BWW Interview: Nassim Soleimanpour of NASSIM at Magic Theatre Travels the World to Create New Forms of Theater
Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour has forged quite a singular career. His elliptical works have been performed all over the world, including two lengthy runs in New York featuring a virtual Who's Who of stage actors. His play Nassim adheres to an unorthodox format wherein its sole actor, a different one for each performance, does not even see the script until it is unsealed at the beginning of the actual performance. Soleimanpour himself is present onstage with the actor as a sort of silent companion. BroadwayWorld spoke with Soleimanpour from Berlin the evening before he was set to fly to San Francisco for performances at the Magic Theatre. As you can imagine, travelling to the U.S. these days is very complicated for an Iranian citizen. In conversation, Soleimanpour is thoughtful, funny, quick to express gratitude, and surprisingly calm for someone whose life is so peripatetic. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You almost weren't allowed to come to New York for performances last year due to our president's travel ban. A host of influential people had to intervene on your behalf before you were permitted to enter the country. Are you encountering similar barriers this time?
Yes, it's very tricky. People are really willing to help - the consulate in Berlin, Senator Gillibrand's office followed up with my petitioner, who was the petitioner in the New York case. I think we started the process of getting my visa in June, and then in August I visited the embassy with all the documents. After all these follow ups, two days ago we got the visa. We were just like panicking. Should we cancel the run because we have a show in 2 or 3 days?! I think of all these people who worked so hard every time. And of course my American agent, I really feel for him. I try to look at the bright side - look at all these people who are trying to solve the problem.
Given that even the actors performing Nassim won't see the script until they're onstage, what can you tell me about the play?
It is a show which casts a new actor or actress per show. There is no limitation on the gender, on the age; they could be black, white, male, female. And this person is not allowed to know anything about the show, there's no rehearsing it. It's a show which is in a way about language, about making friends, about the concept of home. I think we're around show number 330. Wherever we take it, we do it in their language. I count during most of the shows and I think they laugh over 100 times and it's very common that when you leave, your eyes are wet. I'm used to big laughter and then people crying at the end.
Your earlier play White Rabbit Red Rabbit was also presented without the actors' having seen the script prior to performance. What do you think your method brings to the experience for the audience?
I think it puts all of us in the same boat. I always question "Who is the audience?" If I'm an actor doing a cold read, I am just like an audience member. Honestly, I don't know what's going to happen next. And then if I'm reading from the paper [script], it's possible for me to pass the script to an audience member who comes onstage to start reading, and this audience member becomes a performer and I become an audience member. I think it's mainly to live it together for the first time, and that's why you're allowed to do it only once. It becomes, of course, an experiment in form, but [also] a shared experience for all of us in the room.
Both of these plays had lengthy runs in New York with an amazing roster of actors - including Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Shannon to name just a few. How do you get so many incredible actors to agree to do your plays sight unseen?
Wherever we take the show, the local producer casts it. I think with "Rabbit" it was more tricky [at first]. When it came to the New York run, the show was already 5 years old. Like Mike Shannon did it before New York, I think in Chicago, and Ken Loach did it in Bristol. It was easier at that point to convince people to come in. Of course, it takes a lot of hard work and you need amazing producers and casting agents. The more time passed, it has been 7-8 years now that I'm doing cold reads, hopefully people now trust the scripts more. They don't think I'm there to embarrass them, and they know there should be a good reason that we're doing this. Otherwise, I'm happy to write plays which are rehearsed and I do that as well. But, yeah, for both of these plays it's definitely needed. I try to write a good script and hand it to a good producer and then just trust all these brave people, like in New York, this pool of amazing performers. With Nassim I was there for 5 months to see 160 actors coming in, and just to sit and watch what they do with the material is like a blessing.
I hadn't thought about that, but for you as a playwright to have experienced that over the length of the run is pretty amazing.
Yeah, I think I will never become an actor. I mean I have to perform partly in some of my shows, but I think I've learned a lot of acting by sitting and watching all these people.
You've taught set design at the University of Tehran. Now that you're internationally known as a playwright, do you still do design work as well?
No. To be honest, I never did. I mean I've studied set design, I've worked with architects because I used to do computer-aided design, but I never did like any real professional scenic design. I remember when "Rabbit" took off, one of my former teachers at University got the script from someone and read it, and of course "Rabbit" does not demand anything [in terms of scenery]. You're supposed to just put a table, two glasses of water and a ladder onstage. So I bumped into him and he told me "I read your play. And I watched a trailer. Is that what we taught you?!" And I was like "Well, what can I say?" [laughs]
You're currently based in Berlin. How did you come to settle there?
Well, I'm here on a work visa because I still live on an Iranian passport. It's a bit tricky to get my visas. The American visa turned out to be the toughest one, but it's always time-consuming. If I hunker down in Europe, I can basically cover [a number of] countries here. It's close to Iran, it's easy to travel and I collaborate with different European countries on different projects. I traveled quite [extensively] before picking Berlin. My agent is Berlin-based so I came to visit and I told him "I love Berlin" and he was like "Then you should come live in Berlin." Then in a few months, it was me and my wife and my dog arriving at Tegel airport, struggling to learn German. So, yeah, [I chose Berlin] out of necessity I would say - and curiosity maybe.
Like most Americans, I know really very little about daily life in Iran. What is the theater scene like in Tehran?
It is growing crazily. When I left Tehran, we had 6 different, if I'm not mistaken, theater universities and 20 venues. Since I left something changed in the law where you can start non-profit theaters. When I visited after three years, the first time I went back, I was talking with friends where I should go to see theater, and they were mentioning theaters that I didn't know - "You should go to this theater and that theater and that theater." In only two years opened more than another 30 theaters in Tehran. So we're dealing with a city which has over 150 shows per night with over 50 festivals a year. And if that is the capital, then it would be smaller, but of course that still exists in other big cities. So it is quite active. It's big enough so that other people don't care about me. [laughs]
What do you most miss about living in Iran?
My family, of course. I mean I visit them, they visit me, but that's what you miss first. The language sometimes. I mean I work, even I discuss in English sometimes when I get excited. I talk to my wife, who's Iranian, I switch to English - I don't know why! - and we live in Germany so we have to speak in German. But I miss working in my own mother tongue, I miss writing in Farsi.
And then the sun! Damn, here it's cool and nowadays by 3:00 in the afternoon it's grey. I'm from Shiraz where Persepolis is, you know it through the wine, the grapes. It's very sunny there so I miss the sun. Germany is a nice country, but you asked about my complaints. [laughs]
Do you see yourself ever returning to Iran?
Permanently? It could happen. I mean, I'm like a broken twig on a huge ocean so the waves are taking me from this place to another. Every year I'm just like "I worked so hard now I can give myself a break for a few months," but that has never happened so far. I know I'm young, but I keep talking about retirement. So yeah, if I know that financially I'm fine, I might go back. I might have a piece of land next to the Caspian Sea. I might disappear, go off the radar.
What are you working on next?
I'm writing a play for Audible, which they've announced, but I don't think I can tell you the name of that play. And I'm working on a work in progress with a Danish playwright, a project called, "Cook." We realized these cold reads are similar to recipes where you pick up a cookbook and follow the instructions. So we go country to country and interview people in their kitchens, and write stories based on that country and those people. Later we perform it with an actor, cold read onstage. A few countries we're still going to. It will take us a little time to finish a cookbook we can publish in the hope of bringing the theater into your kitchen. When they did this retrospective of my works in London at the Bush Theatre, we tried one of the recipes, and then another one we tried out in Copenhagen. We were going to try one four days ago in Hong Kong, but it got cancelled due to the protests. We did one in Nice. We're going to Mexico now so we keep recording and writing. And then next year, I will get involved in a new production in Germany. So, yeah, I have enough on my plate, I think.
You truly are a child of the world at this point.
I remember there was a day that I put the map of the world in front of me when I decided to send "Rabbit" out of my country. I took a Sharpie and painted the map of my country in red, and I was like "OK, this is where I cannot perform this play." And then I looked at the whole map and I thought, "OK, but this is where I can perform." So for me there's no difference between doing a show in Berlin or in Copenhagen or in Beijing. I don't have my hometown any more.
Nassim runs from Tuesday, November 12th through Saturday, November 16th at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Bldg. D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123. Tickets and further information available at www.MagicTheatre.org or by calling (415) 441-8822.