Friday, November 6, 2015

"White Rabbit Red Rabbit" at Cleveland Public Theatre

Spoiler Alert: This is a thing that happened.
This story begins last July at the annual Cleveland Public Theatre artists' meeting.

CPT Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan delivered an informal state of the theater address, describing a vision for the coming year, a layman's overview of the present financial state of the theater, and previewed the coming season.

To kick off the artists' meeting with a spirit of positive energy, everyone in attendance was asked to recall a strong memory from the past season. As fate would have it, I was seated far to one side and asked to go first.

As I stood and without thinking, reaching for something to say and came out with, "Does it have to be a moment in this theater?" which I realized as the words left my mouth (and from the general reaction from like, everybody in the room) was an entirely dick thing to say and entirely not what I meant.

The unhappy fact is that I had neither done nor seen anything at all at CPT in 2014-15, which is not a sin in itself, it's just a damn shame. I love this theater, I cannot imagine what state Cleveland would presently be in without it. It's a vital component of our city's character; rugged, dogged, earthy, earnest, open-hearted, and deeply weird. There's always new, challenging work happening there and I have missed being a part of it.

For example, one of the first elements of the new season Raymond shared was a play written in 2010 called White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour and that that was pretty much all he could say about it, except there would be a different actor every night receiving a script they had never read nor seen before to then read for an audience. No director, no rehearsal. A cold reading performance.

He went on to say that if that sounds gimmicky, well surely it is, but it's also a great piece of writing and they wouldn't bother presenting it if it weren't. In addition to Mr. Burns - A Post-Electric Play and the revival of Holly Holsinger's Frankenstein's Wake (which remains the best adaptation of Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley's work I have ever experienced) I made a mental note to catch White Rabbit Red Rabbit. This year, I promised, I would see more plays.

What happened next was this ... when the first press release announcing the names of all of the performers for White Rabbit Red Rabbit (which ran Oct. 8 - 25) it included an impressive list of performers and notable non-performers. Actress and Mamai Theatre co-founder Derdriu Ring, for example, and also Councilman Joe Cimperman. However, there were three dates that said TBA.

I sent a quick email asking, "Do you need actors?" which was greeted by the swift rejoinder, "Why, are you offering?" Soon I was receiving a formal invitation from the company and hey presto, I would be performing the last weekend, on Saturday, October 24.

I hear you are having a party.
I was momentarily a little self-conscious, I felt like someone who had invited themselves to a party. Whatever, People do that.

Preparation was simple, if not necessarily easy. Do not learn anything about this play. Don't look it up online, don't google the playwright.

Not googling the playwright was very easy, because apart from hearing Raymond say his name once back in July, I didn't know the name of the person who wrote this play.

One thing that disappointed me right away was the fact that once I had performed the work I would have exactly one opportunity to watch it from the audience, the final performance on October 25. Anne McEvoy would be playing. Poor Anne, she wouldn't get to see anyone.

And so the weeks passed and I didn't think about it, or when I did I told myself not to think about it. If my responsibility was to read a script cold in front of an audience, that's fine, that's one of my strengths. I am confident reading out loud in front of others.

Also, I was not worried the text would embarrass or compromise me or my beliefs or make me look like an asshole in public or anything. Would CPT conspire to humiliate founder Jim Levin or comedian Mike Polk? Of course not. Besides, Raymond had said at the artists' meeting that though he could not describe the content of the script, he believed it was very, very good, and I like the things that he likes. So there's that, too.

No, it was only when I received the requisite email message from the playwright twenty-four hours prior to the performance did I become nervous. It included a few additional instructions, which in and of themselves were not challenging, but suddenly I developed the belief that there were things I could get wrong. If there is something you are supposed to do, and you don't know what that is, there must therefore have an opportunity to fuck that up.

In brief: It happened. I showed up, and the performance happened. If you want to know what that means you can look it up somewhere else. What I can say is this; I spent the next almost twenty-four hours believing I had done poorly. Not that I had performed poorly, but that I had performed too much. Or too little. I had no idea. I wasn't happy.

Previously, I didn't believe I had time to make Anne's closing performance, there's been so much going on at home and work. Now I had a neurotic need to experience it, preferably sitting all the way in the back. This I did, and I am very glad that I did, for several reasons.

For one thing, I realized there was much of the play I did not even remember. I mean, she performance reminded me of what I had done which I had promptly forgotten in the mental maze of performing the thing.

Also, so many of her choices validated my choices and so I felt less self-conscious about what I had done. She was delightful, by the way, though her energy and mood was quite different. We are different people.

I was also very grateful for the post-show discussions. As CPT is currently restoring the Levin Theatre, which may have otherwise been the site of a show like White Rabbit Red Rabbit, instead it was produced in the Parish Hall, and then interested audience members were asked to relocated to post-show to the church for the discussion - an entirely different building, some 100 feet away - which afforded those who wished not to participate the opportunity to just walk to their cars or XYZ and be done with it. You had to choose to join the post-show discussion.

And both nights I was present I would say more than half the audience did! That by itself started the discussion off on a strong foot, I felt. We all wanted to be there. And there was much to discuss.

Now here's a minor spoiler if you wish to turn away.

Much of the discussion the final night, the night I watched, not performed, was about the relationship between the writer and actor, and whether or not the actor was being manipulated by the writer, having agreed to read words written by an unknown other, one living (or not) in a foreign land from a different time - the time at which they had written, a time before now. Were we, and by proxy the audience, being manipulated?

Brian Cook in "I Hate This"
But then, we debated, isn't that the nature of all theatrical performance? Isn't Shakespeare, cold and dead, still fucking with us with his words, words we feel some strange compulsion to read and speak in spite of their distance in time and the bizarre things he makes us do? Do not all playwrights cast a spell on others to perform their bidding, to their their stories, even from the grave?

This evening I had the peculiar opportunity to watch a young man speak my words, to tell a story so deeply my own they could be no one else's. And yet he was there on the stage and everyone was watching and listening to him, and I was in my seat and I knew every word and yet it was like experiencing some different man tell his story, not mine.

Today I drove seven hours to Oneonta, New York to witness Brian Cook perform I Hate This at Hartwick College.

To be continued.

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