Broadway theaters have opened their doors again after shutting down for 16 months amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the new shows and classic productions are two unique plays: "Dana H.," written by Lucas Hnath, and "Is This A Room," directed by Tina Satter. Both shows ran off-Broadway in smaller theaters before the pandemic, but were able to open their doors to larger audiences starting September 2021.
"Dana H." tells the real-life story of playwright Hnath's mother, Dana Higginbotham, who was kidnapped and held captive for months by a patient she mentored at a psychiatric ward in 1998. The play is like no other on Broadway: Instead of a traditional script, the production is based entirely on transcripts from a series of interviews with Higginbotham. Instead of a traditional performance, acclaimed actor Deirdre O'Connell lip-syncs every word, sound and movement of those transcripts, so the audience sees her essentially channeling Higginbotham.
“I do a lot of theater, and I never did anything like ‘Dana H.’ there,” O’Connell told TODAY. “Nobody’s quite done this particular thing.”
"Is This A Room" is also based on a set of transcripts, but it's performed more traditionally. It's based on the case of Reality Winner, a former American intelligence specialist who leaked a confidential report about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Sutter worked on the transcript from the day Winner was taken into custody. This play features actor Emily Davis playing Winner and three other actors playing the men who came to arrest her.
Both actors said that learning how to perform their parts, based on the true stories of real women, was tricky. To prepare, Davis spoke to a journalist who had closely covered Winner’s story, exchanged letters with Winner herself and later had the chance to speak with Winner’s family. O’Connell listened to the several days’ worth of interviews that Higginbotham had recorded, then went into “isolation” to memorize the recording down to each breath.
“It was a very lengthy, arduous process,” said O’Connell, who spends the entire performance perfectly in sync with the pre-recorded audio. Any error on her part throws off the entire 75-minute play. “It’s like I’ve built a tunnel from (the recording) to my mouth.”
Both shows are playing in repertory (aka sharing a theater and performance schedule as companion pieces) until November 2021. They were initially scheduled to run through January, but, despite critical acclaim, low ticket sales led to a closing announcement. A surge of interest led them to extend the performances again through the end of November.
"There was a great dissonance between how the shows were being received and then learning they were going to abruptly close and I think it was hard ... to not internalize that as a failure on our parts as performers, which is a terrible thing," Davis, who plays Winner, told TODAY. "Now, we can celebrate this a little more. That's what the extension feels like: A small opportunity to celebrate the work of both shows a little further."
In addition to their sudden popularity and critical success, both shows have been praised for their unique structures and how they cover topical issues.
The piece is unchanged, but it was able to sink into a darker and richer and sadder and more empathetic and scarier place. ... It simply states a very clear portrait of the world we live in."
O’Connell said that she was struck by the relevance of “Dana H.” when she first began performing it several years ago, but the pandemic only made it seem more timely.
“Before the pandemic, there was a connection that you could make to the #MeToo movement, there were a lot of thoughts about trauma and feminism that were kind of boiling through the culture ... Then the pandemic, the world got turned upside down, and I wasn’t sure where (‘Dana H.’) would land, and I couldn’t really approach it intellectually.
“It landed in a more profound spot, and I'm not sure if I can describe how that worked, but it has to do with the mystery of ‘Who lives in our country? Who runs our country? How do we raise our boys? How do we adapt in these situations?’” O’Connell continued. “And I feel like those questions are being asked in a more profound way. We’re being forced to ask those questions by the time we’re in. The piece is unchanged, but it was able to sink into a darker and richer and sadder and more empathetic and scarier place. ... It simply states a very clear portrait of the world we live in.”
Both shows examine gender dynamics and touch on the role that police and other officials play when it comes to protecting women. Higginbotham mentions frequently that the police were not willing or able to help her escape her captor, while Winner was eventually given the longest sentence ever imposed for unauthorized release of government information.
"It's in the zeitgeist. People think about gender dynamics in a very different way," Davis said. "It's very heartbreaking to watch this woman trying to be accommodating at every turn, even though she knows life is about to be different. It's just quietly devastating."
Davis said that it was also important to her and Satter to make the play address more than just what was written on the page. While the script is word-for-word what's said in the transcript, it was up to Davis and her fellow actors to give them meaning and determine the tone, mannerisms and movements of the people they portrayed.
“Tina and I, within taking this story, chose to ask questions, to really poke at this one situation and see ‘What other questions does it bring up?’ And in order to do that, we’re going to put our hands on it and interpret it. We’re going to decide how broken down this woman was on this day. We’re going to decide how we feel that she was manipulated or that we feel like her space was invaded,” Davis explained. “This was all imagined by us.”
Since "Is This A Room" entered development, Winner's story has remained in the headlines. In June 2021, Winner was released from prison after serving a sentence since 2018. A new ending to "Is This A Room" gives audiences an update on Winner's situation, and Davis said that hearing that epilogue each night made the show hit even closer to home for her.
"I think that watching the show, watching how it sits in the world, feels differently as the years go by," Davis said. "The more people learn about (Winner) has made me feel really proud ... I feel really proud of what we've made, especially because we're in such great company with 'Dana H.'"