Theatre artist Nassim Soleimanpour’s life has taken a dramatic turn since he wrote his first play. For several years, he was not allowed to leave his homeland of Iran and had to follow the progress of his hit solo show White Rabbit Red Rabbit entirely by Internet. Since then, he’s moved to Berlin, and he travels around the world performing his works so frequently that he rarely gets back to Germany. In November alone he visited eight countries, with stops in China, Japan, and Belgium.
“I’m not really sure where is home anymore,” the good-natured artist says with a laugh over the phone while on a brief stop back in the German capital. “The life as a writer is so different than life as a performer. When I was writing, I would walk my dog, then go to the library, and I used to complain about staring at my computer all the time. Such a roller coaster my life has been! I sometimes think, ‘I’m making it up!’ ”
Soleimanpour’s experiences do sound like the stuff of fiction. The artist is coming here to appear in his new work, Nassim. But to understand it, you must first go back to White Rabbit Red Rabbit. Rewind to 2010, when the frustrated writer, blocked from leaving Iran because he refused military service, devised a play that could travel the world without him. Here was his trick: each night a different actor would perform the script without seeing it first. In the ensuing years, stars from F. Murray Abraham and Ken Loach to Whoopi Goldberg and Brian Dennehy stepped into the role, telling his stories fresh each evening. Rabbit was translated into more than 20 languages. And every time it was staged, a front-row seat would symbolically stay empty for him.
But his fortunes turned—sort of. When he went for a health checkup in 2012, he discovered he was exempt from Iran’s military service due to a condition affecting the sight in his left eye. That meant he could get a passport and travel to see Rabbit for the first time in 2013, in Brisbane.
Then, a few years ago, the playwright decided it was time for him to interact with someone on-stage—and finally travel with his work.
For Nassim, Soleimanpour appears in the two-hander, but the actor he performs with is not allowed to meet him at all before the show. As usual, the person is handed the sealed script blind, at the beginning of the play, and it’s opened and projected on a screen behind him or her, where the audience can read it too.
“I write all these instructions for producers—which is kind of funny because I’m not good at following instructions myself!” he says and laughs. “Initially, they would hide me, and very often the actors would say, ‘Am I going to meet Nassim?’ The answer is always, ‘Sorry, I cannot tell you anything.’ And then they start to read from this live projected screen.”
He loves putting the actor, so adept at making people laugh and cry, on the same footing as his audience; he likes to play with the idea that the viewers are able to discover the script at the same time, and even laugh when there are slight mistakes. The son of a novelist, he also enjoys showing the audience the beauty of the text. “Apart from my beautiful wife, probably the written page is the sexiest thing on the planet,” he asserts.
Like Soleimanpour’s other works, Nassim creates a rush and spontaneity he has always felt gets lost on-stage.
“That’s something I miss in live theatre: something that is fresh. It becomes stale with theatre when you do it again and again and again,” he says. “I like to meet new people, I like reading a new book, and tasting a new food. Encountering new things: that’s the beauty of life. That’s when I met my wife and fell in love, that’s when I met my dog and fell in love, and that’s when I met Berlin and fell in love.”
Meeting new people is something he’s been able to do a lot now, with Nassim, whether it’s breakfast or a night out at a Persian restaurant with the actor he’s connected with on-stage. “It’s a luxury to go country to country and see how actors are treated,” he says. “We laugh a lot and share personal stories and food. A lot of actors cry at the end of the show.”
At Vancouver’s Cultch Historic Theatre, he’ll meet people like Pippa Mackie, Marcus Youssef, Tetsuro Shigematsu, and Maiko Yamamoto, who are bravely stepping into the role. Opening night features Carmen Aguirre, who also opened Elbow Theatre’s production of White Rabbit Red Rabbit at the same venue in 2012. Running in the days before Nassim opens, in a Rumble Theatre and Aurora Nova production at the Progress Lab, is his Blank—another formally inventive play that lets the audience fill in literal blanks left open in the script by Soleimanpour. Here again, each night or matinee features a different performer who, like the audience, interacts with the gap-filled script for the first time (though Soleimanpour doesn’t appear in it). (The lineup there includes Dave Deveau as his alter ego Peach Cobblah, Kim Senklip Harvey, Allan Morgan, and Emelia Symington Fedy.)
It’s been quite a journey for Soleimanpour, who has had to learn words in dozens of languages to travel to perform Nassim in different countries. But there’s one place he’s never been able to stage his work: in Iran, in his native Farsi tongue.
“If you live a more normal life, if you have the luxury of coming from a more privileged part of the world, you say, ‘If he has not been arrested then he has to be able to perform,’ ” says the artist, who can travel freely back to his home country but has never been invited to do his work there, though he’s unclear whether it’s because he’s not allowed, or because his work is too experimental. “It’s very sad and confusing and I honestly don’t know why. But of course I would love to.”
And so the twists of Soleimanpour’s life come to another paradox, opposite from where his incredible story started: yearning not to travel with his work abroad, but dreaming of taking it home.
Nassim is at the Cultch Historic Theatre from Tuesday (May 7) to May 19. Blank is at the Progress Lab until Saturday (May 4).