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Monday, September 23, 2019
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NewFest Play to Bring Activists’ Words to Stage

Left to right, Isa Braun (Katya), Allie Wittner (Masha), and Ryanna Dunn (Nadya) rehearse a scene from Barbara Hammond's We Are Pussy Riot, playing March 31-April 3 in the Greene Theater. Photo/Barbara Hammond

Playwright Barbara Hammond wants to give Pussy Riot another shot at getting their message across.

She’ll try it onstage at the Tufte Performance and Production Center’s Greene Theater March 31–April 3, when Emerson Stage performs her new play, We Are Pussy Riot, directed by Kenneth Prestininzi. We Are Pussy Riot is this year’s workshop selection for NewFest, Emerson’s annual festival of new plays. Hammond is the author of Summerland, Eva the Chaste, and Beyond the Pale. 

In 2012, the feminist punk band Pussy Riot played for less than a minute in a Moscow church before being rousted out by police. They turned their performance into a music video called “Punk Prayer—Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” and posted it on YouTube. Within weeks, three members of the band were arrested, and six months later, they were tried and convicted of inciting religious hatred and sent to labor camps.

The women’s political, feminist message was cast as an act of hooliganism by the Putin regime and youthful enthusiasm by Western media, said Hammond.

“[P]olitically, I felt that Pussy Riot brought out the best and the worst of the West’s tendency to glorify dissidents and ignore nuance,” she said. “Nobody wanted the full story, nobody seemed to want the full story, even though Pussy Riot tried to tell it.”

The workshop is a developmental step in the life of a play that allows a playwright to finetune her work and test ideas. David Colfer, general manager/communications director for Emerson Stage, said the Performing Arts Department wanted to give students the opportunity to be part of that process with an established playwright and professional director.

To research We Are Pussy Riot, Hammond first read everything she could find in English on the Internet; spoke with Mike Lerner, who made a documentary about the band; and then traveled to Moscow to interview activists, artists, journalists, anarchists, soldiers, clerics, and members of Pussy Riot themselves. She found them “passionate, sincere, and very real.”

During the ordeal, the women, who wore balaclavas as part of their act, were unmasked, and the media made their faces and identities part of the story—something they oppose, Hammond said.

“Pussy Riot has had to deflect a lot of questions about their appearance, which seems to be much more interesting to the media than the issues they’re trying to raise about the false elections, prison reform, political prisoners,” she said.

All the dialogue spoken by real characters (Pussy Riot members, Vladimir Putin, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Madonna) actually came from their own mouths, which made We Are Pussy Riot the most difficult play she’s ever written, said Hammond

“I couldn’t solve problems by writing dialogue because I was using found dialogue for most of my characters. I had to arrange language I already had,” she said. “I imagine it’s the difference between painting and collage.”

Because of that, very little of the dialogue has changed during the workshop process, but Emerson actors, crew, and stage managers, have helped Hammond see the flow of the production and some scenes have been reordered, she said.

Hammond has been “amazed” by the students’ professionalism and willingness to take risks. Every role is demanding and physical, conventions frequently are broken, and the material requires a lot of research.

“They’ve all gone for it without blinking an eye,” she said.

In 2012, the members of Pussy Riot were roughly the same age as the students who will bring their story to the stage. At times, Hammond said, the students would draw parallels between Putin and our own vain strongman, Donald Trump, or between what happened in Russia and what goes on in our own system.

“I think it’s revelatory to the students to see that people their age are taking their lives so seriously and feel like they can do something about the future of their society, and I hope that doing this play infuses them with the same feeling about their society,” Hammond said.

We Are Pussy Riot will be performed Thursday, March 31, 8:00 pm; Friday, April 1, 8:00 pm; Saturday, April 2, 2:00 and 8:00 pm; and Sunday, April 3, 2:00 pm. To purchase tickets, visit aestages.org.