In absentia

A new play has no director, no rehearsals and an absent playwright. The play’s last official performance was in December 2016. Excerpts of performances around the world are available to watch on YouTube.


white rabbit red rabbit
Image by Niall Walker

What happens when a playwright cannot leave his country? How does his work reach the rest of the world? Unable to leave Iran because of his refusal to participate in mandatory military service, Nassim Soleimanpour devised a play which requires no director or set. Each performance features a different actor who contributes something new to the script. There are no rehearsals involved – the actor reads the script just before stepping onto the stage to assume the role Soleimanpour has designed. The play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, has been performed around the world since 2010.

During each performance, there is an empty seat in the front row, reserved for the absent Soleimanpour. The play begins with the actor entering the stage with the script, and following instructions from the playwright. Actors play dead, talk to the audiences as Soleimanpour and act out all the elements of the dark script’s humour.

“The script began taking shape in 2005, when I had a nightmare in which I was committing suicide on a stage in front of my family and friends,” said Soleimanpour over email from Tehran. According to Soleimanpour, the sight-reading technique in which actors get hold of the script and perform it immediately adds to the narration and the story that the playwright tells, using the actors as his proxy.

Apart from shattering his confinement, Soleimanpour believes that the interplay between the roles of the writer, text and performer in his play can create a tension which allows each of the three to acknowledge the others. For instance, Soleimanpour speaks to the audience through the actor, making it abundantly clear that what they are hearing is the playwright’s voice. The actor, then, becomes a medium and follows the instructions relayed by Soleimanpour through the script.

In another part of the play, Soleimanpour has a glass of water placed on a table on stage and instructs the actor not to drink the water. Subtle instructions and assertions like these place the playwright at dead centre without his physical presence.

Since the playwright couldn’t travel, the only way he could see the play was by visiting White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, a blog maintained by the Canadian theatre troupe Volcano Theatre. The blog is dedicated to the play and its various performances around the world. Soleimanpour eventually got his passport and has since witnessed his script play out on stage outside his home country.

Despite the fact that Soleimanpour hands his script to a crew for each performance, his ownership of the text pervades through the performance. “The actors are constantly being asked to add things to the play. That’s part of their role. And the play is about the writer’s authority over his performers and audience,” he says.

According to Soleimanpour, seeing the play being performed by different people each time doesn’t change the understanding of the text, but can often manage to surprise him. “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit redefines the relationship between the writer, an actor and an audience. The roles switch between each other many times,” he says.

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