If you’ve ever yelled at the characters of a television show or movie in frustration or admiration, you know how interactivity in arts and entertainment has many faces, from video games to the resurgence of choose-your-own adventure works like Netflix’s Bandersnatch. In the two plays, Blank and NASSIM that recently played at Rumble and The Cultch respectively, Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour continued his tradition of proving the flimsiness of the theatre’s fourth wall to sparkling effect.
Blank’s central conceit is that the actor performs a script they’ve never seen, a script with strategic blanks patterning its paragraphs, which the audience then yells out suggestions to fill and thus shape the course of the story. This Mad Libs-like format stoked a lot of audience autonomy and participation, and their applause, laughter, and whoops became part of the story’s fabric.
The bones of the story was the life of the Character. With the audience’s help, the Character detailed their life, the connections they’d made, and the choices they would go on to make. There was universality to it—we all are born, grow up, and eventually die as the Character did—but also an intimate specificity: the expertly employed blanks meant that no two scripts (and hence, performances) of Blank would be the same, and the audience shared that distinct experience with one another only.
“It's the position of the word in the sentence,” said Soleimanpour when I asked him about how he’d chosen which words and phrases to leave out. “Lots of the blanks that we feel, in the course of the play, will give us a list of words that can be used in a different context by the end.”
NASSIM’s degree of interactivity—physical and linguistic gifts exchanged hands (including lessons in Farsi, cherry tomatoes, and a toonie) from the audience to the playwright to the actor to volunteers, and back again—was a bit more substantial than Blank’s. Its story, too, about homesickness, physical distance, and new friendships was far more emotionally striking because of how personal it was to the playwright: a text from his wife and a Skype voice call from his mother both featured in the play. Through this, NASSIM brought up many questions about the definition of home.
“I sometimes pause and ask myself, where is home?” Soleimanpour elaborated, adding,“I'm an Iranian living in Germany, performing in Canada. As I'm talking to you, I'm looking at my map of the world. All these boundaries are now a bit funny to me.”
Evidently boundaries in general are funny to Soleimanpour, whose plays are in conversation with one another, the audience, himself, and their themes all at once, their edges blurring the line between ‘play’ as a noun and a verb. One thing that recommends Blank and NASSIM is the mischief they both contain and encourage. I, alongside other audience members, wracked my brain for good swear words to offer when asked, laughed with the actors’ “mistakes” (if they could really be said to be making any), and turned the idea of an occasionally empty script in my mind over and over—a censorship of a sort that directly prodded my imagination away from what the playwright intended and toward what we as the audience wanted from the stories, at least in part.
“It's like solving a puzzle,” said Soleimanpour. “It's not easy, but at least you don't get lost. Like doing mathematics—in order to find the solution, you become creative. And of course, when you get there, you feel like you can celebrate.”