From Thursday to Saturday this week, Nassim Soleimanpour’s experimental play White Rabbit Red Rabbit will be performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Siobhan Redmond, Phill Jupitus and Ewen Bremner will have had no direction, no rehearsals, and no idea of what their lines will be. Instead, the script is placed in an envelope that will be opened in front of the audience just before the performance begins.
The play’s structure was influenced by the sanctions against the writer. He is a conscientious objector against military service in his native Iran, and is not allowed to leave that country. A symbolic empty seat is left in the front row of each performance.
I’m in the habit of listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast, where authors perform other authors’ short stories and are interviewed about why they like what they’ve just read. A couple of months ago, I encountered Donald Bartheleme for the first time through his story Concerning the Bodyguard. This piece is experimental in a different way, narrated through a series of questions, repeating nouns where a pronoun would normally suffice. Salman Rushdie read it, lending an extra edge through his measured baritone voice.
It took until the post-reading interview before I really understood what the story was saying, although the penny might have dropped had I listened to it one more time. It’s very much snagged my interest in Bartheleme, and if I encounter his books in my travels, I will definitely place them on my reading list.
It’s a safe bet that many of us have one or two pieces that don’t conform to the accepted norms, and it can be difficult to find a suitable home for these.
One of mine is a work called The Executive Lounge which takes the form of a list of statistics describing a place, but that place only becomes clear in the last two lines. I don’t know whether to classify it as prose or poetry, as a list usually contains line breaks like a poem, but this has the metre of a prose piece.
Whichever way you consider it, it’s most definitely for the page, not performance. My only public reading of it so far was in front of an audience who are accustomed to my work, and it’s the only one of my pieces they didn’t understand until I explained it. To date it’s been rejected by several publishers. Regardless, I consider it to be a completed work in which I still have faith.
However difficult it is to find a home in a mass-market world, never be afraid to experiment. With an ever-increasing number of small publishers springing up, at least one of them is bound to be on your wavelength. The next time I identify an editor who might appreciate The Executive Lounge, I’ll send it straight to them. If nobody took a risk from time to time, we’d all be reading bland and unchallenging literature.
Incidentally, the place I read out that piece was Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers rather than musicians. If you live in or near Dundee, the next event is on Monday 20 October at The Burgh Coffeehouse on Commercial Street from 7pm to 9pm. Bring along your best work, experimental or not.