Acting in the dark
What does it take to perform solo in front of an audience without rehearsals or a script ?
t takes courage to do an hour-long solo performance. Now, imagine doing it without any rehearsals. And using a script you get right there in front of the audience.
Actor Ali Fazal will be doing exactly that later this evening, for a staging of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit .
The experimental play, shrouded in mystery, is part of the ongoing Writers’ Bloc Festival. The instructions for its staging are simple: no directorial vision, no production design, no technical histrionics. Just a script and an actor.
“For someone who works in theatre,” Fazal says, “the rehearsal is where you discover everything. It is where magic happens, where the script enters you, and becomes part of you. Doing a play without any rehearsals is freaking me out. Also, the second show of this play in the very same festival features Atul Kumar, who has been my theatre mentor. People are inevitably going to make comparisons.”
Fazal, whose work has been noticed in films like 3 Idiots , Fukrey , and Bobby Jasoos , says, “This play is about the playwright. It was born out of stalling someone’s freedom of speech and movement. It talks about how powerful words are. That is all I know.” For several years, Soleimanpour was restricted from travelling outside Iran because he had refused to join the compulsory military service mandated by the state for all adult men. He used that time to write White Rabbit, Red Rabbit , which has since acquired cult status for its experimental format. Though Soleimanpour was forbidden from travel, his voice has found resonance among audiences in various parts of the world as the play has travelled from place to place. The play had its world premiere in 2011 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and has since been performed in Athens, Berlin, Oslo, London, Melbourne and Singapore, and translated into 15 languages. It has been performed by actors such as Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Kyra Sedgwick, Michael Shannon, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Stephen Rea, Sinead Cusack, David Morse, Juliet Stevenson, and Sarah Millican. It is said that a portion of the play’s profits go to PEN International, a worldwide association of writers defending freedom of expression around the world.
In a way, the play is also a commentary on the conventions of theatre. What unfolds in the span of 60 minutes is as much of a surprise to the actor as it is to the audience. There is no set design, no director to depend on, and no co-actors to collaborate with. Each performance is different, because no actor gets to perform it more than once. The actor’s only refuge is the script, which has instructions from the playwright about what the actor is supposed to do on stage. Acting in an unconventional play like this is a challenge that several have embraced because it allows them to push their limits.
“I wonder what the instructions would be like. They could be bizarre or simple. I have no clue,” says Fazal. Although he is jittery at the moment, he didn’t think twice when veteran actor Rajit Kapur, one of the organisers of the Writers’ Bloc Festival and theatre group Rage, approached him with the offer. “It sounded like a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I really wanted to do it,” he says.
Kapur says, “We chose Ali because we needed a good actor, and also somebody who had the guts to take on something so risky.” Kapur has not read the script yet, and he will not watch either Fazal’s performance or Kumar’s: “I want to perform it someday, and the rule is that you shouldn’t have watched it or read about it.”
In staying unprepared for the role, Fazal has refrained from reading anything about Iran. “I did not want to research because it could possibly influence my performance. But we all know what the situation in Iran is like.” He adds, “We are going through weird times in India right now. There are pockets in our country, which are suffering a lot from bullies. But considering what the world is going through, I think we are comparatively much safer.”
As far as the film industry is concerned, Fazal finds it is “largely a protected environment, where people respect different viewpoints.” However, he has noticed recently that people who speak up “have come on the radar.” In his view, “actors have a social responsibility,” and they should not “turn a blind eye to politics.”
Fazal’s next project is Mudassar Aziz’s film Happy Bhaag Jayegi , a love triangle set in Punjab, both in India as well as Pakistan. “I play a sweet Punjabi boy called Guddu,” says Fazal. “I cannot say much else right now other than that a lot of the film unfolds in Lahore, which has been recreated in Chandigarh and Patiala. We shot at the Wagah border recently, and it was moving for me.”
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be staged today with Ali Fazal at 7pm and with Atul Kumar at 9.30 pm at Prithvi Theatre.
The author is a freelance writer