Available Light Presents Nassim Soleimanpour’s International Hit White Rabbit Red Rabbit
“I want to find at least one show every season [that makes the audience listen differently],” says Elini Papaleonardos, Artistic Director of Available Light.
They’ve already set the bar high with moving, interactive experiences like Every Brilliant Thing and Paradise Park Zoo. They stand to take on an even more daring and challenging show, opening this weekend: Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit. In advance of the premiere, I sat down with Papaleonardos, who’s also the show’s producer.
“I am really, really interested in theatre that transforms an audience,” she says. “I think the reason we go to the theatre has changed over the years. We go for a human connection. Usually, we think of that connection as with the people on stage, but there’s this community and communion that happens within the room.
We all have these personal screens with the ability to, intentionally or unintentionally, self-isolate,” she continues. “I like pieces of theatre that make an audience listen differently and create community in the room with the audience.”
White Rabbit Red Rabbit is the creation of Soleimanpour, an Iranian playwright. Prohibited from leaving Iran but represented by a Berlin-based agency, Soleimanpour’s work travels the world. Charles Isherwood called its New York run “playful, enigmatic, and haunting,” in the Times. Robert Stevens praised the play in its London run, “which explores interesting territory concerning the nature of the dialogue between an author and his audience.”
The work traveling in its author’s stead and that lack of preparation enticed Papaleonardos and the company.
“It’s a really, really interesting way to hear his voice,” she says. “We hear the playwright’s voice in a way we don’t usually hear in a play.”
The central conceit of White Rabbit Red Rabbit is the actor is only allowed to perform the one-person play once, and they don’t see the script until they’re on stage.
“Because the audience is aware the actors are seeing this at the same time they’re performing, we’re not seeing a character crafted,” Papaleonardos said, “we’re hearing the artist’s voice. We see the performer, but there’s a fabric that’s been lifted. We feel closer to the playwright. And it helps us see other plays differently.”
“It takes a strong actor to perform this piece; someone who’s comfortable reading scenes and bringing life to them,” she continues.
That’s borne out by the actors drawn to this piece. The New York run included Brian Dennehy, Cynthia Nixon, and Nathan Lane. For this Columbus run, Available Light have assembled the creme de la creme of the Columbus acting community (full list and schedule below).
“I met with most of the actors the other day, and I said, ‘I can’t tell you many things, but what are your concerns?’” Papaleonardos commented. “A couple of people had some questions, but all these actors in the room had huge grins on their faces. The mood was, ‘I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen. It scares me, and it’s exciting.’ I think the two things went hand in hand: ‘I’m scared by it and excited by it, so I should do it.’”
I was also able to speak to three of the actors, who were uniform in their excitement at this challenge.
“[The play] seems like such a giant departure because it is the opposite of acting,” actor Susan Wismar said. “I don’t think of myself as being a great cold-read, and that seems to me like the entire enterprise, to communicate this cold. Acting [for me] is about my preparation, my work, depth of exploration of a character, connecting all these moments in the intention of the author to make sure that’s lived out. You’re living that and sharing it with the audience. It’s not that, but it’s also not me being me. It’s not me reading a poem.”
“What excites me and worries me is the same thing: this play is a complete mystery to me,” said Adam Humphrey, Available Light company member. “I don’t act very often — you’re much more likely to see my name attached to behind-the-scenes work — so the level of exposure for a one-person show is unprecedented for me, and that terrifies me. The really thrilling part is going to be the act of discovery.”
“Having this relationship and responsiveness to what is not known feels like a necessary strategy for pursuing things like justice and ethical co-existence,” Denison professor Michael Morris commented. “In other words, I’m really interested in how the conditions of this production — performing a script that I’ve never seen before, responding to this author’s words in how I perform them — feels like art that’s not just about things that are happening in the world, but emphasizes that the art is a way of being in and with the world.”
White Rabbit Red Rabbit is being staged in three different spaces, including Wild Goose Creative, The Vanderelli Room, and Denison University, over multiple months.
“The play has been done a lot of different ways — 14 nights straight, the first Monday of every month. Taking it to different locations is fun but also makes it more accessible,” Papaleonardos says of that decision. “One of the joys of [Available Light] not having a home theater is finding the right space. It’s more likely we can rally a strong audience to see each one of those nights because they’re different people, or even see it more than once to see how different actors approach it.”
There’s not likely to be anything like White Rabbit Red Rabbit on stage anytime soon –“Both artistic directors I spoke to [who’ve presented this] said they had a hell of a time getting the audience out of the theater,” Papaleonardos says.
Performance dates, times, and locations are as follows:
Nov. 9 – 11, 2018
Wild Goose Creative
2491 Summit St.
Friday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. – performed by Adam Humphrey
Saturday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. – performed by Acacia Duncan
Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. – performed by Brian Evans
December 6 – 9, 2018
The Vanderelli Room
218 McDowell St.
Thursday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. – performed by David J. Glover
Friday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. – performed by Susan Wismar
Saturday, Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. – performed by Artie Isaac
Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. – performed by Josie Merkle
February 8 – 9, 2019
Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. – performed by Ian Short
Saturday, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. – performed by Michael Morris
For White Rabbit Red Rabbit tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com.