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No Rehearsal, No Set, No Problem at ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’

May 21, 2018 by Mark Lowry
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(Photographed by Karen Almond)

If there were color-coded levels of secrecy for scripts, Nassim Soleimanpour’s play “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” would top the chart, one level above a screenplay by the famously secretive M. Night Shyamalan. Here’s why: Soleimanpour’s script is not seen by the actor until they arrive onstage for the performance. They can never perform it again.

Nor can any person who has seen a performance of it or read the script.

“Our licensing agreement with the playwright and agent is very specific about all this,” says Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, which presents the work in the Studio Theatre in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre, May 30-July 1.

Moriarty, whose fascination with exploring the relationship between artists and audiences has been well-documented in his 10 years at the Tony-winning Dallas Theater Center, says he wanted to produce it after seeing an Off-Broadway performance in 2016. That run featured names like Cynthia Nixon, Whoopi Goldberg and Nathan Lane. Moriarty saw Patrick Wilson.

“I had no idea what to expect because the [producers] had done a good job of keeping the spoilers out of the press,” Moriarty says. “[My theater companion and I] were like ‘what the hell is happening?’ ”

That’s a valid question. There is no set and no director. The actor, wearing their own clothes, receives the script for the first time after arriving onstage, and then performs the work cold, with some help from the playwrights’ notes. The audience is encouraged not to spoil it for future audiences — no easy ask in the social media era.

At DTC, all of the nearly 40 actors are Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) members, and have appeared on DTC’s stage at some point. This includes eight of the nine actors in the Brierley Resident Acting Company, local artistic directors who are also actors (Theatre Three’s Jeffrey Schmidt, Kitchen Dog Theater’s Tina Parker, Stage West’s Dana Schultes), and a few non-locals that have performed at DTC, such as former Dallas faves Nance Williamson and Kurt Rhodes. The schedule of performers will not be announced ahead of time, except for each morning, so that fans of said actor can purchase $20 rush tickets on TodayTix.

“We wondered if we should use some non-actor personalities, as other productions have done,” Moriarty says. “We made the conscious decision to use actors so the audience would have some sense of where they’ve seen them before, but not necessarily people they felt like they knew.”

In North Texas, several performers couldn’t be asked because they have performed the play elsewhere. Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage Productions did the show in 2017 for five performances, with local actress/director Christie Vela, visual artist Christopher Blay, rock musician Cameron Smith, and film actors Xander Berkeley (“The Walking Dead”) and Sarah Clarke (“24”).

In 2013, the first local production came courtesy a group of Southern Methodist University students. SMU alumna Alia Tavakolian had studied with Soleimanpour for a year in Shiraz, Iran, and she had seen a London production in 2012. Their four performances included SMU faculty member, actor, director, and playwright Blake Hackler.

When Soleimanpour wrote it, he was barred from leaving his native Iran because, as a conscientious objector, he had not committed to the country’s required two years military service. After the play gained international attention, he was allowed to leave. He reportedly lives in Germany.

Kathleen Culebro, artistic director for Amphibian, wanted to produce the play because of its innovation.

“It really brought into the room that feeling of not being in control of your own life, as the playwright was when he was writing it,” she says. “The stakes felt really high in the room.”

She also marvels at the script’s flexibility. “For me the differences between each of the performances were huge,” she says. “Each performer interpreted the stage directions differently and each connected to the fear of the unexpected in a different way.”

Moriarty adds, “It actually functions as a play; as a theatrical experience, not just as a parlor game or gimmick — although it is a hell of a parlor game.”

Also, because there is no director, rehearsal, sets, or costumes, it cuts on costs DTC would normally spend for a full production. In this time slot, it freed up his staff to work on the summer productions of the musical “Hairspray” co-produced with AT&T Performing Arts Center, and the mammoth Public Works Dallas production of “The Winter’s Tale.”

But there’s a bigger reason he wanted to take on this challenge. “I really love when theatrical space is utilized in a new or surprising way. Instead of the theatrical space being treated as there’s a stage and magic things happen on it, this happens in a room and the actor and the audience are having the same experience.”

Unlock $20 Rush tickets for “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” or get tickets now.