Time is running out to see the world premiere production of Bess Wohl’s beguiling, mostly silent, play Small Mouth Sounds, an ensemble character study set at a rural wellness retreat attended by aching city folk who are seeking relief from the pain of the cement jungle. The tragic-comic look at misfits struggling to reboot in a strange world will end its extended, acclaimed run at Off-Broadway’s Ars Nova on April 25.
One of the reasons that the production is one of the first great New York theatre experiences of 2015 is the constant decoding that the audience is required to engage in during the 100-minute running time. Little or no talking is allowed at the retreat, so character, plot and event are mostly supplied in silence. We have to dope it out, solving mysteries from clues dropped by the actors, director and the design team.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by the sight — and the haunting sound — of a character crying on stage as I was when I saw Small Mouth Sounds. Why is she crying? What is her pain? Who will hear her? Who will help her? Have I been her? Will I become her?
Maybe you saw my feature about this unique production in TDF Stages magazine.
Below, I share more of my conversation with actress-turned-playwright Wohl, whose recent stage projects include the book for the original musical Pretty Filthy and the comedy American Hero, both seen Off-Broadway in the past year. She’s also got a pilot in the works for ABC. The world premieres of Wohl’s plays Touch(ed) and In were produced by Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City in 2009 and 2011, respectively, under the direction of Charles Morey. (PTC, incidentally, just produced the world premiere of my own play, Alabama Story, in January 2015.)
Another reason to love Small Mouth Sounds is the physical world that cradles it. The moment you step into the sleek confines of a natural-wood rectangular space constructed within the shell of Ars Nova‘s intimate auditorium, you feel like you’re on foreign soil.
Offering 90 seats, with two rows of chairs facing each other in a runway-style configuration, the “Japanese/Danish Modern/Minimalist” room — a blonde-wood box within a box — is claustrophobic and airy at once: Horizontal strips of window at the top of the walls show video images of the natural world — rain, trees, sky, water.
The action unfolds at your feet, in a neutral playing area that serves as multiple settings, with one end of the sunken runway leading to a platform that suggests the retreat’s meeting house, where Students address the unseen Teacher (played by Jojo Gonzalez, boasting a vaguely East Indian accent, speaking on a God mic).
The space is unlike anything you’ve seen at Ars Nova. It’s probably unlike any theatre space you’ve ever been in.
Laura Jellinek is the scenic designer, and this conceptual world was created in conversation with director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) and playwright Wohl. The script does not indicate a sleek runway space; Wohl wrote the play with a proscenium in mind (and says she hopes the script has a wide future life in a variety of spaces).
“Rachel has a huge hand in this,” Wohl told me. “The whole play is basically staging. [She was] instrumental in defining how the play would exist.” Under Chavkin, who became attached to the project during a second developmental workshop, “the play really started to take shape as a play, [looking at] how to move the bodies through the space.”
It’s clear when you cross over the threshold of Small Mouth Sounds that your theatregoing life is about to undergo an adjustment, echoing the coming experience of the weary characters played by Jessica Almasy, Marcia DeBonis, Brad Heberlee, Sakina Jaffrey, Erik Lochtefeld and Babak Tafti. We’re all navigating terra incognita together.
Here’s how Ars Nova bills Small Mouth Sounds: “In the overwhelming quiet of the woods, six runaways from city life embark on a silent retreat. As these strangers confront internal demons both profound and absurd, their vows of silence collide with the achingly human need to connect. Filled with awkward humor, this strange and compassionate new play asks how we address life’s biggest questions when words fail us.”
For the record, the production team of Small Mouth Sounds also includes costume designer Tilly Grimes, lighting designer Mike Inwood, sound designer Stowe Nelson, projection design Andrew Schneider, prop designer Noah Mease and production stage manager James Steele.
Ars Nova is at 511 W. 54th Street in Manhattan. Click here for ticket information.
Here’s my chat with Bess Wohl.
What prompted the creation of Small Mouth Sounds? You’ve attended silent retreats?
Bess Wohl: It came very directly from my experience. The first time I went on a silent retreat…I went to spend time with [one of my best friends] and to experience this teacher — sort of a fun girls’ thing to do. I didn’t realize when I went that we were going to be in silence. So, part of that experience was to spend time with my friend, but then entering a deeper personal experience once we were in silence. [My friend and I] had cheated the entire time, and chatted a lot, more than we should have.
The thing that united everybody is that they seem to come with some kind of need to find some kind of solace or perspective or shift in the way they’re experiencing life. They’re hoping that The Teacher will give that to them. What I loved about that for a play is that what’s necessary for any play is that all the characters really need something. This is such a great environment: a play where there is this automatic need. When I was there I found there was this moving desire for somebody to alleviate the basic difficulty of living in the world.
Since words are mostly stripped away, we end up creating characters from clues that are dropped. Our imaginations are heightened.
Bess Wohl: We project stories onto each other. The teacher says, “What story have you invented about what’s around you and what’s in you right now?” I liked the idea that when you’re in silence with somebody and you’ve never gotten their biography, you form ideas of who they are that may or may not be real. That’s sort of an extension of what we all do all the time with each other: We don’t know everything about each other, but we form impressions on very limited information about each other. I thought that was something really interesting for me to explore.
In a play like this, where the audience is making so many assumptions about who the characters are from how they look, things like who you cast, what you dress them in, what their props are, do so much storytelling. The designers are…a huge piece of it. Tilly [Grimes], our costume designer, was there throughout rehearsal because she recognized that what they were wearing was going to tell a huge story about who they were because they didn’t have the lines to do that.
You worked on the play in the Ars Nova Play Group and then further developed it on Martha’s Vineyard and back again at Ars Nova. What did you learn in the process?
Bess Wohl: Through the workshops, we checked in with audiences, saying: “Did you understand this?” “What did you miss?” “What was overexplained?” “Could we complicate this more and still have the audience track it?” “How much did we want to hold their hands and let them know what’s happening in every moment?” “When is it OK for them to be confused?” Figuring out how the information is getting across and what they’re picking up on and what they’re not was a huge part of the development of the play. Maybe you think you’re one step ahead [as a viewer], and then you suddenly realize you may have misinterpreted everything. What was fascinating to learn was how much they picked up on.
It strikes me that what the characters experience in Small Mouth Sounds is incredibly analogous to the theatregoing experience: We go to plays looking for enlightenment, or to refresh the way we view the world.
Bess Wohl: When I was on Martha’s Vineyard [workshopping the play], The Debate Society was there, and the director Oliver Butler made a great point to me as we were talking about the play. He said, “You know, the actors are on a silent retreat, but the audience is on a silent retreat as well. Every time they go to a play, they are plunged into silence.” Having that connection — the audience being forced to be quiet for the period of the play, going through something hopefully similar to what the characters in the play are going through, although in a much more concentrated time frame — was something I was really interested in exploring.
In the configuration of the space, we’re all facing each other, theatregoers are looking at each other in silence, it’s a shared experience. But you didn’t write this as play to be performed in a box constructed within the Ars Nova space. You figured you were writing it for Ars Nova’s more traditional — though still intimate, 99-seat — proscenium setup. It’s now a runway-style seating arrangement, with playing areas indicated by light pools.
Bess Wohl: That came out of conversations that we all had together when we talked about how to produce this in the Ars Nova space. I’d been working on it in Ars Nova’s Play Group, and [associate artistic director] Emily Shooltz had been incredibly supportive of the play, as had the members of Play Group. Artistic director Jason Eagan came to me and said, “I want to produce this but I don’t know if it’s possible in our space. Our space is so small, and you have a lake and woods and three cabins with simultaneous action in them. I want to support and produce your play, but I don’t want to do it in a way that feels like we are sacrificing something by doing it at Ars Nova. I don’t want to scale back your vision for our tiny little space.” I and Rachel and Jason and Emily all put our heads together. Is this play possible in this small of a space? And how would we arrange the space? Rachel and I worked out the basic configuration together, and then Laura Jellinek, the set designer, came in and made it sing with a beautiful Zen box that she designed. The limitations of the space actually opened this interesting new angle on the play that we hadn’t realized was there.
The physical world is less literal now than it was in your first imagining of the play. There are no cabins or beds, just roll-up mats. We use our imagination more aggressively.
Bess Wohl: Yeah.
The students are allowed to speak to the Teacher in a Q&A session during their residency, but we only hear from one of them, Ned, played by Brad Heberlee, who indulgently reveals his biography‚ a Job’s tale of misery. Why does only Ned speak? Is his woe meant to represent the collective unease of the others?
Bess Wohl: Yes. I wanted his question to open a window onto what anyone else might be feeling or going through: “If he’s going through this, what are these other characters potentially going through?” I did write a draft where every single one of them got to ask a question and they punctuated the play. It became predictable checking in with everybody. The only question that I liked the writing of was Ned.
Your script includes a page of backstory — history — for each character.
Bess Wohl: Most of that you don’t ever find out in the play, but I think it was rally helpful for the actors in approaching their roles because they felt they weren’t just floating in space and silence: “I know this is where I work, this is what happened to me when I was 16, this is where I’m from…” All those biographical details were filled in for them. I think it gave them a lot more solid ground. A bunch of them were sad that those character descriptions are never shared with the audience, but I tried to reassure them that the audience would have more fun figuring them out on their own.
Since so much of your script is stage direction, much of the rehearsal process — and workshops leading up to production — must have been about experimentation from actors and director Rachel Chavkin.
Bess Wohl: Rachel and I talked about the pacing of the play. There are certain scenes that could take thirty seconds, they could take three minutes, they could take ten minutes, depending on how quickly the actors execute the actions that are outlined in the script. A lot of it was Rachel’s work to figure out how to make the scenes the right length, how to vary the pace enough so that the play doesn’t feel like it’s unfolding in the same way…
In one scene, Ned is beckoned to come collect a ceremonial bowl and a match, and he returns to the group without knowing exactly what he’s supposed to do. A brief dumb-show follows. Ned seems to want to variously present the bowl as an offering, dance with it as ethereal music plays, bow with it. It’s a moment that I imagine is different every night. Does the script specifically say what Ned is supposed to do? Actor Brad Heberlee seems to be acting on instinct, in the moment, on the fly, and the effect is naked, mysterious, tensely comic.
Bess Wohl: In the script, he exits to get the bowl, and then he comes back with the match, and it’s specified in the script that he doesn’t know what to do with the match. The script says: For a moment, Ned thinks he may be supposed to light himself on fire. And, He stands there confused, and then the teacher finally says, “Light the match!” That’s me giving the actor what might be happening for Ned internally. But all the movement to the music and the attempting of a ritual is all Brad’s invention. I tried to give the underpinning of what’s happening, and give the major action, but a lot comes from what the actors are playing.
What’s the meaning or origin of the title?
Bess Wohl: For draft after draft, I had no title. I was casting about trying to figure out what it should be. That came from a stage direction. When you read the speeches of The Teacher, in between a lot of what he says the stage direction is: “Small mouth sounds,” which to me meant a little lip smacking — and banging into the microphone that was a little too close to his face. That little phrase jumped out at me. It’s so disgusting. And for our sound designer it was his worst nightmare. He got it, but we said, “We want you to do everything wrong in terms of how the microphone picks up this guy’s speech — to highlight all of the things that in normal circumstances a sound designer would be trying to bury.”
There was something really appealing to me about hearing the teacher’s lips and breathing and snorts and all of that kind of stuff over the microphone. That also partly came from the self-help books that I’ve listened to in my life. Sometimes you’ll hear a teacher; there’s a lot of evidence of this intimate sound from a teacher’s mouth. For some reason I was really drawn to trying to recreate that on stage.
Is The Teacher a quack? At one point, his lesson is interrupted by a cell phone call, which he answers.
Bess Wohl: I hope that he is not a total quack. I wanted the Teacher to have foibles and comedic moments that any of these teachers can have. Some of the things that are said at these spiritual centers can sound, especially when you put it on stage, bizarre. But I also wanted to make sure that he made some profound points and had something real to offer. A lot of it was walking the line between the comedy of the world…and not sacrificing the reality and pathos of the situation. I hope that the Teacher, while funny at moments, is not someone who could be completely dismissed.
We’re walking that line between comedy and reality and all the different nuances of tone. My hope for the play is that it feels loving and is not just a send up of this world because it’s a world that I’ve spent a lot of time in, and it’s a world that has helped me a lot. A lot of the things that the Teacher says — and the journey that everyone goes on — is something that’s very near and dear to me. It’s a journey I’ve been on, and still am on. It’s very personal to me.
Thinking back to when you were an actress, would the challenge of creating a silent character have brought you terror or would you have reveled in the experimentation?
Bess Wohl: [Laughs.] All acting brought me terror all the time. I hope that I would have enjoyed it because it was so collaborative. Because there’s so little language, the actors had a really “loud voice,” not to be ironic, in the process. They were inventing how they accomplished all of the events of the scenes. Some of that is in the text, but some of it is their invention. It allowed them to really feel like co-creators of the piece rather than “stand here and say that.”They were figuring out the storytelling in a very active way.
It’s been complicated to talk about what is “writing” and what is “staging.” Much of the writing of the play [indicates] what the staging should be. Someone [in rehearsal] will suggest a different action and say, “I don’t know if this is a writing thing or a directorial thing or a performance thing…” because it’s all sort of blended together. I think the actors really felt like they were empowered to be co-authors with me. With different actors, the story may be the same but the way it unfolds may be different.