At each performance of the play, ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit,’ a new actor is given the script to perform – without ever having read it before. ‘White Rabbit’ has been staged in nearly 50 countries, and Fort Worth’s Amphibian Productions is giving the play its North Texas premiere this week.
But why would anyone set up such a solo reading — with all of the loss of control and direction it entails?
One reason the playwright Nassim Soleimanpour created his play ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ is he couldn’t get a passport to travel outside Iran. He’d refused to fulfill his country’s mandatory national service. So, trapped in Tehran, he figured a way to let his play travel. There’s no director, no rehearsal. A different performer every show gets an envelope with the script inside, opens it – and begins a play he or she has never read.
But Soleimanpour’s passport problems have led many to think ‘White Rabbit’ is just an outcry against Iran’s repressive Islamic regime. In fact, he says, when ‘White Rabbit’ debuted in America in 2011, “the emails that I was receiving were like, ‘We know things are very hard in Iran, we know that this is what you’re talking about,” and if I could reply – I think there was a moment when I gave up, I couldn’t tell everyone, “Hey, it’s not just about Iran.’ ”
But then, recently — America had a presidential election.
“Now I receive many emails from people in your country,” he says, and they’re “telling me, like, ‘Wow, this is about the States!” And I’m like, eventually, after seven years, y’know? So yeah, it’s very political, but it’s a very general phenomenon, what the play’s talking about.”
With its story about rabbits and bears and crows, ‘White Rabbit’ is actually like an Aesop’s fable about learned obedience and the forced choices we often face in life. Ironically, after all of Soleimanpour’s passport troubles, it turned out he has such poor eyesight, he couldn’t have done his national service anyway. These days, he lives in Berlin.
It’s a historical city that’s fascinated him, he says, and it’s more or less centrally located when it comes to the different theater productions he’s been working on — like the play he wrote after ‘White Rabbit,’ called ‘Blind Hamlet.’ Once again, no director, no rehearsal, no set, but this time, not even an actor. Just a Dictaphone that invites seven audience members up onstage and gets them to act out the story.
“It’s like a ‘theater machine,’ you know?” Soleimanpour says. A ‘theater machine’ is a traditional improv warm-up in which one actor starts miming an action, any action. The other actors, one by one, add to that action, extending it, extrapolating from it, anticipating it, until all their movements are connected in sequence as if they’re robots working on an assembly line.
So being stuck in Iran may have prompted the playwright to head down the particular political rabbit hole in ‘White Rabbit.’ But Soleimanpour says he actually wanted to realize ideas he’d long had about theater, about keeping it fresh.
“I was always obsessed with what happens in rehearsals in comparison with performances,” he says. “Like, I always thought, rehearsals more fun, we make mistakes, we laugh – and then it becomes stale. And we share the stale bread with the audience.”
Hence, a new actor every night. In Fort Worth, there’ll be just five performers this week, doing just one show each. ‘White Rabbit’ even includes places where the actor ad libs and interacts with the audience. So each show is a bit – unpredictable.
But why would an actor want to perform a show like this? It’s set up as ‘a cold reading.’ That’s when you just plunge through a script, unprepared. But here, you’re doing this in public with no direction, no other actors for help. Accidents are going to happen.
“There’s a little anxiety about it,” says Cameron Smith, “but the mystery attracted me to it, y’know?”
Smith is not a professional actor. He’s a Fort Worth musician and producer best known for his rock band War Party. Yet he’s one of the performers enacting ‘White Rabbit’ at Amphibian.
“I’ve done some acting in front of a camera,” Smith says, “but I assumed the script would have a lot to do with audience reaction just because, y’know, they asked someone who’s not really an actor to do it.”
That’s the lesson Soleimanpour says he’s taken from all this. He’s created a story that fits almost any country and a play that works – no matter who reads it.
“What we’ve experienced so far,” he says, “is that the text finds a way to become friends with the performers and the audience. And hey, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from these projects is that people are way smart. You should just trust them. They know what to do.”
Well, actually – not until the performer tears open that envelope, and starts to read.