If you haven’t heard about White Rabbit Red Rabbit, you’re doing it right. You aren’t supposed to know what it is. Though this play has been performed in theaters all over the world nearly 1,000 times, no one is allowed to talk about it. Not even the actors. Only those who have performed the piece and audiences who have seen it are supposed to know what happens. This is intentional, and all are discouraged from researching the show before they see it or act in it.
The one-person play operates like this: A single actor walks on stage and receives his or her script for the first time. They are not allowed to see it or read about it before going on. It may seem like a gimmick, but the secret play has taken on a life of its own. White Rabbit Red Rabbit was written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour when he was forbidden to leave Iran. Soleimanpour had been imprisoned for refusing to complete the nation’s compulsory military service as a conscientious objector, which kept him from leaving the country. The play, written in 2010, was performed for years without the playwright ever seeing it.
It’s an experiment in many ways. The cast must change for every performance. No actor who has done the play can do it again — that’s precisely the point. It leaves room for great interpretation, which was Soleimanpour’s objective: to write a play that could be interpreted in myriad ways throughout the world. There’s even a note to the media that states, “This play is not explicitly political, and it should not be portrayed as such. It operates on a deeper, metaphoric level and very expressly avoids overt political comment. We therefore ask the press to be judicious in their media coverage.” The play is meant to embody great flexibility and take on different meanings wherever it’s done. For a trapped writer, this was a lifeline to the rest of the world.
It’s also an exercise in restraint. In our increasingly connected world, it’s hard to ask an audience to come into a performance completely blind. We can barely pick a restaurant without Googling reviews first; imagine seeing a play having no clue what’s going to happen.
Another facet of the play is that it often features celebrities in the role. Notable Rabbit alumni include Whoopi Goldberg, John Hurt, Nathan Lane, Cynthia Nixon, Kyra Sedgwick, Martin Short and George Takei. Next week Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth will tackle the play for only five days. First on March 22-23 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and then over the weekend March 24-26 at the Berlene T. and Jarrell R. Milburn Theatre at Amphibian Stage Productions. Amphibian will feature two celebrity actors, Xander Berkeley (The Walking Dead) and Sarah Clarke (24) at the Modern; and then local actors and musicians Christopher Blay, Cameron Smith and Christie Vela for the final performances.
Amphibian Artistic Director Kathleen Culebro was drawn to the play because of its element of surprise.
“How do you convince actors that they want to be a part of something you can’t tell them anything about? I appreciate our actors’ trust so much,” Culebro says. “Some have suggested that I could cast any 'local celebrity,' but I respectfully disagree. Only the most skilled performers can engage audiences, particularly if they have no opportunity to prepare for the role at all. This play requires smart, charismatic, and — most of all — brave actors.”
Clarke says preparing for the project is something she’s still trying to figure out.
“I am not researching the project as that would be counter to the aim of the experience,” she says. “I am keeping myself in shape and warming up my 'instrument' each day because performing on stage is very different than on camera.”
Clarke, whose career has largely been in film, says live theater is exciting to her.
“With more and more of our entertainment experiences in the virtual, 2-D world, the theater reminds us what it’s like to be human in the physical world and reconnects us to our physical bodies in a three-dimensional experience,” she says.
Vela, who is a seasoned actress and theater teacher at Booker T. Washington in Dallas, has barely had time to worry about what will happen when she is handed the script. She just finished Paper Flowers at Kitchen Dog and is also beginning rehearsals for Straight White Men, which she is directing at Second Thought Theater. She had heard about the play but avoided looking it up when Culebro offered her the part. Which also means she’s agreed to never perform the play again, even as the Dallas Theater Center announced plans to produce it in their upcoming season.
“Kathleen told me to just show up and I said, ‘I’m in,’” Vela says.
For Vela, it’s the ultimate actor’s tool. She says if she can’t be up to this challenge she can’t be good at acting.
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“I want it to be genuine,” Vela says. “If I have any notion of what it’s about, even a tiny one, it will ruin it.”
She says there is a definite feeling of terror that comes with this kind of unknown, but that’s the best part of acting.
“Theater is a safe space. It’s a place to explore and you have to be open as a curator of art. I trust Kathleen and know she wouldn’t put me in a place I couldn’t handle.”
White Rabbit Red Rabbit, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 22-26, $25-$75, amphibianstage.com. The first two performances are at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St. The rest are at Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S. Main St., Fort Worth.