Don’t read anything about this play until you see it

Today I was informed by two people close to this research project — my regular lunch colleague Grahame R.  and my research assistant Kelsey J.  (both of whom are currently in Alberta) — that there was a show performed at Magnetic North Theatre Festival that is absolutely central to my research and that they have conspired not to tell me anything about it at all.

The show is White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Here is a link to the show’s Canadian blog, hosted by Volcano Theatre, which I have been forbidden to read. (You shouldn’t either — unless you have already seen the play.)

The premise of the play, which I have gleaned from my secretive friends, is that it is to be performed each night by a different actor. There is no prior rehearsal. At the beginning of the show, the actor opens an envelope containing the script and begins to read it/perform it. (I gather there are also stage directions in addition to the dialogue). The hook, then, is the dual experience of the performance. In worldB, the world of the fiction, the audience is engaged by the story. In worldA, the audience is witness to the work of the actor as he or she navigates this entirely novel performance text. I can imagine it: We can see the actor thinking. We can see their surprise as they know what happens next a split second before we do. We can see the performance evolve in real time without any sense of how the moment of  “now” will connect with the moment “next.”  In this way, the actor stays rooted and visible (much more than usual) in their worldA persona. And indeed the marketing for this play has emphasized the presence of the actor qua actor prominently listing the names of the actor who will tackle this challenge and in general selecting actors who are “names.” The Calgary cast featured acclaimed performers Daniel MacIvor, Rebecca Northan, Sheldon Elter and Denise Clarke. By eliminating (or reducing to split seconds)  the time available for the actor apply their craft and develop the technical structures for creating a fiction, the actual actor inheres somehow. Not quite stranded but more present than usual. The actor is always already fictionalized by the audience perception of theatre as theatre, and yet…by changing the rules of the game in this way and rendering the actor vulnerable, the realness of the actor will flicker up.

By contrast, it is also useful to consider the unintended actor, that is, the actor with no technique at all. These are not bad actors, but non-actors who act (or don’t). The most notable example that I have recently been witness to is Asha Jain in A Brimful of Asha. In this auto/biographical plays, Ms. Jain appears as herself. By her own admission, she is not an actor. And she doesn’t try to be. In fact, Ms. Jain is absolutely wonderful in her awfulness as an actor. When she tries to act, and there are moments in the play where it seems clear that she is delivering a rehearsed bit of text, it is terrible. (Sorry but it is.) But kind of fascinating terrible. (I thought it was riveting.) When she is herself (or at least it seems that way to me), ad libbing and haranguing her son the actor Ravi Jain or bantering with the audience, she is a charismatic personality–opinionated and hilarious. Again the efforts of the audience to fictionalize this character are stymied (or at least the facade is made more porous, if you will) by the actor’s inability to produce sufficient clues? evidence? material?  for the audience to create in perception a  fully-fledged character, or is the issue that the actor is unable to suppress those same clues? evidence? etc of their real world existence.

Question (a few questions): How to better describe and characterize precisely what is happening in these two instances? How is the basic phenomenological perception of the fictionality of these characters being subverted? Specifically in terms of our understanding of these two shows, what is gained by the interpolation of the actor as a real-world person? What is lost? How do these quirky techniques compare to something much more common and sustained like direct address? Can an actor ever really address an audience and escape the gravitational pull of our fictionalizing perception?

See A Brimful of Asha in Toronto in November (I saw it last Winter). See White Rabbit, Red Rabbit in Vancouver in September. (I won’t get to Vancouver this time, but I will find a way to see it somehow…)


2 responses to “Don’t read anything about this play until you see it

  1. Re: self-consciousness, William Ian Miller writes: “That unpleasant emotion that interrupts our blithe and unself-conscious ‘naturalness,’ which, however, may be no more that acting naturally and not knowing we are… The feeling of faking it forces upon us a recognition of a split between something that we flatter ourselves is our true self and the role we are playing” (Faking It 109-115).

  2. It is looking increasingly likely that we are going to bring “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” to Queen’s in September. Apparently, if you ask nicely, many things are possible. Stay tuned for more details!

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