Tim Crouch once said that he had written An Oak Tree – the piece in which he performs with an actor who had never seen the script before stepping on stage in front of the audience – because he himself wanted to be in the position of that actor. Knowing the lines gives an actor security, but not knowing the lines and having someone else provide this security instead gives the actor a unique opportunity to act and react to the material honestly, authentically, without pretence. The actor is still using his/her imagination to put themselves in the designated situation but the acting is in fact more real. As an audience aware of these altered rules of engagement we are also more alive, more forgiving, our attention is closer to the kind required for watching sport – anything might happen!
Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour specialises in exploiting this specific potential of live performance – he has authored three such playtexts requiring unknowing actors or audiences to engage in bringing the text to life without rehearsal. The first, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, was born out of despair and a need for human contact while the writer was under house arrest in Iran. Sending his script out into the world on his behalf – and getting various international stars to perform in it – the play has also triggered curiosity and desire of audiences to engage with the author directly. He still receives hundreds of emails from unknown fans weekly.
His latest text, Blank, is described by the author as a ‘story machine’ rather than a play. Why would he invent stories for audiences, he says, when the audience’s own are so much better? Instead he devises a series of authorial games for the actor and audience to play, and his script is an elaborate score of instructions. Once again, the script requires an actor to read it, without foreknowledge, for the first time in front of the audience. Both the actor and the audience are involved in a process of filling the blanks as and when the script requires it. The text shows the author’s sensitivity, empathy and ability to envisage, pre-empt and diffuse feelings of discomfort. It also shows the author’s playfulness and sense of humour. Sometimes the author is oversensitive, especially given the eagerness of the Fringe audience.
As a result, there are moments in the performance which may feel false and simply untrue of the situation, or the pacing might be off in the absence of directorial mediation but, overwhelmingly, the effect is that the playwright is in fact even more present in a play like this one than one that would involve representations of fictional scenarios. (Soleimanpour never feigns invisibility or anonymity but actually insists on giving us his email address as part of the proceedings so we can write to him and send him photos of the performance we witnessed). Academically perhaps the genre could be seen as metatheatre for the 21st century but, ultimately, it is a case of the playwright acting as an experience designer, anthropological experimenter, archivist of audience responses to theatre.
Soleimanpour’s work is paradigmatically similar to the work of Ontroerend Goed and the already mentioned Crouch. Like those artists’ creations, it is characterised by a very strict dramaturgy which enables the audience’s journey to feel meaningful, despite the chance element and in the absence of a preordained narrative. (It is also fun and empowering.) In this case, meaning is to be sought not in the story but in the theme that the work makes apparent – the way in which we all carry a blank within ourselves (fear, uncertainty, loneliness) which at times needs someone else to fill it in.