'Inside Pussy Riot' Immersive Political Theater Experience In Works: Exclusive Interview

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Film by Zarina Kodzaeva
Video still from 'Inside Pussy Riot'

Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot and London-based theater company Les Enfants Terribles (Alice's Adventures Underground) announced Monday (July 24) the immersive political theater experience "Inside Pussy Riot," set to open at a to-be-determined London venue this November for a limited six-week run.

The campaign, which will be crowd-funded, was launched via Kickstarter. Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova, a co-creator of the series, will take part in a selection of shows including the opening day.

The immersive program will aim to transport the audience into the journey Pussy Riot endured five years prior, when they became a household name worldwide, after a staged punk rock demonstration in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ in 2012 landed some of the all-female group’s members, including founder Tolokonnikova, in jail and charged with “hooliganism.” The protest of Russian president Vladimir Putin earned them a nearly two-year stint in prison, with Nadya serving 20 months, but the injustice of the incarceration achieved resounding support from a fast-growing global fan base.

The "wild," Sleep No More-esque show will allow the audience to become a participant in their past ordeal, experiencing exactly what the group members went through during their imprisonment, from the original church performance, to the court trial and prison cells.

"We're going to recreate Russian courtrooms, a real Russian labor colony, solitary confinement cells, priests who shout about banning abortions and many more absurd, but real-life things that exist in Russia today," the Kickstarter explains. "The audience will learn what it means to be a political opponent in Russia today. We’ll take you on a journey from the cathedral altar deep into the vaults of the Kremlin itself. Hopefully, this is a journey that you’ll only have to make once in your life."

The producer of the show, Alexandrina Markvo, founder of the London-based company Bird&Carrot, explains the inspiration behind the project as follows: "Our goal is not just to create a breakthrough piece of theater, but to develop something that can promote the cause of human rights protection, educate people about the problems in Russian legal and judicial processes and give audiences an idea of how fragile our seemingly safe society actually is."

Adds Les Enfants Terribles' James Seager: "Creating an immersive and detailed world is an inherently expensive proposition but something we believe is important in order to truly transport audiences into a realistic environment that fully serves the Pussy Riot story.  Now is a perfect time to remind audiences what actually happened and how one's basic human rights and freedom of expression  can be taken away at any point."

As for the rewards for pledges? Fans can earn the appropriately-titled "Kremlin Stooge," signed Pussy Riot original prints, "Riot 101," a famous Russian alphabet coloring book signed by Nadya, "Kill the Sexist," a friendly postcard sent to Vladmir Putin ahead of his 2018 campaign, and more. "Inside Pussy Riot" will need to raise a minimum of 60,000 pounds for the production in advance in order to secure a theater for the debut run, and donations can be made here.

Below, Billboard caught up with Nadya ahead of the announcement to discuss the concept's origins, the current global political landscape, and why now is the perfect time to reflect on her imprisonment.

Take us back to the genesis of this idea: How did you first decide to develop this new immersive theater project and what your hopes for it?

I think that immersive theater as a medium has interesting potential. It's something that exists on the border between contemporary art and theater. If you add a political dimension to this installation, it starts to look really exciting to me.

I've always been suspicious about the idea of traditional stage. I mean, I get it, I understand it, but I want to see more audience involvement. Brecht's, Godard's attempts to destroy the fourth wall between the audience and performers, seem to me like a right way to go. Pussy Riot's biggest thrill is to break through the traditional binary opposition between the audience who's supposed to be passive and simply receiving and artists who we see as a leading force. I prefer to see an interaction and collaboration between these two forces.

I've been interested for a while what may happen if we combine the potential of immersive theater with political agenda, I think it may be a powerful activist tool. Our goal is to show people what it means to be a prisoner, what it means to be silenced. When you're outside of prison it's easy to forget what kind of hell is going on behind bars. We should not though, because it happens with people who are just like us. And having in mind the latest political tendencies of the world arena, i.e. the rise of dangerous pro-authoritarian politicians like [U.S. President Donald] Trump, it's useful for everybody, I think, to be aware of the dark side of the "strong man" leadership. You have unjust corrupt courts, no independent media, GULAG-like prisons, prosecutions of political activists.

How did you connect with Les Enfants Terribles? 

I connected with them through my friend Sasha Markvo, who is based in London and knows the local theater scene. I've visited LET's Alice, and I immediately started to ask myself what would happen if we combined Pussy Riot's political agenda and LET's amazing skills to create an alternative reality.

Did you have other immersive theater in mind as inspiration for the show (Sleep No More, etc.)?

I like Sleep No More a lot. I've visited this show in NYC and wanted to live in The McKitrick Hotel until the end of my life. They are good friends of ours, and we are thinking to make a project with them too.

How has the collaboration evolved from the initial idea to execution?

We started to think about this piece of immersive theater in 2014 when we got out of prison -- so it was cooking for a second. Since we were freed, we decided to focus on the prison reform, provide lawyers to prisoners, collect information about the prison system in Russia and abroad. We founded an independent media outlet in 2014, Mediazona, and we cover how the law enforcement system works in Russia. So this immersive theater project is a part of this chain, something that exists on the border between activism and contemporary art.

Will Pussy Riot be appearing in the show or will actors play you?

Anybody can be Pussy Riot, it's a movement rather than a band. I will take part in the show at the day of premiere.

It will premiere this fall -- what are you planning for the big unveiling?

Our biggest obstacle will be: how will we remain as politically radical as possible? I'm not interested in being part of something that just uses prison to entertain the audience. It's not really entertainment for me, more like a call to action. My interest is to bring to the gallery with me all our uncomfortable questions about 1 percent and 99 percent contradiction. My interest is to make a master-class for activists and future prisoners: What're the best ways to survive and go through this hell.

The project will attempt to submerge the audience in your experience. Tell us about the breadth of what will appear.

It starts from your conversation with the priest who tells you that women in Russia should not have any reproductive rights. Then you're making a performance in the church, being arrested, put in a solitary confinement, then labor camp where you have to produce police uniforms.

Why did you decide to crowd fund the project via Kickstarter?

My hope that our supporters here will be those who still believe in art, that art can be a powerful tool in fighting injustices, that art can transcend through languages and countries and help us to create a global political action. LET and we want to re-create the Pussy Riot story with the hope that it can inspire another activists to make their own mischievous radical actions.

Are there plans to expand this to other cities globally?

NYC, and then we'll see.

With the current global political landscape with regard to Russia, the timing couldn’t be better. Did any of the recent headlines aid in the push to do this now?

Trump-Putin craziness is highly damaging for vulnerable groups of people. There is so much hypocrisy, greed and lying involved in politics, nobody really can survive in this rotten air. There should be an alternative for all of that, otherwise we're all walking dead.

Donate to Inside Pussy Riot here.