Interview with Barbara Hammond, Regarding WE ARE PUSSY RIOT

Researched, interviewed and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Story Listener and Creative Director

CATF:  Why Pussy Riot?

BH: Pussy Riot hit a nerve, not only in Russia but also, maybe even more so, in the West.  They are contemporary artists posing as a feminist punk band.  One of the brilliant things about Pussy Riot is that they are so outrageous and kind of “bad” at what they do – and I mean that as a compliment – no one but themselves could have thought of it. The CIA would never have orchestrated something as original as Pussy Riot.

CATF: It’s an irony that Pussy Riot is homegrown.

BH: Yes, absolutely. I was also attracted to them because they are girls. I like calling them girls. There’s something playful, even innocent, about their actions, though they are obviously very intelligent and at least two of them are mothers. “Girls” is a good word that has been taken away from us.

CATF: They’re like Pippi Longstocking or Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird?

BH: Well, I think they’re in the tradition of young women who stand out because they don’t behave like young women are told to behave.

Kathleen Hanna – one of the founders of the Riot Grrrl Movement which happened in the 90s in the northwest United States and influenced Pussy Riot – said, “Women make natural anarchists and revolutionaries because they’ve always been second-class citizens, having to claw their way out.” It’s true — we have Joan of Arc, Mary Magdalene and Malala Yousafzai . . . people respect and gravitate toward women who speak their minds.  These women often pay a heavy price for that attention (like being burnt at the stake or labeled a whore) but they are often admired and celebrated.

Women’s power in their own culture, in any human culture on earth, has a complicated history. Women can make a claim to be outsiders in their own countries, since they rarely wrote their founding documents, or fought the wars that determined borders, or won the elections that determined the nation’s shape and values.  I appreciate looking at the world from the outside. Outsider status can be a luxury.

CATF: How does a play, specifically, enlighten the story of Pussy Riot in a way a documentary or another genre can’t?

BH: Each audience member will answer this for themselves after they see this play. “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” was a great documentary that reports what happened in Moscow in 2012 and tells its story with video and images and quotes. In my play, I’m moving beyond the news story — I’m using the story of Pussy Riot to examine an aspect of our culture.

CATF: Are you writing a play about Pussy Riot the way Pussy Riot would?

BH: No.  Pussy Riot wouldn’t write a play — Pussy Riot’s actions are spontaneous, public and often get them arrested.

CATF: You want us to be Pussy Riot, don’t you?

BH: I want you to ask yourselves if you are or not.

CATF: But the name of your play is, “We Are Pussy Riot…. It’s not  “Are We Pussy Riot?”

BH: I would say, and I think they would say, we CAN all be Pussy Riot — and if we’re not, why aren’t we?  Are we happy with the status quo?  Do we value order and tradition more than self-expression?  They are all questions worth asking.  One of my working titles for the play was, “We Are All Pussy Riot.” Another was  “Everything is PR.”

The acronym PR is perfect for Pussy Riot. “Public Relations” is just another word for Propaganda.   Pussy Riot self-consciously made themselves undeniable, first of all, with their name. If  they had called themselves “Feminists Against Putin” we would never have heard of them. “Everything is PR” still might be the best title for this play.

CATF: Describing the lessons of Anna Akhmatova’s art, the poet Joseph Brodsky said: “The comprehension of personal drama betters one’s chances of weathering the drama of history.”  Have you comprehended the metaphysics of your personal drama?

BH: You should read my Eva Trilogy. I could not have written “We Are Pussy Riot” without having written “The Eva Trilogy.”  I heard a war correspondent I know tell a young journalist that the suffering in the world won’t make sense to you until you can access and have compassion for your own suffering. It’s understandable to run away from it. It is not something where you suddenly go, “Ah-ha! Now I understand my personal drama.”  It unfolds throughout one’s life.

CATF: The documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” opens with this quote from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” How does this contrast with this quote from John Updike: “Art begins with a wound. Art is an attempt to learn to live with the wound.”

BH: I would word it differently than either one and say the purpose of art is to expose the wound. You expose the wound and then it’s up to the participant in the art whether they are going to live with it or smash it. I don’t think the artist is holding the hammer. The audience decides what they want in their hands. They can have a scalpel or a hammer – or a tourniquet. My job is to expose the wound.

CATF: During the 48 seconds those members of Pussy Riot performed at the altar in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, they sang this: “Shit! Shit. It’s God’s shit!” Is shouting/singing that in a church appropriate?

BH: I don’t think they would have done it if it was appropriate — so no, it was absolutely inappropriate!

CATF: In the documentary, one of the members of Pussy Riot said that talk and compromise get you nowhere, only riot and revolution.

BH: I believe whichever member of Pussy Riot said this was referring to the totalitarian state in which she lives. Sometimes talk and compromise can get you somewhere.  Riot and revolution, too, have gotten people places.  The United States, for example, wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t had a revolution.

CATF: Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, said, “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work.” Is the “in-your-face” strategy of Pussy Riot a form of verbal violence?

BH: A cousin who plays piano in a chamber choir watched the Pussy Riot video and afterwards sent me an email: “I’m an atheist, but I love choral music and it killed me to listen to Pussy Riot destroy Rachmaninoff in a loud ugly punk mash-up. It killed me.” There are many legitimate reactions to what Pussy Riot did in that cathedral. Pussy Riot brought attention to the fact that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church stated that Putin is a “miracle of God” and that believer should vote for him.  I believe that the girls did not intend to hurt the feelings of believers. Maybe they didn’t care about those feelings, but the message they were sending was intended as a political statement, not a statement against the Orthodox faith.

CATF: You said once, “I used to get joy from freedom, and now I find it in intimacy.” How would members of Pussy Riot respond to this?

BH: Give them 20 years and see what they say.

CATF: You end a piece you wrote entitled “How to Stay a New York Playwright” with this: “Now close your eyes again, envision a stage, and watch someone walk on from stage left. Get that pencil and write down what she says.” My last question to you: Close your eyes, someone is walking on from stage left. What is she saying?

BH: “Why can’t it always be like this?”

Read more about WE ARE PUSSY RIOT and Barbara Hammond here!

PALOMA Examines Interfaith Relationships

Ethan Rains and Caro Zeller in “Paloma,” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Ethan Rains and Caro Zeller in “Paloma,” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Playwright Anne García-Romero, talking about her latest work, “Paloma,” said three of the world’s major religions are represented by the three main characters. “One is Muslim-American; one is Puerto Rican, and she’s Catholic; and then the third character is also American, and he is of the Jewish faith.  And so, in the play, I do bring out aspects of each of their faiths.”

She does so by depicting the relationship of the characters to their respective religions. The main conflict of the play, which is currently at the downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center, arises from a romance between Ibrahim Ahmed (Ethan Rains), a Muslim, and Paloma Flores (Caro Zeller), a Catholic. “There is a lot of discord around being able to have a relationship with an interfaith situation,” García-Romero said.

Read the full article from the Jewish Journal here.

Neil Berg and the Rockin’ Roots of ‘The 12’

Neil Berg. Photo by John Moore.

Composer and co-lyricist Neil Berg traces his interest in musicals to an unlikely origin: seeing Annie on Broadway as a boy. “While everyone else loved ‘Tomorrow,’ ” he remembers, “I loved ‘Maybe,’ her ‘I Want’ song.” In an “I Want” song, the protagonist expresses her dreams (e.g. “Annie wants parents”). It’s telling that the budding composer was interested in the song that sets the entire play in motion. Prologue spoke with Neil during rehearsals for THE 12, the rock musical he created with book writer/co-lyricist Robert Schenkkan.

“From the time I could play the piano, around 9 or 10 [I was writing musicals]. I was the youngest of three and rock ‘n roll was what I grew up listening to. From my brother I got The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and classic rock. My sister was into folk — Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul and Mary. And my mother and father were into classical, jazz and opera. Being the youngest, it all trickled down. When I came into my own, I was into the classic rock movement. My favorite albums were all those rock operas — The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ and Genesis’ ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,’ but my very favorite was probably Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall.'”- Neil Berg

To read the full interview by Douglas Langworthy and to see clips of the Denver production of THE 12, click here.