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Meet the astonishing star of Broadway's Is This A Room
When you do an online image search for Reality Winner, one of the first photos that comes up is of actress Emily Davis. Davis realizes that's an issue, but it's also a testament to her breathtaking performance as the strikingly named intelligence contractor in Is This A Room, currently running at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre. Director Tina Satter's harrowing production uses a verbatim transcript of the FBI's initial interrogation of 25-year-old Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist who was arrested in 2017 for leaking classified information about Russian interference in the 2016 election to the media. Every stutter, every abandoned sentence, even the digressions about pets and CrossFit are there, and redacted bits are dramatized by brief blackouts. The hourlong docudrama, which ran Off Broadway at The Kitchen and The Vineyard Theatre pre-pandemic, gives audiences a visceral sense of the surreality Reality experienced that frightening day in Augusta, Georgia, and how power and gender dynamics were used to break her. Davis' heartrending turn humanizes this idealistic young woman whose plight got lost in the headlines. Hopefully, now that Is This A Room is on Broadway, the profiles of both Emily Davis and Reality Winner will continue to rise—and their images will no longer be confused online. TDF Stages spoke with Davis about the unexpected journey of Is This A Room, how she shakes off intense emotions post-performance and whether Reality is coming to the show.
Raven Snook: I know you've been part of Tina Satter's theatre collective Half Straddle for years, and that after she read the transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner, she immediately called you. Did you have any hesitation about playing this real-life woman?
Emily Davis: There are very few things that I wouldn't do for Tina artistically if she asked me to try. My trust in her aesthetic and her art brain is so huge at this point, having worked on so many productions with her. If she has a kernel of a thought about something that she wants to develop, I'm there. So, I went all in. Luckily, we were given early development periods with Berkeley Rep and New York Theatre Workshop's Dartmouth Residency. The really beautiful thing that those opportunities do is they just automatically make you take things more seriously. It's not a little pet project that we're working on in an apartment anymore. It makes the stakes higher and gets this necessary framing to do the work. Because Tina and I and the other Half Straddle company members are so close off-stage, we have closets full of not fully formed ideas. Until they get taken to an incubator, they don't make it to that next step. With Is This A Room, we were heralded from one place to the next. It was a combination of good fortune and a lot of hard work.
Snook: How familiar were you with Reality Winner's story at the outset?
Davis: I had no idea who she was before Tina gave me the transcript. There just wasn't much about her out there other than that amazing New York Magazine piece, which was the first thing Tina read. I quickly devoured as much as I could about her, but there wasn't a lot. And there still kind of isn't, weirdly. Considering these past few years, it's a little crazy that there's not more coverage. If you search Reality Winner, one of the first images that comes up is me. That probably means there's not enough actual real-deal journalism around her being done.
Snook: The last time Is This A Room was on stage at the Vineyard Theatre, the world was quite different. Now we have a new president and a pandemic. Has our new reality impacted the show in any way?
Davis: It's never just been about this one story, right? Tina's work has always been obsessed with peeling back different layers of girlhood and what she refers to as "girl-speak." The transcript is actually rife with all of those dynamics. The things that were interesting to me about it when we first started working on the show were not necessarily directly related to what was happening in the headlines. All of the things that we're picking at each night still feel very relevant to me.
Snook: I read you've been in touch with Reality on and off. Has that affected your performance?
Davis: I have spoken to Reality a handful of times. Those phone calls and interactions feel oddly perpendicular to this whole experience. It doesn't impact me in the way that one might imagine. I think that's because I've just been in this for so, so long. I've put such intention around the performance and what I want it to look and feel and sound like each night. If I had to describe what it feels like to talk to her, it's like talking to this really tiny voice, like a kitten or something. She's so kind. She's so funny. She's got claws, for sure. But the things that I anticipated would be emanating off of this person, I was right about. They have been confirmed to me by our conversations. So, it only reinforces the choices that I've made. I had to be in South Texas to visit my family this past summer, and I thought there was probably a chance I could actually stand across the lawn from her [where she was in home confinement] and like, see her. But there will come a time to do that, and that was not the time. I have to kind of stay in this imagined world that I've mapped out myself.
Snook: Speaking of seeing her, Reality will be fully released in November. Are there plans to have her attend Is This A Room? (Editor's note: After this interview took place, Reality put in a surprise virtual appearance via Zoom on the show's opening night).
Davis: Oh, it's definitely been talked about! I'm sure that there will be some attempt to get her up to see the show. I know I'm sounding very calm and collected right now. But I'm sure that will totally terrify and freak me out in the actual moment. That would be a very meaningful and challenging thing for me as an artist if she came to see this show.
Snook: Prior to this, your stage career has been on downtown and Brooklyn stages. Was Broadway ever a goal?
Davis: This is such a hard question to answer, and I don't know why. I screamed when I found out we were going to Broadway. I started crying. But it felt like someone was playing a joke on us. We always joke that we're like the Clampetts going to any of these fancy events. So, I've been kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop and then nope, there goes the marquee. It's actually happening. I was very discouraged coming out of college, how I saw that people were cast and the sort of Off-Broadway paradigm and meeting casting directors and being bumped to the next thing and the next thing. I felt that I possessed none of the qualities that would help me make it as an actor in a more commercialized world. Meeting Tina and working with the rest of the people in Half Straddle, I was being flanked by some of the most amazing intellectuals and comedians and writers and just like awesome women, you know? And it was life-changing for me. But I've always been sort of through the side door into the acting world business stuff. So, this is pretty wild.
Snook: It must also be validating!
Davis: Yes! A lot of the time, we're just ready for plays to go away, you know? And so, the fact that this one has continued to have these little mini-lives and that people are just so excited for us, it's extremely validating. And it also makes me feel like a huge group of people is going to get to see what's so special about this performance collective that I've worked with for all these years. It's been such a big piece of my heart and I find what we do so meaningful and special.
Snook: As much as you love doing this show, it looks absolutely exhausting. How do you shake off such intense emotions post-performance?
Davis: Oh, I just drink a ton of water. And I talk to my friends, and I always check in with my peeps, my costars, when we get offstage. It's a hard bumpy ride, but it's also so infused with this kind of deep special friendship and kinship. I feel very cared for in that way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Top image: Will Cobbs, Pete Simpson and Emily Davis in Is This A Room on Broadway. Photo by Chad Batka.