Nassim, an adventure in language and connection: meet playwright Nassim Soleimanpour

Nassim Soleimanpour in Nassim. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The last time I talked to Nassim Soleimanpour, six years ago, the Iranian playwright was in the middle of Tehran on a cellphone that kept fading out, and I had laryngitis. There’s got to be an absurdist comedy of communication in that, just waiting to be written. 

It’s right up Soleimanpour’s alley.

His play White Rabbit Red Rabbit — which exhorts audiences to keep their cellphones on throughout, and email or text him photos —  had been seen around the world, in theatre capitals and at prestigious festivals, and translated into 25  languages. Toasted in London, New York, Toronto, it was about to open in Edmonton, at the 2013 Canoe Festival. And not only did the globally-connected Soleimanpour know where that was, he had good theatre friends here.

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Its author, though — genial, much inclined to laugh, and nothing if not cosmopolitan — had never left his home country. He’d never been allowed a passport (as a conscientious objector he hadn’t done the obligatory military service). And, although a front-row seat was always reserved for him at every performance everywhere of this play with no director, no set, and a different actor nightly who’d never seen the script until the moment onstage, that chair was always empty.

Life, like theatre, is full of surprises and dramatic changes. Six years later, Soleimanpour lives in Berlin, a city he likes “for its history, for its green spaces,” its proximity to British theatre, and for the fact that his agent is based there. He’s fresh from New York and a four-and-a-half month run of his play Nassim, doing eight shows a week. Ah, and in his non-existent spare time, writing a little American Gothic play (Down By The Creek, set in rural Arkansas) for the New York TimesT magazine, America 2024 issue.

And he’s making up for lost travel time. In November alone, Soleimanpour was in eight countries with Nassim, “running from one continent, one airport, to another” as he says.

Belinda Cornish stars in Tuesday’s performance of Nassim at the Citadel. Photo supplied.

Starting Tuesday, he’ll be in Edmonton, onstage in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre in Nassim, with a succession of intrepid different Edmonton stars at each show, who (as in White Rabbit Red Rabbit), have never before seen the script till the moment it’s fetched from a sealed box.  

“I was trying to evolve this form,” says Soleimanpour of his fascination with “cold read” theatre and its coterie of undirected unrehearsed actors who’ve never seen the script before being onstage on the night. It started with White Rabbit Red Rabbit and his own situation, grounded in Iran. Now, “with each (play) I think, OK, this is the last one; I don’t want to get trapped here. And then I find something new and I have to go back and finish my job, develop the form into something a bit more complicated.“

That was one of his starting points for Nassim, he says. “Second was the idea of language,” he says. “I’m a Farsi speaker, then I learned English since I was a kid. It’s still a struggle (Soleimanpour’s English is excellent) but I’ve been working on it for so long now. And suddenly it’s 2015 and I move to Berlin, and someone has hit the re-reset button,” he laughs. “O my god I’m 30something and I can’t even say ‘I’m hungry’. So I have to learn a new language…. When I go to German classes it brings me back to my childhood and memories of my mom telling me I shouldn’t be lazy and I should practice my English!”

“The last bit of the (Nassim) puzzle  was meeting my amazing friend Omar Elerian, the director of the show,” he says. In 2013, they found themselves at Theatretreffen, a major festival. “We made friends very quickly…. I was working on another play (Blind Hamlet, an actor-less piece on its way to the LIFT Festival in London. “Omar is London-based. And he cooks very good pasta. So we kept talking and eating pasta….”

“He asked me ‘do I want to write a play for him?’. But I said ‘you’re a director. And I write plays without directors…. Very smartly he said ‘you keep mentioning you like challenges. And here is a challenge’.”

The swirl of languages became an inspiration for Nassim. The pair shared English, but Elerian is Italian, with a Palestinian father, who learned French at theatre school and then moved to London more than a decade ago. “So we were left struggling with questions like ‘where is home?’, ‘what is my language?’. That was the combination of three corners that shaped the triangle of Nassim,” says Soleimanpour.

Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo supplied.

He’d written White Rabbit Red Rabbit for export only and in his English not his native Farsi, sadly knowing that his mother would never get to see or understand it. “And Nassim is the solution!” he says cheerfully. His mom, who’s visited him in Berlin a couple of times, “gets to hear some parts of the show at the end of every performance,” he says mysteriously (he wants to keep the surprises under wraps).

He does reveal, though, that in the course of performances “we laugh a lot and then we cry a lot.” Especially he says, during the bows and the hugs.

In the age of Trump’s travel ban Iranian passports aren’t exactly a recipe for quick visa negotiations.Welcome to a  nightmare tangle of applications, rejections, waivers declared eligible then refused then delayed. It took six or seven months to get a U.S. visa for Nassim in New York, “the longest process ever!” despite petitions on his behalf from Lincoln Centre and other notable American theatre organizations. In his four-and-a-half months in New York, he never did succeed in getting one for his wife, a painter who is executive director of Nassim Soleimanpour Productions.

His own visa was nail-bitingly late in coming (and involved a last-minute flight to Madrid and back in a day while he was on tour in the Far East). The visa came finally on Dec. 4. He arrived in New York from Europe on Dec. 5, the very day of dress rehearsal. “The whole team was wondering ‘will he make it?’. The first show I was totally jet-lagged.”

A buoyant sort, Soleimanpour permits himself a sigh. “Weird. Brexit! Are you kidding me? What are we doing? Going backwards?”

New York is emphatic in its demeanour vis-à-vis Trump. “Every Nassim show we ask the local audience to teach us one word in their language, a sophisticated word,” he says. “I have a notebook, and I write them down, in the hope of learning new words.” In English-speaking destinations, words like “onomatopoeia” and “serendipity” come up a lot. “But here’s a totally New York phenomenon! One word kept getting repeated, at least twice every week. And that was ‘impeachment’.”

“I’m in love with New York!” Soleimanpour declares feelingly, of the storied city and its audiences, “so loud, so nice, so emotional.” He found it “a bit crowded” at the beginning, and he missed his wife. “But in the course of 160 shows there, I made a lot of friends.” He laughs. “I got treated to a lot of breakfasts.”

Big New York stars — Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Whoopi Goldberg among them — had stepped up to take the leap into the unknown with White Rabbit Red Rabbit.  With Nassim (which premiered in London at the Bush Theatre in 2017), it happened again. New York audiences saw a galaxy that included Michael Urie, Michael Shannon, Tracy Letts, Letts’ wife Carrie Coon. 

John Ullyatt stars in the May 5 performance of Nassim. Photo supplied.

“I’ve learned a lot from every single actor who’s done the show,” Soleimanpour says. He jokes “I got my M.A. in acting watching these legendary actors … how they treat the script, how they think, their choices, where they stand, where to sit, when to pause. O my god, sometimes I’m like ‘I don’t believe it that you didn’t rehearse!’ ” he laughs.

The performances of Nassim vary widely, actor by actor, he reports. “I use the metaphor of a car…. With someone licensed to drive it’s supposed to be safe; if it crashes because it isn’t then it’s my fault as the designer. But the way you drive is your choice. You can decide to listen to rock music and drive fast. Or you can enjoy silence and stop every now and again and look at the scenery. I’m physically sitting next to you as your navigator. I don’t talk but I give you liberty and freedom. Do you want to turn left? No? That’s OK, do what you want to do….”

In 300 shows,  “there are no car crashes. And every driver is different.”

PREVIEW

Nassim

Citadel Beyond The Stage Series

Theatre: Bush Theatre and Nassim Soleimanpour Productions

Directed by: Omar Eulerian

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Jeff Haslam, Nasra, Farren Timoteo, Sarah Chan, John Ullyatt on successive nights — with Nassim Soleimanpour

Where: Citadel Rice Theatre

Running: Tuesday through May 5

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com   

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