Since I started reading, watching, listening, I have known that my interests lie in things that are quite controversial, artistically and emotionally risky and usually quite weird and experimental. All these things have shaped my taste and my professional goals. Working on a completely new project with Nassim Soleimanpour seemed like a dream come true for someone interested in experimental and international aspects of performing arts. I felt really privileged, especially because I totally loved White Rabbit, Red Rabbit when LIFT showed it at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill back in 2012. Looking at Blind Hamlet from today’s perspective, I realise how important this project has been to me on so many different levels.
Everyone who is even slightly into theatre knows the story – Nassim refused to undertake mandatory military service and, having his passport taken, was not able to leave Iran. That’s how White Rabbit, Red Rabbit came to light, a play which involved one actor only being given the script for the first time on stage. With each actor only allowed to perform the piece once, audiences were treated to Nassim’s words, that reached beyond Iran, without any traditional theatre filers, such as directors or rehearsals.
Following White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, we at ATC did something different by bringing Nassim to the UK for the first time to collaborate on his next play. I was responsible for the process of getting his visa. After thousands of phone calls to UK Visas and Immigration, many emails exchanged between LIFT, British Council and Aurora Nova, Nassim’s management, and quite a few attempts of completing a very non-straight-forward application form, we made it and Nassim was granted his first ever visa to the UK. Getting visa for a non-EU artist is probably one of the most painful and at the same time most important tasks of theatre producers. It teaches you an awful lot and brings you a great deal of satisfaction once you succeed. Getting an insight into the alleys and thoroughfares of UK Visas and Immigration, although not a very exciting a process, helped me change my attitude to bureaucracy, taught me patience and professionalism in situations when the whole world seems to be against you.
Returning to the work itself, the idea of creating a new piece where the audience plays the most important part seemed quite natural in the digital age, when so many performing arts companies turn towards interaction and immersion. It also seemed like a natural continuation of the process we started with The Events – a show that had local choirs acting as both audience and performer on stage. Throughout the research and development period of Blind Hamlet, as Nassim was writing, we would put together test audiences. These were comprised of young theatre practitioners, LIFT volunteers, and our Twitter followers. Various drafts of Nassim’s script were performed for them in order to test how it encouraged audience participation in a diverse range of spectators. People were mostly generous in sharing their feedback with us and we couldn’t have done it without them. But this process was a real emotional rollercoaster and the piece was changed dramatically throughout. This work came to its conclusion with three previews at the Battersea Arts Centre as part of LIFT 2014, but this time with a ‘real’ paying audience. As Blind Hamlet was still a work in progress for us, each presentation gave us different things to think about. We spent hours talking about the role of the Stage Manager, location of the Dictaphone, dynamics of the game Mafia, storytelling, different ways of engaging the audience, making the players comfortable on stage, the importance of lighting and so on.
Then came Scotland.
Edinburgh Fringe is probably the best place, in the UK and internationally, to try out new ideas. It is where audiences are most open-minded and ready to become a part of a wider experiment. The Fringe seemed a perfect context to premiere our new show. It was really fascinating to see how Blind Hamlet changed every day depending on who joined the stage. Talking to audiences pretty much every day we discovered openness and enthusiasm for the story and the concept. Our Edinburgh run, as everything, had ups and downs and it made me think a lot about the gap between critics’ and audiences’ reactions, and the nature of artistic experimentation. Commissioning writers and devising a project from scratch, with many various minds contributing, always has an element of risk. For me, making experimental theatre means looking for the right dynamic between the form and the content, exploring subject-matters and constantly improving.
From Edinburgh we continued our journey to Undercloud Festival in Bucharest, Romania. This was the first time the show went abroad, my first time abroad with ATC and the first time in its 8 year history that the festival showcased a performance from an international company. The theatre scene in Romania is quite different to the UK and interactive projects are still quite niche; they are a world away from our Punchdrunk love for immersive theatre. Before the shows, people would tell us how reluctant audiences are to being on stage and taking part, wary of anything that breaks conventional tropes. That clearly wasn’t the case. The volunteers who took to the stage seemed to enjoy themselves and there was also a lot of laughter and lively reactions from the audience watching. Our Romanian experience was great, which was also thanks to the wonderful team of volunteers who looked after us so well. It also proved one thing we have tried to achieve – Blind Hamlet is a flexible show that thanks to its simplicity and universal subject-matter can travel across borders.
Writing this now, it feels like this journey has been quite rocky but I don’t think it has quite finished yet. Despite all the obstacles, thrills, and spills, I have appreciated every moment of it and hope for more to come.