well, in general, humor, undercutting expectations of humor, and weird slowed down or unexpected edges of typical humor set-ups are often what’s in play in Half Straddle shows...Ghost Rings we premiered in April 2016 in New York and happened again in New York in the American Realness festival in 2017. So what else I’ll say there is that, in that crazy moment of the fall of 2016 into that big winter, obviously for many of us in the US, has been a really specific time for a whole bunch of reasons beyond the presidency that we are living under, but…of course everything still circles around that. Questions were coming up like, “What does one with their art now?” “Do things have to be different?” “Do you even make art now?” “What’s the tone of stuff?”

When we were touring Ghost Rings after its premiere, we didn’t tamp down humor, but it felt like we had to tonally deal with the show. Because that show is also me talking about this personal stuff, and it was a little bit like “why should I care about this white woman’s sad personal stories?” We had always [found it] really hard to not have that even in the first place; everyone has their shit, so [my personal stories] had always been tied into [elements] that would operate as storytelling, and emotional lynch-pins that went into all these other places in the show. But that…sort of reframing [of the question] “why say anything now?” was what we attended to, in lieu of humor or anything. Humor operates [weirdly] in [that show] and we didn’t cut any of that or worry about it but, I did re-write certain things to just be a little more address[ive], I would use the word, poetic-esque…[because] the show still operates in this space where I can say why it feels important…

Anyways, the leap to the Reality show is that dealing with humor here feels intriguing because, from my view and all of our views as we work on it, really just strange and funny and surreal things happened that day in her house. And, from a certain standpoint,…and she’s straight up funny in the conversation. She makes jokes, like actual jokes, even in unexpected times. If this was a total Half Straddle show, there are things we would just be pushing so far (laughs). But [because] I want to…be respectful of that material, there is this line that we just don’t want to undercut or cross. That feels like it just makes it stronger and you can really hear it [when you see the play performed], but there are these little pockets of what happened that day that are so weird; how they’re captured on the page with the transcription and non sequiturs, [offer those] really weird, funny places that we always ride on.

But we are allowing some of that to be in there in service of Reality’s actual humor that day to try to carve out the reality of that day with all these dark humor edges built into it; that she is making these jokes minutes before a really big thing she says that changes her life and even after…

Are you at all unsure how the audience will react to such a thing? I mean, we’re talking about, as you were saying, being respectful of the fact that this happened, but also teasing out that surreal-ness and the true characters of those people. Do you think that people will pick up on that? Because I can imagine the audience is thinking about this too, like, “I’m learning, but this is a play, this is a work that’s crafted, how do I,” or maybe some people won’t think about this, “stay respectful of the content matter as an audience member?”

Yeah! We were at a residency during the summer at Dartmouth where you work for a week and present a staged reading. So the stakes are pretty low: [the audience is] sitting down to watch a show of actors with music stands…And that was where exactly what you’re asking about really got tested, because we worked on it and these actors were super good, and there wasn’t any staging or pushing of any ideas in it, and just how some of those parts are, some of the crazy, weird, moments between the agents when they ask something random, the audience would laugh! So…the things that were funny to us in the room were becoming funny to an audience. And then because of how dark [the play] is, because you see this woman’s autonomy shrinking as she lies to an FBI agent.…when it would switch into this weird space that—I felt like I could tell because I’m super sensitive to this [feeling]—the audience then didn’t know—“Whoa, should I have not laughed?”—which is exactly what you’re asking. And, in a weird version that’s always existing in Half Straddle work, but because as much as I love old-fashioned strong laugh points in TV and sitcoms and stuff, I somehow am always trying to cut down on that in my performance sometimes I don’t want to do that as much…So we’ll just see, because that was just a thing where I really felt like that happened. But I felt like it kind of holds, because the last part of the show as performed by these actors, treated straight-forwardly and clearly, if it works, should all hold space for the surreal-ness and the unexpected humor

You shouldn’t have to choose?

Yeah, because that’s all so human, and then it can hold the space for, “Woah, this is actually a quite serious thing all around.” These are government people just doing their job, she made this big mistake for better or for worse, they are here, they all know things are going to be really different in an hour and a half in a not great way for one of the people in this room. Because she’s clearly not some raging criminal…but for the roles that she was in, she broke a pretty big one; I think [the play] has to be pretty intense…

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