The silence enforced on six participants of a healing retreat proves most eloquent in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds. A small theatrical gem, where minimal dialogue is enhanced with acutely observed and honestly portrayed human behavior, the play made an acclaimed debuted at off-Broadway’s Ars Nova last year. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, the production, staged alley-style in an intimate setting, has made a welcome return and is now playing for a limited three-month commercial run at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. I talked recently with Wohl and Chavkin about their collaboration on this unusual and compelling theater project.
Did you ever attend a spiritual retreat like your characters in the play?
Bess Wohl: I was sort of dragged by one of my closest girlfriends to a retreat in upstate New York. I think I knew that it was going to be silent before we went, but I hadn’t fully focused on that. Within a day of being there, I thought, okay, this is definitely a play, and started immediately taking notes on everybody else who was there—Googling them, trying to figure out who they were. We had also brought wine and snacks; we just weren’t fully absorbing it in the way that we were supposed to. But I was really interested in how everyone comes to these retreats with this giant need for their life to be changed or healed in some way. Also, there’s this great obstacle in that you can’t talk. It just felt that it lent itself to a lot of drama. So then I started going back, taking more and more notes. I went to a couple with my mum, which was bizarre and hilarious. There was one [occasion] where we gave up and went to a bed and breakfast halfway through.
Did anyone realize you were a kind of spy?
BW: I was definitely taking notes, but I think I feel like a spy in all of my life—all the time, actually. So it didn’t feel like I was completely undercover. I should say that I do genuinely believe in a lot of this sort of Buddhist thought, and I do try to incorporate it in different ways in my life. So there was no cynicism in my approach. I was just really interested in exploring it.
Rachel Chavkin: And you feel that in the play. I think the central question of the play is should we seek peace or not, and if so, how? When life is sincerely hard on personal and political levels, macro and micro, there’s so much humor and pathos that comes out of just pursuing that question.
Bess, you have said in the past that as a writer you’re particularly attracted to language-driven plays. What was it like writing a play where the characters have to observe silence?
BW: I think part of the impulse to write this was that I was a little bit sick of the sound of my own voice. I just was tired of writing rapid-fire, quippy dialogue with laugh lines. So it was sort of a real detox for myself to try to get away from a certain style that I felt I was falling into. And I hate writing stage directions. I find them so boring. So it was also a bizarre, masochistic attempt to make myself write a ton of stage directions. I wouldn’t say the experience of writing this was pleasurable for me, but then the great thing was that once I got in the room with Rachel and the actors they were able to do so much problem-solving, because most of this play happens between the lines.
Rachel, what was your response when you were handed this script, of which more than half is without dialogue?
RC: I don’t choose a project unless something about that world strikes a chord. This show presented a challenge unlike anything I have ever seen. But if it was just a play that essentially had this single clever idea of mostly happening in silence, I don’t think I would have responded to it. It was the fact that the play had this formal exploration, but did so in concert with a deep exploration of spirituality amid pain. That was very exciting to me. There was the honest question of will this work? In order for the production to be successful, the audience shouldn’t just feel like they have seen some people at a silent retreat, but that they leave feeling as if they have profoundly experienced that sense of silence themselves. We need to trust the silence enough, even when there are moments of slapstick and clumsy comedy that comes from being human. So, actually, the first time we really worked together we went to Martha’s Vineyard and we staged the show in a week, just to feel how that amount of silence felt. And it was beautiful.
Bess mentioned writing extensive stage directions. Did that seem at all like the playwright was encroaching on your job as the director?
RC [to Wohl]: I never knew that you hated writing stage directions! It’s funny, but for how many stage directions there are, they aren’t oppressive. Bess really articulated a series of actions without much point of view: “Joan looks at Judy.” That leaves a lot of room for us to figure stuff out. It has been a constant conversation between us, but also really with our performers. I think it’s pretty fair to say that, maybe more than most plays, this one lives and dies by its cast—and the actors’ willingness to be vulnerable, naked, and simple. Yet, at the same time, a dense amount of backstory and detail has gone into constructing their characters.
This is something the audience won’t know, but the script actually has detailed backstories for each of the characters. Did your own experience as an actor come in useful when you wrote the character descriptions in the text?
BW: Having been an actor informs my writing enormously because it’s just the same challenge of entering the experience of another person. I think I was writing an actor journal for each of the performers in the play. It was probably for myself to know who these people were, but also for the actors. It seems unfair to hand an actor a play and then say to them that they’re not going to talk in the play, unless you can also say to them, “I’ve also figured out everything about you and here’s a roadmap for your behavior.” What I hope is that I created a template where actors can come in and feel the freedom to play and explore. I think a lot of the fun of doing this play, hopefully, for actors is being able to find their path through it, but giving them enough to feel that they have some kind of sense of who they are.
RC: I’ve never had an experience where I’ve known less about what an audience is experiencing than with this show. There are little clues, as everyone’s behavior is very consistent with who they are. We worked very hard to make sure of that. But there are moments that are ambiguous. That’s the joy of the kind of detective work that the audience is forced to constantly do with this piece. We’ve talked about whether it would be interesting at the end of the show to give the audience the characters’ backstories, but it could almost, in a way, feel like a betrayal. Because if you’ve constructed who that person is by the end of the show, and hopefully you have, then who’re we to contradict the story that you’ve made up?