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How often do you sit in silence? No talking, no music, no screens.
For plenty of people, the idea of being left alone with their thoughts hedges on horrifying. But others seek inner peace — through popular practices of yoga, mindfulness and meditation. The digital detox and other self-care industries are booming.
A silent retreat is the setting for the SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of Bess Wohl's acclaimed play, "Small Mouth Sounds." It’s based on her stint at the Omega Institute in upstate New York.
As it turns out, putting silence on stage — where words often rule — is super challenging.
Directing a play that explores our complex relationship with sound has been really hard for M. Bevin O'Gara. She’s a person who fills her days and nights with sound.
“I listen to podcasts, I listen to music, I listen to ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ to go to sleep,” she admitted, laughing. “I need noise in my life.”
Without a lot of dialogue, O’Gara says staging this work has been like conducting a theatrical orchestra where the sounds and actions in the script deliver so much of the story. In it, six struggling characters arrive at a campus in the woods for a few days of quiet introspection and lectures.
“They're looking for some sort of solace amidst the disaster and the chaos of life,” O'Gara said.
And they’re hoping to change. Each rolls in with their own baggage — literal and emotional. You glean information about their personalities through their clothes, the way they enter a room, the way they sit. One guy, a yoga teacher named Rodney, immediately starts meditating.
Their teacher is never seen. Actor Marianna Bassham delivers her breathy, disembodied voice from off-stage through a microphone. She starts with a fable about two frogs, then she lays down the rules: no phones, no drugs or drinking, and no talking unless during a designated Q&A period.
“Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits, your routines, yourself,” the teacher intones dramatically. “It is the best kind of vacation because after this you don’t ever have to go back ... to who you were.”
The play’s title, “Small Mouth Sounds,” hits home whenever the teacher is on mic. She’s always way too close.
“There's a lozenge moment that is just going to make certain people cringe, and other people laugh hysterically,” O’Gara said.
It is funny — and kind of gross — to listen to the noisy sucking and clicking of the lozenge against the teacher’s teeth.
As the group settles into rooms — most are sharing with strangers — they struggle to communicate. They use animated hand gestures and body movements to say what they mean without speaking.
Actor Nael Nacer, who plays Ned, says more than any of the other six actors in the play through a biographical monologue, but still found it challenging to be silent most of the rest of the play.
“It's hard in ways that I didn't anticipate,” admitted Nacer. “There's a lot of aggravation, and a lot of frustration, and a lot of sorrow, because they can’t communicate.”
But there’s also a lot of humor. Nacer says working on this play has been eye-opening for the cast and crew.
“What we found out is the absence of sound doesn't mean that there is an absence of action,” he said. “But where it became tricky was: Every sound becomes important.”
This production has been a bit of a game-changer for sound designer Elizabeth Cahill. She recalled spending more time than usual in the rehearsal room as the team strategized and experimented with how to weave all of the elements into the play.
“There's definitely a rhythm and a choreography to it that has been a challenge and a learning curve for all of us,” Cahill said. “It was figuring out how to make it ebb and flow in a way that works together, and the sound isn’t upstaging the actors."
Simple sounds become amplified in the theater: footsteps, pen clicks, jewelry, crying, breathing. Cahill pulled effects from her extensive library — and created a few — to help shift times and locations throughout the sparse set. Scenes move from the lecture hall to the sleeping cabins to the surrounding woods and lake with help from rain, birds and Tibetan singing bowls. “Even when we're outside at night there's the layer of crickets, the layer of bugs, maybe it's a little windy,” Cahill described, “maybe the trees are rustling.”
As a sound designer Cahill engages in “deep listening” and even studied it in school. She hopes this play inspires audience members to be more aware of the sounds around them — including their own.
“What their sound habits are, are they the ones that walk loudly with their flip flops, or [do they have] quieter footfalls?” she offered.
Lighting designer Annie Wiegand thinks we’ll come away appreciating how people can and do connect without relying on words. She is deaf and spoke to me through an interpreter.
“It's a natural human desire and need to want to communicate, so you see that struggle happening onstage with the characters,” she said, “but as a deaf person, that's something that we live in our everyday lives.”
Wiegand was surprised by how little dialogue there is in the play, and says the silent moments can be moving and funny. There are long stretches of silence that can be uncomfortable in the theater, too. Regarding that, director M. Bevin O’Gara says, audience beware!
“You make a noise, you’re in the play!” she added, laughing.
If you go to see the play at the Boston Center for the Arts you might consider leaving your lozenges at home. And definitely be sure to turn off your cell phone.
SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of "Small Mouth Sounds" runs through Feb. 2.
This segment aired on January 10, 2019.
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