Actors stepping out of the comfort zone

By Dionne Christian

Oliver Driver won't know what his role entails until he steps on stage.
Oliver Driver won't know what his role entails until he steps on stage.

In theatre, there are conventions which theoretically must be followed but the magnificent thing about rules is, as the cliche goes, they are made to be broken. That's long been a fascination for Silo's artistic director, Shane Bosher, who leaves the job next year.

He has excavated classic plays and musicals and made them modern; staged big-budget Broadway blockbusters in spaces designed for fewer than 150 people; and looked for work which finds new ways to tell stories to world-weary audiences or introduce them to the types of characters not ordinarily see on stage.

"I've always said if people come to a Silo show, leave and turn to one another and say, 'Who's got the car keys, then?' and are not changed in some way by the work, then we haven't done our job.

"When I am programming, I like to look for different dimensions involved in storytelling; pieces of work operating within a culture of contemporary concerns. I ask, 'How does the storytelling push form?', and that could come down to the ways in which the narrative is constructed, the demands on the performers themselves or the performance style."

But even Bosher was surprised - and delighted - at how many boxes White Rabbit, Red Rabbit ticks. Described as part theatrical experiment, part social experiment, the script requires each performer - a different one every night - to become its writer, Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour.

Soleimanpour was 29 when he wrote White Rabbit, Red Rabbit as a way to explore the world without leaving Iran. A conscientious objector, he refused to do military service so was refused a passport. As things stand, he is a prisoner in his own land.

So, he wrote the play which questions the limits of liberty, freedom and adherence to rules, and asked that wherever it was performed, audiences should keep their cellphones on so he could listen in. He read online reviews and email messages, blogged and followed the play's global journey on social networks. It became his ticket to break through borders and "visit" countries as diverse as Scotland, Brazil, Canada, Ireland and the US.

But Soleimanpour did insist on some rules, a type of employment agreement or social contract performers must adhere to. Information is so closely guarded that performers don't see the script until they step on stage and, in front of the audience, open the envelope that contains it. There are no rehearsals, no director, no hint of what the story is about - except to stress that it's not overtly political - or what telling it will involve.

It would be easy to cheat and peek at what's being said on line - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit has become something of a worldwide phenomenon - but that would be against the writer's wishes and destroy the opportunity for both the audience and performer to discover the play in real time.

"When I got the script, I read the disclaimers and instructions and decided I was going to put myself in the shoes of a performer reading it for the first time, so I stood up in my bedroom and read it aloud," Bosher recalls. "Within 15 minutes, I was kicking myself because I really wanted to be one of the people who performed it but I knew it was too late. I had already broken the rules."

Nevertheless, he made a snap decision to include it in this year's season and, with help from Silo colleagues, recruited performers they felt could cope with its demands. The initial list included actors, journalists, musicians, comedians and film-makers, then it was reduced to the final 17 actors: Jess Holly Bates, Mia Blake, Alison Bruce, Kip Chapman, Oliver Driver, Nick Dwyer, Adam Gardiner, Dai Henwood, Stephen Lovatt, Elizabeth McRae, Pua Magasiva, Natalie Medlock, Jarod Rawiri, Sophie Roberts, Paolo Rotondo, Rima Te Wiata and Jennifer Ward-Lealand.

"I told each person they couldn't read the script or anything about it; that they had to trust us and know it is special and, once they have read and performed it, they will want to do it again.

"There are some people who have a process they like to work through, which means they could not engage with this work in the way they need to for it to be effective. Of those who were chosen, I would say they have a sensibility and a view of life which is original. There's uniqueness in this piece which I think all of the performers will align with, although obviously they will do it in a completely different way."

Natalie Medlock, banned from listening to Bosher for a chunk of our interview, says she is not the type of person who shakes presents under the Christmas tree to try to work out what she's getting. She's okay with surprises and excited about the challenges White Rabbit, Red Rabbit presents.

"We know Shane as a professional, an artist, a director and as someone who knows we can all do this," says Medlock. "He would not put me up there to be laughed at or to fail. I'm not tempted to read anything about the play. You can't act your way through pretending you don't know it while you're trying to do the job you've been asked to do if you've cheated. I want to be in the moment, not having to lie, but sharing the space and the experience and having a conversation with the audience."


Performance

What: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
Where and when: Q Theatre Loft, July 1-13

- NZ Herald

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