by CHRIS ROGERS
Once he finished his introductory spiel, producer Bryan Hunt handed actor Doug Scholz-Carlson a sealed envelope. “Here you go,” Hunt said and walked offstage. That was, essentially, all of the direction the actor got before diving into a script he had never read before and performing it on the spot. Scholz-Carlson looked at the first page, sighed, and bit his lip for a second before launching into the action.
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is one of the most unusual plays Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) has ever produced. For that matter, it is one of the more unusual plays in existence. There are no table readings or rehearsals. An actor may only perform it once. A grand total of four GRSF staff members had even read the script. Now Scholz-Carlson makes five.
The premise is simple. An actor who has no idea what the play entails performs the play as they are reading it. Every line is a surprise for the actor as much as for the audience.
“It’s really terrifying,” Scholz-Carlson said before his performance. Is the script all monologue? Are there stage directions in the script? Are there props? At this point last week, Scholz-Carlson had no idea. “I know they’re tech-ing it, so I know there’s some things,” he said. That is right. This play involves things.
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” was written by Nassim Soleimanpour, an Iranian writer unable to travel outside his home country because he refused to serve in the military — a requirement for men to receive a passport in Iran. Despite his inability to travel abroad in bodily form, Soleimanpour appears as a character in the play and a presence in the room whenever it is performed.
“Because the actor doesn’t have any chance to prepare, the story being told is purely the playwright’s,” Hunt said. “There’s no time for the actor to read the play and decide how to do it. [Soleimanpour] has eliminated that process … The actor is discovering it at the same moment you are.”
That is not the only out-of-the-ordinary aspect of the play. “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is, by turns, hilarious, absurd, and somber, but it is always unpredictable. The play challenges everyone in the room.
“Don’t follow blindly” is the message of the play, in Hunt’s opinion. “Yet,” Hunt said, “[Soleimanpour] has set up this perfect scenario where you’re in complete control as the actor, as the producer, as the audience, and yet we’re all positioned to follow blindly at some point or another … It’s just such an ingenious concept.”
“[Performing on the fly] is terrifying from the standpoint of, ‘Well, I hope it’s not terrible,’” Scholz-Carlson said in an interview before the show. On the other hand, he did not have to do anything to prepare, other than be well-rested and have a good mindset. “In a way, it takes all the pressure off,” he explained. “I’m excited. I can’t wait to get up there and try it,” he continued. “We’ll see how I feel 15 minutes in.”
Hunt and the few other GRSF staffers who had read “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” had to stay mum about the script for months. Scholz-Carlson, who is GRSF’s artistic director, normally gets regular reports on every aspect of the company’s productions. “We had to keep Doug in the dark this whole time, which was interesting,” Hunt said. “Doug was OK with it because he knew the deal and he was embracing it,” Hunt continued. Other actors were asked later in the year whether they were game for performing “White Rabbit Red Rabbit.” “They’re a little bit more uneasy about what it’s going to be,” Hunt explained.
Scholz-Carlson said that after his show, his fellow actors did not pry too much about the play because they wanted the full experience. As a condition of performing it, they had also promised not to ask about the play or research it. But they did ask, simply, how it went. Scholz-Carlson told them, “Yeah, it’s a thing.”
GRSF veteran Christopher Gerson’s performance of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” on Saturday, July 13, sold out last week, but tickets are still available for Leah Gabriel’s show on July 16 and Anique Clements’ on July 19. Because of the demand, GRSF added two performances to the schedule: one by Silas Sellnow on July 18 and another by Tarah Flanagan on July 27. Visit grsf.org for more information.
“It’s so terrifying when you’re going in because you have no idea what to expect, but then the script takes such good care of you,” Scholz-Carlson said after his performance. “You feel this kind of community with the audience because we know we’re all in it together. Anything I’m doing I didn’t decide to do. So I’m in the same boat they’re in,” he added.