It started with a nightmare. Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour standing on stage, about to commit suicide in front of an audience that included his family and friends. This spurred the seeds of his play, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, which has now been performed across the world in multiple languages. It has no director, and its compelling conceit is that every actor that performs it is first given the script the moment the curtains are up and they’re on stage, where they then have to learn, discover and perform the play simultaneously.
Our editor Lutfi Hakim watched a showing of WRRR (performed by a different actor in three different languages every night for nearly a week) during its February run at Damansara Performing Arts Centre. He described the play as reminding him of “classical frame stories of central Asia, for example, Attar’s Conference of the Birds and 1001 Arabian Nights” due to its “heavy philosophical bent, the use of animals as characters in surreal settings, and the swift changes between the narrator, characters and the actor.”
Now as someone who had the misfortune of missing WRRR’s Malaysian run, I found, through reading various interviews with Nassim and his collaborators (both dramaturgs and actors), that the story of the play’s inception and how it’s travelled often looms as large as the story within the play itself. An integral part of Rabbit (as the playwright himself calls his work) is the story of how Nassim shipped his words and ideas out of his home country of Iran, unable to follow along due to restrictions that left him unable to acquire a passport. His play was performed for years across the world in various locations and viewed by countless people, without him having seen it once. It’s a neat trick of ventriloquism, to be able to throw your voice that far. Often in discussing the play, Nassim would speak of “manipulation,” of being a performer and trusting a disembodied voice on a page, of the strange ways he, and everyone who’s come in contact with Rabbit, have found to connect through such barriers of presence and absence.
As of 2012, Nassim closed the story of distance attached to his play (for which an empty seat is reserved for him at every performance), when he finally got his passport and was able to travel and watch his play performed for the first time, years after he first wrote it and sent it out to the world. I got to make up for not being able to sit down to watch the play by being given the chance to sit down and talk with the playwright himself when he visited Malaysia, to talk about labyrinthian “anxiety dreams,” structures in writing, and parallel lives in time.
What has it been like, watching the play being performed in three different languages (Malay, English, and Mandarin) here in Malaysia? Is it still a fresh experience for you to be in the audience when Rabbit is performed, or have you gotten used to it by now?
The experience changes with different actors, and different audiences, not to mention different cultures and languages. Even when I watched the show in English [here in Malaysia] – to me it was like a different English version. And when I watched it in Malay, it was so surprising — in the same city, the language changes and the play becomes totally different. So I can still have fun watching it.
My problem is, it took me so many years to write it, so listening to all the lines sometimes gets boring. I’m bored of my own part [in the play].
What does it feel like, watching and hearing these words you wrote and know so well, be performed in other languages?
By the middle of the show, I feel like I can speak the language. Sometimes it’s so funny. Even just watching the show in Malay, I could recognize that you guys have some Arabic words. Because we have some Arabic words in Persian too. They were saying “wajib”, which was something I could understand, that it meant necessary or something like that.
Have you ever had the same nightmare again, the one that first lead you to writing the play?
No. Unfortunately, the nightmares go and renew themselves and come back. [laughs] They’re not just nightmares, let’s put it like… anxiety dreams is the term I would use.
I have a recurring one that revolves around labyrinths.
I have the same one, and mostly I’m in a big building, full of parking lots. And I thought it was only when I was in specific places, like New York, but when I got to KL, I dreamt I was lost in a parking lot in KL.
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned your background as a poet. How did you transition from poetry to plays?
I used to be a poet when I was younger.
Would you not consider yourself a poet any longer?
No, I don’t even consider myself a playwright. The thing is, my father is a novelist. So when I was born – I didn’t decide to be a writer. Even when I wanted to study, I studied engineering, and telecommunicating. And then I quit my studies, I switched to drama. In Iran you have to study for two years and then you can pick if you want to study dramatic literature, acting, directing, set design or puppet theatre. Everybody was like, obviously he’s going to study writing, because I was known a writer before. Or worse come to worst, I would be a director, but I decided to study set design. So I resisted. [laughs]
Was that conscious on your part?
Well, part of it was that I was not sure I could earn enough money through writing and also it was hard for me to study writing, because I couldn’t even let my father tell me how to write. Sitting in a classroom and having beautiful, smart teachers… still, you know, they would go “You have to change this part of your text,” and it could turn into a big fight. I know myself. I didn’t know anything about design, so I could be a good student [that way].
What kind of poetry did you write, when you did write poetry?
Living in such a family as mine, reading many books in Persian — I dare to say, I know how to play with words in my mother tongue. So maybe that was my identity as a poet. But then giving up the whole thing, and trying to write in English, I lost all my power, I became unarmed. As a result I started to work on structures in drama because structures can be translated into different languages, no matter if I need somebody to proofread it when I’m done because when I write in English, it’s about structures. With Rabbit, you can see how it can be easily translated into different languages. So I think that’s the main difference between me being a poet and a playwright.
So with drama, would you say you’re focused more on the structure and not so much themes or symbols in your writing or your stories?
To me, the essence of a poem — poems are mostly about rhythm and words and images [snapping fingers] so just in playing with these three tools, you could be a good poet. But drama is more based on structure, and by structure I’m not talking about themes, I’m talking about games, let’s say.
I read or heard in one of your other interviews that you’re writing a companion piece of sorts to Rabbit, called Cloze Te_t, which would involve other writers. Could you tell us a bit about it?
The idea is I’m going to write a text full of blanks, and then I would ask different writers and audience members to collaborate and make new stories on the stage. With Rabbit, I just wrote 40 pages and I’ve received a thousand pages of emails in return from audience members over the years, so right now I’m the reader, not the writer. That’s how I came to the idea of Cloze Te_t.
Through Rabbit, I talked about myself, I wrote a play, and it became a hit and it became my personal story. And people started to respond, they sent me beautiful emails and I thought, “Who am I to share my story with everybody when we have all these other beautiful stories?” So I thought, I have to invent a structure in which people share their true stories with each other and the stage. So instead of telling a story in a structure, you can find the structure in which you can tell different stories.
Would you ever write another play using the same structure of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit?
I’d rather not do that. The thing is, I’m trying so hard for myself to shift the paradigm of theatre, as a playwright, and so I don’t want Rabbit to become another paradigm. The thing is — I’m the same person, I have the same mind, I would love to have my own distinct style, and maybe you can find similarities in my body of work. But no, I’m not going to repeat Rabbit. Please poison me, if I decide to do that. [laughs]
I’ll leave that task to our readers, should it come to it! So you say right now the project you’re working on is “rewriting Hamlet.” How’s that going, and how does one “rewrite” Hamlet?
The main idea is – there is this famous, kind of international event, it was originally made by a Russian guy whose name is Dimitry Davidoff. And he made a game called Mafia or Werewolf. So I decided to put Hamlet in the structure of that game. As a result, we might end up with a one actor and the stage, and some audience members who cast themselves randomly to perform in the play.
I’d like to ask a little bit about your relationship to your home country, Iran. One could say that you not being able to leave Iran is a huge part of Rabbit’s history and its DNA, making it known as a play written by a person who couldn’t be there to watch, perform or direct it himself. Despite this backstory and how it’s shaped things, have you ever resented not being able to leave?
I always think if I could rewrite the play more conventionally — the way I tell my story, having a director and a traditional casting process — I don’t think it could be such a hit. So I dare say, I think Rabbit is not about an Iranian, it’s about a structure in drama. As a result it has been translated into a lot of languages, but not Persian. We have never performed it in my country, which is so weird, but it also means that I don’t think it defines my relationship with my country. Even though it cannot be denied that it is kind of a geographical play and that the writer is an Iranian.
What is the reason being Rabbit never having been performed in Iran?
That was my decision, and I’ll tell you why. I think Rabbit has two different phases, before it dies. We’re in the first phase now, where the play lets us travel in space, because you’re sitting in KL and you feel like someone is manipulating you and you think, “What is happening?” Somebody somewhere else is putting RM1 in somebody’s pocket, he asks for money and he puts it in somebody else’s pocket, and it’s really weird when it happens.
Now the second phase. People have approached me and asked to perform it in Iran, which would be easy enough to do, it’s not like we cannot do it. But I think it would be good if we can do Rabbit years later in my country because then it’s like travelling in time. Let’s say we’re in 2050, and then there will be this guy in 2010 who’s manipulating us — he talks about Facebook, he talks about other such things — then I think it will work better in my country.
That’s why I’m trying to be so patient; people are so kind, they’ve heard of the success and they want to do it in Iran, but I have to be patient and postpone the Iranian version.
To close off our interview, could you please do a little word association game with us? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the word SKIN?
And of these three phrases, which one do you connect to? What do you think about it? “Comfortable in my own skin,” “crawling out of my skin,” and “shedding my old skin.”
Maybe I would say, not in my own skin. I’ve gotten used to redefining everything – who’s the author, who’s the writer, who’s the director, who’s who – am I in in my own skin? Sometimes I have this feeling of — what if I am in your skin and asking these questions, and what if my dad didn’t marry my mother, if my dad married someone else? I think about the different possible versions of myself maybe living somewhere else.
*Featured Image by Abby Tai.