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Plays become passports for Iranian writers

Nassim Soleimanpour r.e. Magnetic North Theatre Festival and his play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.

Two Iranian-born playwrights: One lives in Tehran and can't leave the country; the other, now living in Canada, can't return to Iran. They're both 30, part of the generation born after the Islamic revolution. And these restrictions on their travel and the resulting isolation for these men have formed the basis of first-person autobiographical theatre pieces. The Canadian work was inspired, in part, by faraway protests, and the playwright himself is now active on the streets of Montreal. The Iranian work has become a protest in and of itself. Both of these works, coincidentally, will be performed at this year's Magnetic North Theatre Festival, which opens in Calgary on Wednesday.

Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is intensely personal, but it is never performed by him. As he started to write the play – which began with a nightmare seven years ago that he killed himself on stage in front of an audience that included his parents – he quickly realized he would not be able to perform it outside of Iran: He could not secure a passport, having refused the military service which is mandatory in his country.

The problem begat a solution of creative genius: He would send the script out and have actors around the world stand in for him, declaring "I am Nassim Soleimanpour" from the stage. So while Soleimanpour is not able to be there, he is present in a profound way, his words a proxy for his body.

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"This was the only way to do it," Soleimanpour said during an interview from Tehran last week. "How could I perform? That was, I guess, the only answer."

To say the performances are fresh is an understatement: The actors are reading the play cold, handed the script in a sealed envelope as they are about to begin.

At the SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto last year, it was performed by actors such as Eric Peterson and Yanna McIntosh, and won the festival's prize for outstanding new performance text. In Calgary, there will be readings by Daniel MacIvor, Denise Clarke, Rebecca Northan and Sheldon Elter.

"This show has taken off like a rocket," says Brenda Leadlay, artistic director of Magnetic North, which alternates each year between Ottawa and another Canadian city. "There's a real buzz around this piece because of its really unique, original take on theatre."

Also getting buzz is the English language premiere of Mani Soleymanlou's One ( Un, in French) at Magnetic North. Soleymanlou was born in Tehran, moved to Paris when he was very young and to Toronto when he was 9. Now Soleymanlou lives in Montreal, where he is a busy actor. In 2009, as Iranians took to the streets to protest the presidential election results, he was invited by a Montreal theatre to present a new work about Iran, as part of a series for culturally diverse Quebecois playwrights.

"That came at the same time as the protests, so I found it kind of ridiculous to be talking about Iran when I didn't really know what it was anymore," said Soleymanlou from Montreal last week. "As I look at the papers and the news, and I see other Iranians my age actually fighting for their country, it was kind of ridiculous for me to pretend that I was, or to understand what it is to be, Iranian."

Instead, he created a work about his own cultural identity, and what it means to be Iranian when one has left the country as a child. Unable to return to investigate these questions, Soleymanlou reached within himself to fill in the cultural blanks: What was his life like in Iran, how was it to leave, and how has that departure informed his life?

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"All this is very confusing, because you're trying to make sense of all this, and you end up having no answers and you're just full of questions."

This year, active in the Quebec protests (he did not participate last weekend during the Grand Prix because he was out of town), he has been able to gain a modicum of understanding and a feeling of solidarity with Iranians, as he discovers the experience firsthand.

"I feel like I'm kind of in the street because I'm not able to be on the street in Tehran," says Soleymanlou, who has updated One/Un to include a reference to the Quebec protests. "I feel like to be on the street in Montreal is what I could do for whoever can't be in the street [in Iran] or when I couldn't be on the street [in Iran]. ... I feel like I have to be in the streets, seeing as I wasn't able to and I can't do it in my own country, my own country being the one I don't know anymore."

Meanwhile Soleimanpour's situation has been altered, radically. Four months ago, he received his passport; he had undergone a medical examination, an eye problem was detected, and suddenly Soleimanpour was exempt from the military service he had refused to complete.

This means he can now travel with the show. He won't make it to Calgary (partly because he cannot obtain a Canadian visa from within Iran). But he will travel to Dublin in September with the play, and after that to Australia. What he won't do is perform it. He doesn't want to rewrite the play or alter the current format, but he has plans to participate – from the audience – in other ways.

The work is also coming to Montreal – organized by Soleymanlou, to be performed in a French translation. While Montreal actors stand in for Soleimanpour, Soleymanlou (who cannot perform the work because he's familiar with it) may experience Lapin blanc, lapin rouge as a stand-in for Iran. Because not only can he not travel there, he knows his homeland will always be elusive in other ways; his isolation permanent.

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"I don't want to go back to this Iran. This Iran, I don't even know what it is. I can't even understand what it is. I don't want to go there. I want to go back to this Iran that I used to know. And the day this Iran comes back, it won't even be my Iran. It will be the Iran of those who are fighting every day right now, to find their country, to stop the blood from falling. So I'd go back as a tourist, pretty much."

Magnetic North runs June 13-22 in Calgary (

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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