Barbara Hammond, a playwright in residence at New Dramatists in New York, has been visiting Duke for two weeks to work with students in Jody McAuliffe's advanced acting class and stage her work in progress, “We Are Pussy Riot.” 

The play explores the phenomenon of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who have used performance art to protest and defy the regime of President Vladmir Putin. The masked group of feminists rose to prominence in 2012 when they performed their song “Our Lady, Chase Putin Out!” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral and were arrested for inciting religious hatred.

Hammond said she was approached by McAuliffe, professor of the practice of Theater Studies, to bring the play to Duke, where it will be performed Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. in Sheafer Theater.

“We Are Pussy Riot” is still a living document and is being revised and rewritten even in between rehearsals. Even though the first performance of the play at Duke took place Thursday, Hammond was reworking the script for most of the day Wednesday in order to finish a draft by 5 p.m. for the students’ final rehearsal on Wednesday night.

“No one is expecting a finished piece,” Hammond said. “That’s a very important step in playwriting—to share pieces as they’re being developed.”

Senior Nick Orr, who is in McAuliffe's advanced acting course and working with Hammond to stage the play, said the play is in a "sweet spot" creatively, and it being rewritten between rehearsals has forced him and the other cast members to work harder to learn their parts.

"It has also kept us continuously making sense of the play and our characters, which is important for the vitality of the play," Orr said in an email.

The piece has seen many changes since arriving at Duke, but not necessarily due to the students acting the work, Hammond said. Instead, being at Duke has given Hammond time and space to devote to the play. 

“Having a deadline knowing that the performance is coming forces me to crystallize my thoughts and work with that,” she said.

Being on a college campus has still had a significant effect on the show. Although Hammond said she did not originally plan for “We Are Pussy Riot” to be a college production, she felt the subject matter as well as the large cast size—12, which would be difficult in a commercial production—lends itself to colleges and makes it relevant for students to perform. Most of the characters are college-aged, and there are also "incredible parts for young women," which she said is rare in theater.

She also noted that there is a benefit of working with students of theater rather than full-time actors, even though they may be less experienced.

“It’s also valuable to see the work with nonprofessional actors, with people who are in the early parts of their acting experience, because they bring a truthfulness to their roles. That helped me to see the play for what it really is," Hammond said.

The show also features audience interaction, making it even more necessary to rehearse with a live audience, since it will be performed this weekend. 

”I think of playwriting as more like sculpting than like writing. It’s hard to sculpt something when you don’t have the materials and you’re just imagining it,” Hammond said. “It’s like trying to paint without the paint.”

Immediately after her visit to Duke, Hammond will bring the play to Emerson College in Boston, Ma. for a similar development process.