The premise of Nassim is simple. Iranian playwright, Nassim Soleimanpour, tours the world with this short work where every night a different actor, unprepared and having never seen the script, performs the show with him. The actor is our tentative guide. He or she knows as much as we know. They must read projections of the text. Follow stage directions (we too can see) and obey the instructions of the, initially hidden from view, playwright. For a while, all we see are Soleimanpour’s fingers following along the script via projection.
The night I attended, Soleimanpour impatiently waited while guest actor Ben Steinfeld refused to read something on screen. His tapping fingers on the omnipresent text ignited a tension between creator and player. Steinfeld reluctantly gave in and did what he was supposed to.
We do not hear the author’s voice. Soleimanpour has left Iran and if he wants his work performed it is going to be in foreign tongues. So this withholding is with intent and we are meant to feel its absence. When Soleimanpour eventually appears on stage, he still does not speak. He may write things into the script and answer questions asked of him on paper.
Because of his silence, the audience too must play a part. We clap, stand, and recite Farsi, Soleimanpour’s mother tongue. We offer word suggestions and respond to his request for gifts via Steinfeld.
While the subject matter of the play circles around storytelling, mothers, childhood, language, and connection, I found myself feeling like a petulant child in it. A whiny, irritation crept up on me. Perhaps Steinfeld’s momentary defiance was contagious. But I started to chafe under the direction of the author.
There are plays where compliance or disobedience by the audience is political. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview asked that white audience members go on stage in an effort to show how much space white people take up on stage. Not all audience members followed instructions making the labor of the black actor (under guidance from the playwright) even harder. In Rags Parkland Sings The Songs of The Future, we were asked to sing along at one point so that the lament of the characters in a dystopian future (perhaps a little too politically familiar to us) resonated inside us as well. In both instances, I understood the request and participated openly without hesitation.
But there are plays where our acquiescence feels like an empty gesture. In Ivo van Hove’s production of Network, we are asked repeatedly to shout the famous line, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” We clap like a studio audience and repeat this mantra until the words are devoid of meaning and our repetition drags the play and ourselves down with it. I felt like a pawn and that self-awareness just got tiresome and obvious. And after so many scenes where we were called upon to perform our faked applause, I started to think I had joined Equity. Ivo, send me my check!
It’s not entirely fair to compare Network and Nassim or this request for audience participation. Soleimanpour struggled to get a visa to America simply because of his Iranian passport. His presence on our stage is in itself a challenge to authority. The politics of his work and his presence were not lost on me.
But for Nassim to work, the play needs the actor and audience to play along to build a sense of friendship and shared kinship. The playwright asks the actor and the audience to help him tell his story. His hope is that passing this torch, this shared experience, this language, that barriers will disappear. Bridges will be built. We are needed to complete the circuit of the work. This is not uncommon. I’m not fundamentally opposed to these goals. So why am I resisting this? But it needed me to agree with it before I had any chance to come to that decision on my own.
In the show, I played along. I clapped. I recited Farsi when asked. But with a sparse audience and a laborious pace, I felt structurally guilted into greasing the wheels of the show. Any warmth I could have developed for the idea was wrung out of me by its demands for it. I was performing obedience. I was faking my enthusiasm. Therefore, the communion became pretense.