In February 2012, the faces of the Russian revolution were hooded in highlighter-bright balaclava masks. Members of the Moscow-based feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot protested governmental censorship — kneeling in sleeveless dresses and thinly veiled tights and peering out and breathing through tiny slits in the masks’ fabric.
In August of this year, Charlottesville counter-protesters, too, kneeled as they scrambled to repair the damage hate-preaching intruders left behind. Where, then, can one draw the line between free speech and harmful language? This question is more relevant in the United States now than ever.
“WE ARE PUSSY RIOT OR EVERYTHING IS P.R.” opened in the drama department Thursday, initiating a six-show run which will span two weeks. The play follows the true story of three young women involved in the Pussy Riot band-turned-movement in Russia. The women were arrested after a passionate public performance advocating for the separation of church and state at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
Two of these women were imprisoned for years on charges of “hooliganism,” but they emerged as symbols of resistance to censorship and patriarchal oppression in Russia. Increased media attention leading up to the Sochi Olympics ultimately lead to the release of the female protesters.
Fourth-year College student and actress Kath Leggett believes the play offers meaningful opportunities for reflection, especially during this moment in time.
“I think it’s especially important at this juncture,” Leggett said. “Especially now that we’ve seen the ways Russia has interfered with our election and the insidiousness of Vladimir Putin.”
Leggett plays the role of the “Reporter,” who investigates the women’s imprisonment from the perspective of different reporters from around the world — a role which requires the mastery of around 10 distinct accents.
Although the message of the show is as pertinent to the Charlottesville community as ever, advertising for the play did not prove to be a simple task. In the weeks leading up to the the show’s opening, the cast became concerned by an inability to adequately publicize the play. This frustration boiled over when the Drama Department released its seasonal billboard and the title of the play was partially obscured in a black text.
The cast later found out that there were legal restrictions on advertising for this play.
According to Section 18.2-388 of the Code of Virginia, “If any person profanely curses or swears or is intoxicated in public, … he shall be deemed guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.”
As a public educational institution, the University is tied to these same standards of presentational and linguistic morality. When artistic license enters the equation, however, this convention on linguistic expression becomes significantly more complicated.
There is a distinct level of irony in the fact that a democratic state is, to some extent, suppressing the publicity of a show which paints censorship as a dangerous and divisive political tactic.
The drama department’s Assistant Business Manager Judy McPeak has worked directly with a team of student publicists to actively promote the show to students, faculty and members of the Charlottesville community at large. McPeak admitted the department was cognizant early on that the show’s title could contribute to publicity roadblocks.
“We thought that there might be some hurdles to cross,” McPeak said. “We didn’t know what they would be or how they would manifest themselves.”
The department, therefore, decided to err on the side of caution — moving away from conventional, one-size-fits all models of large scale publicity and instead catering to specific audiences via targeted initiatives. This season, for example, the department’s characteristic mass-mail brochure was scrapped.
“We didn’t want a piece from us — U.Va. Drama — arriving into people’s mailboxes and having children maybe get the mail and see, you know, ‘WE ARE PUSSY RIOT OR EVERYTHING IS P.R.’ or the other title, which is ‘Love’s a B—h,’” McPeak said. “We didn’t want them seeing and then asking their parents about that, and then their parents complaining.”
According to McPeak, the best way to challenge people's preconceived notions about the title is to explain the significance of the movement it portrays.
“One of the things that we’re telling people is that this [play] is about what happened here in Charlottesville, even though it happened to these young women and it was in Russia,” McPeak said. “It is about that divide — the ability to protest, the ability to counter-protest and the total separation that it seems like we have now between ‘this’ belief and ‘that’ belief.”
Rehearsals of the play began before classes resumed for the semester, and publicity has begun to ramp up significantly in the past two weeks. Although Leggett understands the complications which have arisen from the play’s title, she is frustrated the play was not advertised more to students.
“You spend your whole day here. Every day,” Leggett said. “You put your heart and your soul and your tears into this.”
McPeak shared this sentiment, expressing her wish that drama students would always garner the full respect they deserve for pouring their entire selves into these plays. Just as student-athletes dedicate four focused years to their sports, arts students also give time to perfecting their craft and uplifting the community through performance.
“We always refer to student-athletes as student-athletes,” McPeak said. “I would like us to always refer to our majors and any student of the arts as student-artists and understand that these people have as much time invested in their art as they do in their other coursework — just like student-athletes.”
“WE ARE PUSSY RIOT OR EVERYTHING IS P.R.” has performances this Friday and Saturday, with additional performances throughout next week.