Cast members rehearse for the immersive theater show “Inside Pussy Riot,” which runs through Dec. 24. (Shannon Jensen Wedgwood for The Washington Post)

A punk protest requires meticulous planning. On a gray afternoon in early November, strips of black-and-white tape divide a warehouse floor into sections labeled “Cathedral,” “guards” and “holding area.” Three or four women wearing jeans, sweatshirts and multicolored balaclavas (a.k.a. ski masks) stand in each square, holding scripts. One mimes striking down a gavel, like a judge. Another seems to be posing for a mug shot. A pair do jumping jacks.

“We’re back to minute zero!” shouts a stagehand carrying a clipboard. The balaclava-ed women all swap places and rehearse each scene again.

It’s a week before this past Tuesday’s premiere of “Inside Pussy Riot,” an immersive theater experience staged in London’s Saatchi Gallery, and writer Oliver Lansley wants to get the timing right. Lansley collaborated with Russian conceptual artist Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founding member of the titular feminist protest group, on the show, which re-creates the experience of the Pussy Riot members who were arrested and imprisoned in 2012 for performing an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in a Moscow cathedral.

Following a narrative that roughly resembles Pussy Riot’s, audience members stage a demonstration on a cathedral’s steps, testify before a judge and complete prison drills. Each member of the all-female cast plays every role — policeman, judge, prison guard — swapping costumes in between runs. Hence, the careful choreography. “It feels anarchic,” Lansley says during a break. “But at the same time you’ve got an audience going through every 15 minutes, so it’s got to be planned with, like, military precision.”

That’s true, apparently, of even the most anarchic demonstrations. On another gray London afternoon, Tolokonnikova sits in a South Kensington cafe. Off-duty, she dons leggings and a Hello Kitty backpack but no balaclava. The “punk prayer” itself, she says, followed weeks of discussions and rehearsals. Pussy Riot fine-tuned every detail, including the lighting of the cathedral’s dark interior and the placement of the members’ backpacks during the performance.

“You have to rehearse what you do when a policeman starts to pull on your leg,” Tolokonnikova says, sipping tea. “So one person is pretending to be the policeman, and the other person is standing on the table, dancing.”


Nadya Tolokonnikova poses on the set of “Inside Pussy Riot.” (Chris J. Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images)

Tolokonnikova first became interested in protest art as a teenager in Norilsk, Russia, one of the most polluted places in the world. In an article intended for a local newspaper, she wrote about the smog from nickel mines that turned the snow on her street black. But no paper she could find would risk censorship to publish the article, and she became disillusioned with Russian media. Shortly thereafter, she viewed an exhibition by the dissident artist Dmitri Prigov. Perhaps as an artist like him, she thought, she’d have the freedom to explore dangerous ideas.

At Moscow State University, Tolokonnikova read Sartre and Foucault but preferred to convey her own ideas through actions, rather than words. At night, she made molotov cocktails, and often came to class in the morning smelling like gasoline. She and her classmates occasionally staged protests in the foyer of her apartment building.

In Moscow, Tolokonnikova met her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, who wooed her by telling her he knew Prigov. The couple joined the leftist art collective Voina and planned to collaborate on a demonstration with the dissident artist, but he died of a heart attack on the day the protest was planned.

Voina members carried on and continued to make radical statements. To protest the 2008 presidential campaign of Dmitry Medvedev, the chosen successor of Putin (who would regain the office in 2012), members of the group engaged in sexual intercourse in the Moscow Biological Museum.

“I’m a pretty shy person,” Tolokonnikova says, adjusting her Hello Kitty backpack. “But in a protest, you can do almost anything. It’s like a role in a movie.”

Tolokonnikova and a few other Moscow-based protest artists later formed their own all-female group. The membership of Pussy Riot fluctuates: The anonymizing balaclavas, Tolokonnikova says, are meant to suggest that anyone could be part of the group. But Tolokonnikova became an international celebrity in August 2012 when a Moscow judge sentenced her, along with Pussy Riot members Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” following the punk prayer (Samutsevich’s sentence was suspended following an appeal).


Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow on Aug. 17, 2012. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

In prison, Tolokonnikova alleges, she and other inmates were overworked, intimidated, beaten, and denied food, sleep and even bathroom privileges (After Tolokonnikova published an open letter describing prison conditions, the Russian president’s Human Rights Council investigated and verified many of her claims). But imprisonment, Tolokonnikova says, only strengthened Pussy Riot — indeed, the group’s trial attracted media attention around the world.

“If I had a chance to speak in a school for government workers, I’d tell them there’s no point to taking political prisoners,” she says. “They’ll stick to what they believe in and get out of prison stronger.”

After her release, Tolokonnikova hoped to capitalize on Pussy Riot’s growing fandom to reach a broader audience in Russia and abroad. She and Alyokhina launched an alternative media outlet called MediaZona, as well as an NGO focused on prisoners’ rights. Last fall, Pussy Riot released a video titled “Make America Great Again,” lampooning then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and in October, some members staged a protest inside Trump Tower. Recently, the group released a video that identified Trump and Putin alike as leaders of oppressive “police states.”

Tolokonnikova hopes that “Inside Pussy Riot,” part of a Saatchi Gallery exhibition of post-Soviet protest art timed to the 100th anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution, will speak to European and American audiences who might feel disaffected by the current political climate. (Al­yokhina has also created a play about her experiences in prison, which was performed in London, New York and Maryland.) A show staged at a major art gallery is likely to have a different tone from, say, the provocative anti-Medvedev protest. But that might be a good thing, Tolokonnikova says.


Director Christa Harris and writer Oliver Lansley at a rehearsal. (Shannon Jensen Wedgwood for The Washington Post)

Lansley, of British theater group Les Enfants Terrible, met Tolokonnikova through mutual contacts in the art world. Known for immersive shows such as the Olivier-Award-nominated “Alice’s Adventure’s Underground,” Lansley didn’t consider himself a particularly political artist: Protest art often struck him as a bit preachy. But after talking with Tolokonnikova, he decided Pussy Riot’s vision matched his own.

“They’re rebels and protesters, but it’s not done in a righteous way,” Lansley says. “They’re kind of art provocateurs.”

“Inside Pussy Riot,” Lansley says, will have a “lunatics-taking-over-the-asylum” kind of vibe, with audience members thrown into all manners of absurd scenarios. One idea was to have Pussy Riot’s circuslike trial played as a literal circus, with a clown presiding as judge. The experience will end with a party of sorts, to celebrate audience members’ “release” from prison and symbolize the rewards of activism.

Which doesn’t mean the theater group’s not taking the politics of it all seriously. On rehearsal day, Lansley and director Christa Harris watch the balaclava-ed women around them and point out that the decision to have an all-female cast has taken on new meaning in the midst of an international discussion about sexual harassment and gender equality in the art world.

“We want to politicize [the show] in a positive way,” Lansley says. “Nadya talks a lot about putting the joy back into protest.”

After another run-through, the cast takes a break — exactly 10 minutes — and poses for a birthday photo for Tolokonnikova, who’s out of the country at the time. Lining up, they make peace signs with their hands and stick their tongues out of the holes of their balaclavas. “Happy Birthday, Nadya!” the punk protesters scream.