BWW Interview: Nassim Soleimanpour Explores Language and Friendship With a New Actor Each Night in NASSIM
Nassim Soleimanpour is an Iranian playwright whose new play Nassim is currently being produced by Barrow Street Theatricals at New York City Center Stage (ii). Nassim has previously played to sold-out audiences across the globe and features a unique set-up of a new guest actor at each performance who has not read or rehearsed the play. Soleimanpour previously explored this concept in his play White Rabbit Red Rabbit, which ran Off-Broadway for nine months in 2016. So far in its run, Nassim has been performed by guest actors such as Michael Urie, Tatiana Maslany, Beth Malone, Ethan Slater, Kate Walsh and many more.
Nassim Soleimanpour talked to BroadwayWorld about working with these amazing guest artists, how Nassim differs from White Rabbit Red Rabbit, and the difficult process that almost didn't allowed him to be in the country for the play's American premiere.
NASSIM is similar to your play White Rabbit Red Rabbit in that the show features a different guest actor every night who has never read the script before. How is the content of the script itself and the play different?
If I wanted to describe it, I'd say White Rabbit Red Rabbit was an experiment to see if we could fly. At the time when I wrote Rabbit, almost eight years ago, the concept of casting new actor who comes and reads a cold read basically in front of a live audience looked more risky, was harder to convince actors to come in and do it, to convince producers to put it on. So it was like, is it gonna work? Is it not gonna work? It proved itself. It toured quite well. It proved that we can fly. But now Nassim is the bigger flight, the real flight, the commercial flight, which is going a longer distance, carries more people. So this is more of a production. That is one huge difference.
Secondly, is the concept of the show. Yes, the forms are a bit similar but the concept is totally different. In Rabbit, we're basically dealing with topics like obedience, what are our red lines, how much do we follow up, when do we become a rebel. In Nassim, we are dealing with concepts like language, poetry, friendship. So yeah, conceptually, the two pieces are totally different.
This play obviously shares its title with your first name. Is it more personal than previous plays?
No, they are all very personal. Whenever I've written, they are very personal. It's dealing with the translation of my name. It has a meaning in Farsi. Nassim means 'breathe'. During the show, we share this story of how my mom and I had a discussion in 2013 about the meaning of my name.
Do you think that people have been responding to the show differently in New York than in the other countries it's been performed in?
Not really, honestly. I understand that we all live in our bubbles. That's in general my feeling about theatre in New York rather than about Nassim specifically. Sometimes I feel like, I've seen a version of that in Tokyo. When they say, "This is Tokyo." And I hear that "This is New York." And I'm like, "Yeah, but it's a big world." We all live in our own bubble. And it's a big bubble. That I agree. But the audiences are really loud and they clap and they laugh a lot, which wasn't what I've heard about New York audiences. I felt like they would be more distant, which is not true. I would be happy to come back and perform for New York audiences anytime.
I read that you almost weren't able to come to the U.S. for this play because of Trump's travel ban. Can you tell me more about that?
Yes, I mean, your new president signed a travel ban and changed life for some people. If you're an Iranian, you wouldn't be eligible to get an American visa, unless you apply for a student visa. So when I got invited to come to New York, I was happy, since Rabbit was here, and I wanted to come in person and explore and perform for you guys. But I kept saying, "No." I said, "It's impossible. It's five months of my calendar and you want to invest. You shouldn't do that. You'll lose money if you don't get my visa." But the lovely producers, they were - in a very good way - so stubborn. They kept pushing and saying, "We will figure it out."
So the process was, we applied for a visa. But that wasn't enough. We had to sign a petition like universities, people who did Rabbit. And then Senator Gillibrand's office followed up. I was told that after five months of all this paperwork and everything, I would go to the American consulate in Berlin and my visa would be refused by default. I was told that that was the process. So I went there and was visa was refused and then we applied for a waiver. And we had to prove these categories. The first was that it was "extraordinary," which sounds funny when I say it, but basically that I'm someone. And the second thing is that we wouldn't be a big harm to the American party. Which is a) very sad, b) how can we prove that? So the whole case for my visa was written based on the fact that there's no procedure for us to prove that I'm is not going to harm the country. And then I met with an officer in Berlin who was a lovely guy. He interviewed me and his opinion was very important. And he decided that I'm not going to harm your country. It's funny when I speak it. I don't know if I should laugh or I should cry. I want to come here and perform for you, entertain you. Why do we have to go through all of that?
In November I was visiting eight countries with the show. Eventually, in November they said, "Yeah, bring in your passport." And I said, "I can't. I'm running from one airport to another one." So my agent had to fly to Madrid, get my passport, fly back to Berlin, put my visa in my passport, fly back to Madrid, and then we flew together on December 4th and arrived in the early morning of December 5th in New York. And then we did the dress rehearsal the same day and then opened the show.
That's amazing how many people worked together to get you here.
This whole thing taught me a lesson. I was very relaxed about it and I kept smiling and telling everyone, "You will not manage to do this. Just forget about it." But these guys proved to me that I'm a bit lazy. I should have more hope!
Is there a particular actor who's done either Nassim or White Rabbit Red Rabbit that was the most exciting to you? Like, "I can't believe this person is doing my show"?
The thing is, of course some names get you excited like Whoopi Goldberg and Mike Shannon. I remember I was taking a shower in Berlin when Rabbit was in New York and my wife knocked on the door and said, "Guess who's performing Rabbit next week?" And I was like, "Who? I'm taking a shower." She was like, "Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother!" So that's one thing, which is nice.
But if you ask me honestly, the beauty of it is that the people that you don't know or don't know well, you see their show and after the show you become a fan. I can give you a hundred names now in New York. Every night I'm sort of expecting it to be less eventful. I'm like, "What are you gonna do? I've done it 250 times now." But every new actor they have a trick. Last night, in the middle of the show, Vicki Lewis was doing the show and I was going to cry. She was crying and I was going to crying. I was like, "I've done this so many times before what are you doing to me?" These people - actors - are amazing. It's just an honor to be able to work with them.
Do you think you will keep exploring this particular format of shows in the future or will you head in a different direction next?
I'm determined to do both, honestly. If drama, as a school, is a big mountain, then this thing that I've found is a small hill. But I've found it and there's more things to explore. So, yes I'm determined to write more cold reads. I'm already involved in two projects that will end up with a new actor every night. I have a company now and my company is going to commission other playwrights to go in and write cold reads. I think that I can do some stuff but there's things that I can't do and I know people who can come in with a good ideas and I would be happy to support them with the network that I have and the experience that I got. In the meantime, I'm more interested in shifting the paradigm. That's how I started doing this. I want to experiment. And if this is becoming a new paradigm, like "Nassim Soleimanpour is always going to do the cold read", then I will shift the paradigm again. So now at the moment I'm writing a radio for Audible, which is obviously not casting a new actor every night. And don't be surprised if I ever decide to become an actor.
No rehearsals. A different guest actor at every performance. A sealed envelope. And some surprises. NASSIM was originally commissioned and produced by the Bush Theatre and received its world premiere at the Bush Theatre, London, July 25, 2017. Nassim's American premiere celebrated its official opening night on Wednesday, December 12, 2018 and will run until April 20, 2019 at New York City Center's Stage II. The American premiere of NASSIM is produced by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, and Barrow Street Theatricals.
Nassim Soleimanpour's first play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, ran for more than nine months in New York, and was performed by Whoopi Goldberg, Bobby Cannavale, Nathan Lane, F. Murray Abraham, and other celebrated actors. It has been performed thousands of times in the United States and has been translated into more than 25 languages.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus