White Rabbit, Red Rabbit and Blind Date channel the risky and the random
As playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, the author of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, talks to the Straight by phone from Tehran, his voice cuts in and out. Then the line goes dead, and the call is irretrievable for several minutes. The connection reestablished, Soleimanpour says simply, “Welcome to Iran.”
Speaking with Rebecca Northan, creator of Blind Date, is easier. She’s at home in Calgary, and, although it sometimes sounds like the winds of Mount Everest are whipping past her cellphone, the connection stays solid.
On the surface, their shows could hardly be more different. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a political and philosophical metaphor in which the protagonist must choose whether or not to commit suicide. Blind Date, on the other hand, is a comic romp. There’s no metaphor; it’s about dating.
But there are similarities. Both evenings embrace randomness and risk. In Blind Date, Northan chooses a different man from the audience every night and their date together is the show: she improvises with a nonprofessional for 90 minutes. In White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, an actor who knows nothing about the play—a new performer every time—receives the script and reads it cold.
There’s a deeper commonality, too: both theatrical adventures are capable of evoking intense experiences of communion.
Northan says that the guys she picks as dates often start out terrified. She empathizes: “I think, ‘My God, I’m nervous and I’ve been improvising for 25 years. You poor thing!’ ” And she emphasizes that, although some people expect her to humiliate her volunteers, her intention is the opposite. “It’s very clear that we’re taking a man on a hero’s journey,” she explains. “He starts off in an unknown, uncomfortable situation, and we watch him transform into the romantic hero. We are working as a company to make those guys look great. And, once they start to relax and be themselves, every guy who has ever come up has been so much more interesting than anything I could ever write.”
Although it’s loose, Blind Date’s structure helps with that. Mimi, Northan’s French, red-nosed clown character, gets to know her new beau in a café, they drive to her apartment, they hang out, and then the audience chooses whether the date will continue or the story will skip ahead five years. If Mimi and her fella need to get their bearings, there’s a time-out area where they can chat about how things are going.
Sometimes the connections are surprisingly deep. “We were in St. Paul,” Northan remembers, “and this lovely guy named Andy came up. He was really smart and really funny and quirky, and he and I bonded over how we hate it when people misuse punctuation. I admitted to carrying a Jiffy marker and correcting signs. And he was like, ‘I do that too!’ We really hit it off.”
Off-stage, at the end of the evening, Andy had a confession. “I didn’t bring this up during the show,” he told Northan, “but I actually suffer from crippling social anxiety. I can’t believe I didn’t die.” A couple of days later, there was more. Andy took Northan out for coffee and said, “After doing Blind Date, I went running outside for the first time in eight years. I have such bad anxiety that I don’t run outside because I’m positive that people are judging the way that I run.…I thought, ‘Fuck it! I’m going to try jogging outside.’ ”
Sometimes, the performance itself takes a wildly unexpected turn. “One night, I had picked this really attractive guy,” Northan remembers, “and we found out in the first five minutes that he was a seminary student. And he would not come back to my apartment with me. He was like, ‘It’s just not appropriate. I would never go back to a woman’s house if I wasn’t married.’ And I was like, ‘Okay. Okay! Let’s do that.’ So we got him a ring and he proposed to me and then, when we were engaged, I said, ‘Let’s go back to my place,’ and he was like, ‘We’re not married; we’re engaged.’ He was so hardball! So we improvised. We got ladies up from the audience to be my bridesmaids, and we got him a couple of groomsmen, and we exchanged vows and got married. And then, on the drive home to my apartment, he shot and killed a police officer. We were just like, ‘What is going on?’ That night, the show ended on death row.”
Northan’s experience is very different from that of White Rabbit’s Soleimanpour: she shares physical space with her audience, but a basic dynamic of Soleimanpour’s work is that he can’t see it performed. The playwright explains in the script that, because he refused military service, he can’t get a passport. He can’t leave Iran.
In White Rabbit, the actor invites audience members on-stage to help play out stories about control (the white rabbit must cover its ears) and the effects of oppression (abused rabbits become violent with others that show initiative). Fundamentally, the show is an exploration of trust and obedience, both theatrical and political. Do people pulled from the audience really volunteer? In what other ways do we give up our power and responsibility?
Soleimanpour is quick to point out that the play’s themes speak to issues that go beyond the borders of his country. “I don’t know why everybody likes to interpret the play as talking about my fucking political situation in Iran,” he complains. Being seen as a critic of the government is risky and, as he explains, “The play is working without me in your country.”
Still, there’s no denying the impact of the evening’s most concrete image: an empty chair in the front row that speaks to the playwright’s absence.
Soleimanpour remembers a Brazilian man who emailed him to share his experience of White Rabbit. The man entered the theatre with his mom, who joked that they should sit next to the absent author and talk to him. The man demurred, saying, “I don’t know any words in Persian.” But later he wrote to Soleimanpour: “We sat somewhere else, and then we came to this part of the play where you say, ‘I’m not going to be at the show; maybe you have to keep an empty chair for me.’ Suddenly, I started to cry and I thought to myself, ‘I have to go back to my place and send you this email. Whenever you have your passport, you have a chair at my place. My mom will cook you something. And then we’re going to sit and drink some beer together.’”
In Iran, Soleimanpour received this email and wept.
Blind Date runs at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre from Tuesday (September 18) to October 7. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is in the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab from Wednesday (September 19) to September 30.