Magic Time!: ‘Blank’ at Theater Alliance

The show's built-in unpredictability and spontaneity make it a marvelous mini human comedy and, just like life, a one-chance-only don't miss.

“There are holes in the script!” would be the deathblow for any more conventional work of theater, but in Nassim Soleimanpour’s Blank, the gaps are where the action’s at.

As with Soleimanpour’s hugely popular White Rabbit Red Rabbit (presented last year at Theater Alliance), the actor picked to perform Blank is not given the script until the show starts. There are no rehearsals; there’s no director; there’s only a solo performer cold-reading through Soleimanpour’s startling and engagingly crafted “story machine.” Oh, and there’s also the audience, who become on-the-spot collaborators in the storytelling. The script is literally riddled with blanks to be filled in. The result is a mashup of interactive improv, smart party game, and very meta skunkworks.

Theater Alliance is presenting four performances of Blank as part of its third annual Word Becomes Action festival. I caught the first last night, and—notwithstanding my general apprehension about audience participation—I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The four performers of ‘Blank.’  Top row: Sisi Reid (August 8) and Lolita Marie (August 9). Bottom row: Heather Gibson (August 10) and Tiffany Byrd (August 11).Photos courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Sisi Reid as the solo performer was delightful. “I’m starting to like this,” she ad libbed early on, by which time she had us doing so as well. The audience member singled out to be “the character” in our collectively imagined story (Alex Turner) played along gamely and charmingly. The stage was set simply with a whiteboard, pieces of tape affixed at its edges, that in time became the storyboard of a character’s past and future life.

Soleimanpour’s deliberately incomplete script notes that there’s no rehearsal for life. It happens in the moment, moment by moment, an experience Blank evokes with uncanny immediacy. “I don’t own the best stories,” says Soleimanpour,” his words read from the page by the performer. “Any audience member might have a story that a playwright could only dream.” What I witnessed last night during Blank was the emergence of a genuinely communal awareness of our unique presences in the room, each life unfinished, each life worth living. “We’re here to discuss/describe the future,” says Soleimanpour through the performer. And indeed that’s where the piece takes us, to surprisingly moving effect.

Theater Alliance Producing Artistic Director Raymond O. Caldwell and ‘Blank’ Performer Sisi Reid in post-show conversation with the audience August 8, 2019. Photo: DCMTA.

Until the piece took that solemn and affirming turn toward the end, the audience was having more fun than many a scripted comedy offers. Remaining performances feature Lolita Marie (August 9), Heather Gibson (August 10), and Tiffany Byrd (August 11). The show’s built-in unpredictability and spontaneity make it a marvelous mini human comedy and, just like life, a one-chance-only don’t miss.

Running Time: About 80 minutes with no intermission, plus post-show conversation.

Blank plays plays through August 11, 2019, as part of the Word Becomes Action Festival at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

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John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.


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