Drama Notes: Playwright Bess Wohl

Bess Wohl

The six characters who gather at a silent retreat in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds do so with an urgent, near desperate, need for change. Though what they’re searching for is different in every case—perhaps it’s enlightenment, or a sense of connection to something greater than themselves—they’re each committed to the elusive, heroic, deeply human need for transformation.
Bess Wohl’s near-wordless play Small Mouth Sounds premiered at Ars Nova (which also produced Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) in early spring of 2015. After a critically acclaimed run, it transferred Off Broadway to the Pershing Square Signature Center, and is now launching a national tour starting here at Long Wharf Theatre. The production will go on to perform at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, as well as theatres in Santa Monica, Dallas, Miami, and Philadelphia.
Recently, Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto sat down with Bess Wohl to talk about the play.

Where did the idea for the play come from? What inspired you to write it?
I first attended a spiritual retreat several years ago, inspired by a close friend who invited me to come along with her. I imagined the experience as an opportunity to spend time with my friend—I hadn’t even realized we’d be in silence! After the first night, my playwright brain turned on and I started taking notes for a possible play. I kept going on retreats, not entirely sure if I was on a spiritual journey or on a playwriting one, although ultimately the experience of making the play turned out to be both. I was initially drawn to the challenge of trying to wordlessly convey the details of plot and character, but as I worked on the play, I realized that part of what characterizes a spiritual retreat is the fact that most people come on retreat with an intense need—for connection, for change, for enlightenment, for relief from pain—and those needs began to propel the play forward, into existence. In the play, I’d imagined the silence as an obstacle, resulting in funny and/or painful moments of miscommunication, frustration, thwarted desire, but as I worked I realized perhaps it’s also the only hope any of the characters have of stepping outside of themselves—even temporarily—and finding a moment of freedom from the stories they’ve all built up about who they are.

You’ve written a play with almost no dialogue. What was that like, and what sort of challenges did you face? What did you find yourself thinking about in terms of the way we connect with ourselves and each other without speech?
When I began the play, it was all a big experiment. I had no idea whether I would be able to communicate a story or character without a lot of words, and I had no idea how audiences would react. What I discovered was that that viewing the play became a sort of detective hunt, where the audience searched for clues and details that would elucidate character or plot. In that way, my hope is that watching the play becomes a very active experience, and you get out what you put into it. On another level, the silence in the play both allowed and required me to think very clearly about what the event of each scene is, without anything being obscured by the thicket of conversation. I found it was necessary to pare things down and look rigorously at each silent moment in a character’s arc to make sure I understood how it was advancing the story. One rule I developed was that even though often nobody is speaking, something is always, always happening. Silence does not mean nothingness. Finally, I found myself exploring, in silence, how we all project stories onto one another. I began to experiment with either playing into those snap judgments or dismantling them, questioning them, flipping them. It became so clear to me that most of us make up our minds about other people long before a single word is spoken. The characters in the play do it to each other, we do it when watching plays, and we do it all day long when we’re in silence—on the train, in a doctor’s waiting room, on the elevator. As I worked on the play, I started to find this idea resonating throughout my daily life.

So many of us define ourselves using narrative and language: it’s the primary way we try to connect with each other. Did you find that without the crutch—or the burden—of talking, that it was easier for these characters to connect with each other on a deeper spiritual level?
I think it was both easier and harder. On the one hand, I think there’s great relief in not having to make conversation—so often we’re scared of being at a loss for words, or a pause in the flow of dialogue, but when you can’t speak at all you can just let that fear go. So I do believe that being released from the responsibility of talking and thereby defining themselves does allow the characters a certain kind of communion that’s beyond narrative, opinion, “story.” That said, I also think there can be a great loneliness in silence. The voices in your own head can get very, very loud. I believe that words, when used truthfully, while totally imperfect, are also probably the best tool we have for bridging that loneliness. What I’m seeking to explore in the play is what happens when words are stripped away from people—what’s gained and also what is lost.

There is something deeply human in watching these characters yearn for change. What is at the heart of our deep human need for transformation?
Such a great question! Maybe it’s because we crave adventure, new things. Perhaps we’re unconsciously preparing ourselves for the ultimate transformation—when we die. I’m not sure I know, but I do find myself constantly exploring in my plays this question of how we change, do we change at all, and what it takes to change. I often find that the typical dramatic arc– a character going through an experience and being transformed by it– doesn’t always mesh with how I experience change. For me, change happens in a very non-linear, jumpy way. I’ll find a glimmer of change—then it’s gone—then suddenly I realize I’m completely changed—then I’m back to square one. I’m interested in looking at that kind of change in my plays: both the fitful, fragile changes—real or imagined—and also the total failure to change, the courage of continuing to go on, as best you can, being your old, flawed self.

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