About this immersive show I found out maybe even before it was fully written. Les Enfant Terrible approached the place where I used to work with the idea of making a piece of VR experience for this production. VR was meant to take place in the prison cell where Nadya Tolokonnikova was kept. The idea was to recreate those feelings of imprisoning, humiliation and brutality whilst listening to Nadya’s prayer. We put together a proposal with few ideas and sent it off. I never met the client, spoken to them or seen the original brief or script, so I’m not entirely sure how the conversation ended, but we never got to work on the VR part… So obviously when I found out from social media that show is on there was no border to my curiosity to go there and find out for myself what experience is like. I really wanted to find out how did they deploy that part of the story. Did they actually do VR in the end? Who produced it? Or what did they do instead of it? So I went for the answers. No phones or cameras were allowed to use during the performance, to not break the immersion, so all i had left were my memories written down.
The experience started with all group members getting together by the door and filling in the form that we were given. It was asking name, age, twitter and instagram accounts, how we find out about the show, on what money did we get the tickets, and in the end was a list with the number of statements from which each had to choose those they believe in most. Got to say I didn’t read the line with the tiny letters, so i ticked all the boxed before I found out that was meant to choose just one.. The actress with a quite high and quite annoying voice wearing pussy Riot t-shirt greeted us upon the arrival and asked to place our forms into the drawers in the wall that much the numbers stamped earlier on our hands. It was 13 of us in total. In a bit we were asked us to go back to our drawers again and collect cards that were put there for us based on our answers in the forms. Mine said: “Don’t Censor Me”… wonder based on what specifically they gave that card.. Then we were asked to put on a balaclavas of our preference and enter the first room.
Starting in the church-like environment with the painted as saints world’s leaders (Putin, Trump, and 2 more), the experience took us on a full journey of Pussy Riot’s imprisoning. We sat on the benches watching the priest actress’еs preaching. Next, the girl in balaclava entered the room asking us to stand by her side and raise our cards. As we did so, the police actresses appeared to arrest us, get us on the knees and take to the next room – which was a police office. Two ladies police officers played a short act about police and us – the convicted. They asked two members of the crowd to play “rock paper scissors” game. The girl that lost the game was pulled out in the center of the room and sat on the chair. The next thing they told her was to take off her cloth. She rejected, they insist, she rejected, they insist… eventually she took off her shoes, trousers, and jumper… For a second I thought she might’ve been an actress, as it felt bit too much to ask for from visitors, as it was quite a humiliating thing to do and be part of… I was watching people’s faces and their reactions, some were quite shocked, some were smiling provokingly, whereas other remained still, but no one dared to say anything. When the girl was standing in her underwear, police actres told her to take off the remainings – and that’s when they stopped it and the half naked girl admitted she was an actress… What proved my point.
The next door took us into the light corridor made up from LED stripes layered in between fake wall cut outs. It took us into the dark room, split in half with the security grille. On the other side the set was built as court-circus environment with the actress dressed up as a judge-puppet doll. Very well played, scripted and visually harmonical – this act was maybe one of my favorite parts of the show. As puppet-judge found us all guilty, we went to the next room – the prison. I was the first to enter the space and i found one of the actresses standing in the very center of the room. I stood up very close to her, starring in the eyes, wondering how will she respond. She mirrored me for few seconds while the rest of people were getting inside the room,“interesting” – she said and walked away. People were getting into the seats by the sides of the wall, when they were told to stand up. Here is when i started to misbehave – i remain seated. Actress raised her voice, but i was still not following her commands. I chose to misbehave for the number of reasons; 1. I kinda felt like they were waiting for someone to start acting differently; 2. I was very curious is there is a route B, and if not how far would they go if not physical 3. I felt inspired by the riots spirit – It was my little protest to not follow the script… Eventually everyone got seated and then raised back on their feet again. We were told to put on an overall prison costumes that matched our numbers. As we were dressing up, actors were throwing some humiliating and insulting comments to add more pressure and roughness to the situation. As we all got dressed, we formed a row from 1 to 13 and made our way to the next part.
Here we had to pick a favorite workstation and get on with work. I stopped by the table with the pin badge machine, which seemed quite fun to do. As i got my hands on it i realized that something was wrong with it – it was clearly made broken, so no one copes with their tasks and they can blame us for that. I started chatting to my neighbour inmate and laughing about it, when they told us to stand up and switch the tools. Everyone but not me. Actress policewoman called me up by my number and told to lie down on the floor, i was rejecting. I threw some comments in, they told, well screamed to shut the fuck up, i was still rejecting. I wasn’t following their rules to see how far would they do – wondering what’s their limit. Part of me wanted to resist to the end and do not follow their commands at all, but something in me was thinking that they may take me out from the experience completely if i don’t play the game, and that would’ve been a bit disappointing… So eventually i did lie down on the floor, but not as they wanted, and then i think they reached their limit of pressure they were allowed to express. She just kept on giving me these tense and staring looks, and so did i, mirroring her back to her.
From the “tool room” they got us into the “exercise room” where we stood in line and had to repeat silly exercise from the screen in front. The police girl warned us that those who disobey and do not perform exercise will be punished, and the punished will be not the one who misbehaved, but other inmates. So obviously i chose to be that person, as it was too tempting to find out what will they do. I stopped repeating the moves and stand still. The alarm went on an I was taken out of the line and faced to wall. And.. no punishment follow… As the next to happen – they took us all into our private cells, which wasn’t really dependant on me misbehaving, as it was just a next part of the story where VR was meant to be.
As i got into my cell they closed the door leaving us in the complete darkness. I was trying to find the headset, as I knew that would’ve been a place for it. But in front of me were just the headphones, so I put them on. There were no headset in the cell…. They chose to keep this part very simple – stereo via headphones, not even positional sound. The narration was Nadya’s prayer and call to stand up for your truth. Underneath our seats they left cards with our affirmations that we were given in the beginning. As narration was over cell doors automatically opened up and we all came out holding our cards. We were asked to stand in the center of the room, face the light, introduce ourselves and speak out the belief on the card that we fight for. Those bits were filmed and added to the common reel with other show participants. This was the end of the immersive experience. On the ground floor there was also a room with some of their posters, paintings, and videos from their performances.
In the conclusion I can say that yes – the desired result was achieved. I got to feel the tension and pressure creators wanted to audience feel. However I do come from post-ussr country myself, and i do know what prisons are like there, even though thankfully i never been there myself. Obviously it is impossible to show in the full extent the real brutality that is practised there, otherwise it would end up in a massive scandal if visitor were treated as bad here in UK. But even this highlights on how fucked up the system is back there… A lot can be said on this subject, however the aim of this review is to reflect back on the experience, rather than on the prison situation back there. So the experience – great acting, wonderful set and costumes… loved it a lot and do recommend to attend. It was very essential for me to see it from the professional point, as I’m currently involved in the immersive theatre production too. Would VR make it better? – Yes. Was it bad without it – No. Since no emerging tech was used throughout the whole experience it felt alright having just audio experience in the cell. However having a binaural positional sound in the cell would elevate in a lot creating a mesmerising illusion of telepresence.