At Chester Theatre Company, five theater artists plunge down a rabbit hole ... and live to tell the tale

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CHESTER —Among the more remarkable theater events this summer was Chester Theatre Company's mid-season four-performance presentation of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's gender-neutral one-actor play, "White Rabbit Red Rabbit," which the actors performed without having seen the script until they stepped onstage and were handed a sealed manila envelope, with the script inside, by Chester's producing artistic director, Daniel Elihu Kramer. No rehearsals; no direction. The only information the actors had was a set of instructions sent by the playwright 48 hours in advance.

The minimal stage setting and props included only a small table with two glasses of water; a vial of some clear liquid; a chair; a stepladder; white floor-to-ceiling gauze curtains across the back of the stage.

No actor who has performed this play since its premiere in 2011 at the Edinburgh and Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festivals has ever performed "White Rabbit Red Rabbit" more than once

The actors here were Daniel Osman (July 19), Debra Jo Rupp (July 20), Tara Franklin (July 21, matinee) and Joel Ripka (July 21, evening). I posed a series of questions to the actors and Kramer about their expectations before the event (Berkshires Week/Shires of Vermont — July 19). Only Rupp, who was finishing her run in "The Cake" at Barrington Stage Company, was unavailable to respond. Now that "WRRR" is over, I've gone back to Kramer and the actors and asked them to reflect on this once-in-a-career experience. Here's what they said; this time Rupp included.

We begin with Kramer.

1. Overall, what is your biggest takeaway from this event; how would you best characterize it?

I came away with a new jolt of excitement about what theater can do, how it can connect us — not only in the room where the performance is happening, but beyond. How we connect across space and time.

2. What kind of feedback did you get from theatergoers?

A lot of people were so appreciative for the chance to get to see unusual work, to have a sort of fringe, experimental experience. That wasn't a universal response, but it was frequent.

3. What kind of feedback did you get from the actors?

Our four performers were wonderful. Each of them seemed both appreciative of the chance to dive in and share this script with an audience, and often also moved by having been in a sense possessed for that hour by Nassim Soleimanpour, the playwright.

4. What did you learn as a theatermaker?

Most of all, how elemental theater is. How little it takes, in the end, to make theater in its purest form.

5. What did you learn about your audience that perhaps you hadn't already learned over your 3 years running CTC?

How ready they are to take chances with us; how willing they are to trust us, and how much I should trust them.

We continue with ...

DANIEL OSMAN

1. Okay. It's behind you now. Overall, how would you characterize the experience?

Fun, thrilling, surprising, curious, a bit terrifying, exciting — so many feelings, ideas, questions moving so quickly through me. Challenging ...

2. What did doing "WRRR" teach you about yourself as an actor?

That the unknown is still the most fruitful territory, and that the greatest joy of performance is throwing oneself whole hog into the maelstrom to find out what happens and where you land. Not necessarily new information, but important and satisfying to have reinforced in such a graphic and performative way.

3. What moment in particular, if any, stands out for you?

A moment of feeling very in touch the soul of the writer — at some point I felt his voice completely fill me — this moment of being in contact with his purpose of keeping me in the dark; of understanding that he wanted me to keep out of the way, he wanted his voice to be the loudest in the room. I was aware of telling his story and hearing his story and being his story and of the whole room joining in his story/history. It was beautiful.

4. What surprised you?

That the not-knowing would be such a gift; that so much of the joy would be in the surprise; that so many fascinating conversations have been had in its wake; that people responded in such interesting ways.

5. As you were lying on the stage at the end, what thoughts were going through your head if, that is, you'd care to share them with us?

I wish I hadn't moved until the room was entirely empty. My spidey-sense of when the room cleared was muddled, and to have laid there until I was alone would have been an entirely different ending. It was a moment of consideration, thinking about the text, the journey, the resolution. I considered the choices that I had made — the human choices, not the actor choices. And it was fascinating to listen to the audience process as they left the theater...

6. What's your biggest or most meaningful take-away from the experience?

Again, I was so flattered to be asked to participate, and so thankful, as ever to get to stretch my old theater muscles at any opportunity; that my greatest takeaway was that old truth of improvisational theater: Say yes, yes opens the door to possibility. Rather like the classic Actor's Nightmare of not knowing what play you are about to walk onstage for, it was a thrilling and thought provoking leap into the unknown and I'm thankful for the opportunity to have experienced it. I don't know of any other piece like it and I doubt that a similar opportunity will come up again! i truly wouldn't have wanted to miss it!

DEBRA JO RUPP

1.What made you say "yes" to doing "WRRR?"

I was asked months in advance and it seemed easy with no rehearsal. Then it caught up to me. Happens every time.

2. Okay. It's behind you now. Overall, how would you characterize the experience?

A little nervous-making. Terror actually. There were times when I lost the story as I told it, and, I knew if I didn't get it, the audience wouldn't. I had to slow down, stop trying to be entertaining, and make sure it was understood. I didn't expect it to be so hard.

3. What did doing "WRRR" teach you about yourself as an actor?

So I learned from an acting teacher way back when that "the actor knows more than the character." As an actor you have to live and breathe a character, but you must never forget the story you're telling. I love the puzzle of figuring that out. But I didn't have this puzzle ahead of time. I missed the work. I really missed it. Shocking.

4. What moment in particular, if any, stands out for you?

Two things — the immediate applause when I [imitated] the ostrich, It was the only thing we were told ahead of time so I really practiced that; and the little testosterone side-eye battle between the two men [from the audience] vying to read the end of the play.

5. What surprised you?

I started to cry near the beginning thinking about how this play came to be for the playwright. I have NO idea where that came from and it scared me a bit. It took awhile to quiet the voices in my head — I know, I'm insane — and get back to the audience. They save you every time.

6. As you were lying on the stage at the end, what thoughts were going through your head if, that is, you'd care to share them with us?

I was thinking "How am I going to know that everyone has left. Is someone going to get me?" I'm that deep.

7. What's your biggest or most meaningful take-away from the experience?

Simply, I love people that go to live theater. I couldn't perform this by myself. It's not a one-person show. The audience and I were in it together. Sometimes we were good and sometimes not so much. But we did it together. Except the ostrich. That was all mine.

TARA FRANKLIN

1. Okay. It's behind you now. Overall, how would you characterize the experience?

Humbling

2. What did doing "WRRR" teach you about yourself as an actor?

Participating in this experience reminded me of the importance of being present, both onstage and off.

3. What moment in particular, if any, stands out for you?

There isn't a single moment from the experience that necessarily stands out. Because it was unrehearsed and the territory was uncharted, I found myself in a delicate and beautiful balance between driving the story and letting the story drive me.

4. What surprised you?

Every moment. I was also not expecting to have such a strong visceral response to the subject matter.

5. As you were lying on the stage at the end, what thoughts were going through your head if, that is, you'd care to share them with us?

I was thinking how wonderful it was that the story would keep going, that the experience we all just shared was not interrupted by a bow or a light change or music or applause. There was no disconnect. It was lovely.

6. What's your biggest or most meaningful take-away from the experience?

I am honored that I was asked to be a part of it. I am deeply grateful that a playwright would trust me, without even knowing me, to be a conduit for his story. And I have never been more convinced of what I discovered years ago — that acting is a feat of courage, a leap of faith, a journey into the unknown. It is heightened vulnerability, a challenge to find balance in the face of great difficulty, and an opportunity to change the way people look at the world.

JOEL RIPKA

1. Okay. It's behind you now. Overall, how would you characterize the experience?

I thought that the prospect of it was thrilling. The doing of it was also thrilling, and at a few moments, harrowing. One of the instructions from the playwright was that the actor should keep the pace up and it took a lot of mental horsepower do so while also attempting to comprehend the story and themes. I'm not sure I was entirely successful!

2. What did doing "WRRR" teach you about yourself as an actor?

Reading a story, improvising, and attempting to connect with an audience, all at the same time ... that ain't easy.

3. What moment in particular, if any, stands out for you?

I'm hard pressed to pinpoint standout moments, but there were a few times when the play shifted from playful to menacing, which took me by surprise. There were also a few moments when I felt mildly put off by how I was being puppeted and manipulated (which was very much intended) but at the same time admired the cleverness of the situation [Soleimanpour] creates to tell his story.

4. What surprised you?

I was surprised by how present the playwright felt in the room, and the careful way in which he designed the play with reminders of his existence. It felt as if we were all playing with time and space (geography) in a way that I thought was intriguing.

5. As you were lying on the stage at the end, what thoughts were going through your head if, that is, you'd care to share them with us?

I was gathering my wits, trying to make sense of what had just transpired ... wondering if I should close my eyes or keep them open, also wondering (for a fleeting second) if the sudden cramp in my stomach was because I hadn't eaten dinner yet, or something else...

6. What's your biggest or most meaningful take-away from the experience?

The piece is fascinating and I'd love to revisit the script in a moment of calm to really explore some of the themes. There were a few big ideas around freedom, control, and communication that I've been mulling over since.




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