Bess Wohl’s nearly nonverbal “Small Mouth Sounds” filters through the noise of life
By Christina Campodonico
“There’s this sort of old school conventional wisdom, where actors get the script and they immediately cross out all the stage directions,” playwright Bess Wohl tells me over the phone. “That’s like the first thing they do, because they are going to make it their own. Of course with this play if you crossed out all the stage directions, you would have no play potentially.”
The play that Wohl is speaking of is “Small Mouth Sounds,” a story with almost no speaking parts that’s now playing at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
Wohl, also the author of the comedy “American Hero” and the book for the musical “Pretty Filthy,” wrote “Small Mouth Sounds”— which made some noise off-Broadway in 2015 for its sparse use of dialogue — after attending a silent retreat in Upstate New York with a friend several years ago.
“I didn’t really know what I was in for,” recalls Wohl. “I was thinking of it more as a girls’ bonding trip than a spiritual trip. I had no idea actually that we were going to be in silence.”
But the unexpected experience quickly turned into creative fodder for a play with almost no words.
“I would say by the first night, it had occurred to me that the environment of the silent retreat could be a really interesting place to set a play,” says Wohl. “Everyone had come to this retreat with a very intense need to find some kind of answer. I think because it was my friend’s idea and I was sort of a hanger-on, it allowed me to have a certain kind of objectivity … which gave me a little more space to consider the dramatic possibilities of the environment.”
In Wohl’s play, six troubled souls retreat to a remote spiritual spa in search of solace, but the strict code of silence imposed upon them creates, shall we say, several roadblocks to effective communication. Prevented from speaking, missed signals and miscommunications ensue between the characters, leading to surprising connections and outcomes.
Like her characters, Wohl had to figure out how to convey emotions, motivations and turning points with little to no words.
“As a playwright you can get so in love with words that you sort of forget about all the other tools in your toolbox,” says Wohl. “So it was really interesting and challenging to limit myself. … And it meant that I had to think very carefully about not what the character said, but what they did.”
So Wohl wrote copious stage directions and lengthy character descriptions in the script and filled it with action-driven scenarios for the actors. Body language, facial expressions, gestures, non-verbal cues and noises tell the story. So even though the cast hardly speaks in “Small Mouth Sounds,” there’s still plenty of action onstage.
“Even in the silence, there’s something always happening, always percolating,” says Wohl. “Silence is not the same as nothingness.”
For instance, there’s the awkward maneuverings of a carefully choreographed ‘shoe ballet’— as Wohl calls the cast’s entrance at the top of the show— and the snorty laughter of the retreat’s yogic guru, a disembodied voice that speaks to the campers through a microphone.
“I was really interested in this idea that the microphone would be sort of too close to his mouth and we would be hearing these sort of very strangely intimate little mouth sounds, as we were learning these large and profound truths about life,” says Wohl, discussing how oral sounds and throaty noises became an effective tool of communication for the actors during the play’s early workshops.
“Everybody started to make these small mouth sounds and I realized they didn’t just belong to the teacher. They belonged to the entire company and told a whole story of laughter and pain and joy,” says Wohl. “One actor who we worked with in the very first workshop just couldn’t stop laughing the entire time. But actually that ended up inspiring one character’s set of giggles in another scene in the play. Every statement became sort of fodder for the journey for these characters.”
In the end, Wohl hopes her quiet play will inspire reactions, both internal and audible, from the audience.
“I hope they make their own small and large sounds,” says Wohl. “Hopefully by the end of play it feels like one community of people who’ve gone through an experience together and found some moments of enlightenment.”
“Small Mouth Sounds” continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 18 to 21) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $45 to $85. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.