'White Rabbit Red Rabbit': Actors leap into the unknown at Chester Theatre

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CHESTER — Four actors will be flying without what one of them calls "a safety net" between Thursday afternoon and Saturday evening when Chester Theatre Company presents Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's "White Rabbit Red Rabbit."

Daniel Osman (Thursday afternoon), Debra Jo Rupp (Friday evening), Tara Franklin (Saturday afternoon) and Joel Ripka (Saturday evening) will be performing Soleimanpour's solo play without having seen the script until they walk onstage and pull the text out of a sealed envelope as the lights come up. While there are a few items that need to be onstage, there is no scenery; no special lighting; no costuming other than whatever clothing each actor feels like wearing; no rehearsal; no director; no hint how to prepare or what to expect other than some information each actor will receive 48 hours before their performance.

Written in 2010, "White Rabbit Red Rabbit" premiered in 2011 at the Edinburgh and Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festivals and has since been performed worldwide, including the United States and translated into 20 languages. No actor who has performed "WRRR" has performed it more than once.

"It's really an interesting idea of what can happen in theater," CTC's producing artistic director, Daniel Elihu Kramer said by phone. "It also presents a voice we don't hear very often; a unique voice from a playwright who ... lives in Iran."

He sees his primary role with this production as facilitator. "I just want to see what happens," he said

Little is known about the play's content and themes but "WRRR's" license holders emphasize in a statement that "the play is NOT overtly political, and should not be portrayed as such. It operates on a deeper, metaphoric level, and very expressly avoids overtly political comment."

In casting "WRRR," Kramer says he approached actors who are familiar to Chester audiences. Unlike Rupp, Franklin and Ripka, Osman has never performed at Chester but he has performed on occasion at Mixed Company in Great Barrington and is known to the broader Berkshires community as owner-manager of nearby Dream Away Lodge in Becket.

Kramer says the actors didn't hesitate to say "yes" when he asked them. "So much of 'I'll do it' came before 'tell me more,'" he said.

Responding to questions from The Berkshire Eagle, the actors — all but Rupp responded — elaborated on their reasons for saying "yes."

Their answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: A totally cold reading — one shot at this; no do-overs; no rehearsal; no advance look at the script. What made you say "yes?"

DO: I was a.) so flattered to be thought of, b.) found the idea so interesting/compelling/equal parts terrifying and thrilling, and c.) as ever, happy to work out my rarely used acting muscles on such a challenging project. Theater is story telling, and what could be more compelling theater than to discover a story together, actor and audience, in real time. I certainly believe that the playwright is trying to give us a gift, he's not trying to hurt us, so there is no fear in just jumping off the cliff and trusting that the play will contain us.

TF: While I was in rehearsal for the first show of the season at Chester ["Bar Mitzvah Boy"], Daniel asked me if I wanted to do a performance of "White Rabbit Red Rabbit." I was in the middle of a story and a character with which I had become acquainted, having had the script for months prior to the rehearsal process. And while there is always mystery and risk and discovery when rehearsing, decisions must eventually be made so the actors have a map. This map becomes a sort of safety net, so that no matter what happens, you are able to communicate what the playwright created. But I think that the most interesting things happen when the net is taken away.

JR: I don't know if I had fully understood or really processed in the moment what was being presented during my phone conversation with Daniel. I do, however, recall two thoughts/feelings that were evoked during that conversation: 1: This sounds terrifying. 2: I trust Daniel. That combination has worked out for us and our production teams in the past, and so I said yes.

Q: Have you ever done anything even remotely like this?

DO: No, other than a long history in improvisation and clown work, which are both great training for staying in the moment. ... I am just hoping I can think fast enough to stay a step ahead of the audience in this situation!

TF: In grad school, for our thesis project, we had to write, design and perform a one-person show. It was pretty terrifying, not having someone else onstage to bounce the ball to, so to speak. But it was a memorized and well-rehearsed piece so that element was in place. Each of us also had to perform 10 minutes of stand-up comedy. Even though there was no set script, we had spent months outlining the structure and trying out bits in front of our class.

JR: I think the closest and most obvious experience I've had with (what I can only imagine remotely resembles) something akin to this piece was "Every Brilliant Thing" at Chester last summer. Because that piece recruited audience members for spontaneous scene work, with not a one of them knowing they'd be included in the performance until I called upon them to work with me ... Oh! Ha! I just realized ... this is what we might call karma.

Q: How can you prepare for this?

DO: I have visited the space and made myself familiar with it. I have been doing my physical and voice warm ups. I am trying not to think about it too much (since my thoughts are all just projections) and to stay relaxed. I hope to arrive at the theater on Thursday calm, centered and ready for an exploratory journey with a roomful of curious souls ready to take the ride with me.

TF: As of right now, it appears that I can't. Forty-eight hours before the performance, we will be given some information, but as I sit here, answering these questions, the only thing I can do is wait. It is a good reminder, however, that we can't predict anything in life, and so staying open and available and ready is sage advice for anyone, actor or not.

JR: I'll set the intention to facilitate an experience that touches/includes/embraces as many people as possible in the house, do some relentless preparation with the information that'll be provided 48 hours before curtain (hoping that the prep will assuage some of the effects of ever-present pre-show nerves), do the requisite vocal and physical warm-ups, and ... show up, I suppose?

Q: What are you hoping you and/or the audience will take away from this performance?

DO: I hope that we will discover together why we are in this place at this time making this journey together. I trust that we will come out the other end richer and more connected for having shared the journey.

TF: As actors, our main function is to communicate a story to an audience. And it is as much about the actor as it is about the audience. The shared relationship, the energy created between the two, is really what the theater is about for me. And when put into a situation where the risk is high, the stakes are great and the fear of the unknown is present, we can experience a level of awareness that exceeds what we thought was possible in ourselves.

JR: I hope that there's delight in the novelty of the situation, for all of us, and that we remember and sit in some universal truths, you know, knock some chips off our blocks, that we laugh hard and long, maybe cry or be touched?


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