Silence Speaking Volumes: Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds

Monday, October 30, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

When Bess Wohl’s six characters arrive at the silent retreat in Small Mouth Sounds, they each are seeking relief from the “noisiness” of their lives. Looking for answers, they turn to the retreat’s offstage, omniscient-ish guru, but he guides them to look within themselves for answers. “Your brilliance, your juiciness, your spiciness, your grudges, your resentment, your enlightenment. It is all right here,” the Teacher says. “All you have to do is. Listen.” The silence of the retreat enables each of its participants to hear everything at an amplified volume: suffering, joy, frustration, desire. Small Mouth Sounds asks our noise-saturated society, what can we learn from silence?

Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) calms Alicia (Brenna Palughi)
with a breathing exercise. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
In writing Small Mouth Sounds, Wohl’s use of silence was an experiment in mindful art-making. With a script almost entirely made up of stage directions, this play challenged her to dig deeper than dialogue to get to the core of her characters, and take on many of the same challenges that confronted her retreaters. “I thought, ‘O.K., can I just teach myself as a writer to stay, listen, be patient, not necessarily know where I’m going when I start out and just sort of stay with my feelings? That’s a huge part of what the characters are trying to learn in the play, but it was also what I was trying to teach myself.”

Without dialogue for most of its 100 minutes, Small Mouth Sounds is not just an exercise in mindfulness for the characters onstage, but also for those sitting in an unusually quiet Strand Theater. “In a world that constantly barrages us with everything from deafening booms to incessant beeps and pings, hearing nothing at all for long stretches of time feels quite radical,” says The Mercury News theater critic, Karen D’Souza. “[Small Mouth Sounds] exploits the subversive power of stillness in our age of manic multitasking.”

In Small Mouth Sounds, silence is prescribed to the retreaters as an antidote to their deafening stresses. If they can learn how to tune out the noise of whatever afflicts them, they will find peace. “This theatrical encounter with quiet does seem to heal these characters and maybe in a small way, even the audience,” notes D’Souza. “After a 100-minute detox from the din and clamor of reality, time often spent musing the absurdity of existence, we emerge back into the world, no longer all that anxious to power up our devices, feeling happily lost in our thoughts instead.” When it comes to listening, it is in silence that we hear most.

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the benefits of silence? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

The Strand Theater Celebrates 100 Years!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

Today, October 27, A.C.T.'s Strand Theater turns 100 years old. Since its sparkling renovation in 2015, The Strand has become a beacon of theatrical innovation and community engagement in the Bay Area. From presenting new plays in the New Strands Festival to sharing our stage with entertainers of all kinds through the @TheStrand series, A.C.T. has reinvented this historic theater. 

The Strand Theater in 1938. Courtesy Greg King.
Located in San Francisco’s old vaudeville district, dubbed the “Great White Way” for its marquee lights, The Strand has been rooted in the arts since its 1917 foundation. Despite changes in the building’s name (it started life as The Jewel) and its offerings (it was once a silent film cinema), this venue was always a theater. But when operations closed in 2003, the building became derelict. In October 2013, A.C.T. began a two-year, $35-million transformation, converting the 700-seat cinema into a community destination featuring the Strand Cafe, the 283-seat Rembe Theater, and the 140-seat performance space, The Rueff. The reconstruction not only represented growth for A.C.T. as an institution, but also marked the revitalization of the Central Market neighborhood. 

To learn more about The Strand's rich history, check out our video below.

From the moment A.C.T. moved in, The Strand was envisioned as an incubator of new theater in the Bay Area. Nowhere is that more visible than with the New Strands Festival, a weeklong exploration of new work. During the 2017 festival, San Franciscans experienced master classes in songwriting, playwriting, and clowning; saw staged readings of work from three Ma-Yi Theater Company playwrights; and attended readings of A.C.T. commissioned plays as works-in-progress. From developing new plays to producing innovative productions such as The Unfortunates, Monstress, and Small Mouth Sounds (which opened this week), The Strand has provided a home for thrilling untold stories from diverse communities.

The Strand in 2015 after its reopening. Photo by Bruce Damonte.
And with the introduction last season of our @TheStrand series—world-class entertainment from around the country—new audiences filled The Rembe for productions including Bill Irwin’s On Beckett, Martin Moran’s solo show The Tricky Part, and concerts from The Skivvies. Tickets are now on-sale for comedian Colin Quinn (Saturday Night Live, Trainwreck) who plays a weeklong set @TheStrand in December.

As The Strand evolves, San Franciscans continue to discover this multidisciplinary venue, from a morning coffee in the Strand Cafe, to an M.F.A. Program matinee, to a night of stand-up comedy. By developing groundbreaking work and reinvigorating the arts in Central Market, The Strand is making San Francisco history all over again.

Small Mouth Sounds runs through December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Colin Quinn: One in Every Crowd runs for four performances only, December 14–17. To purchase tickets, click here.

Extreme Vulnerability: An Interview with Small Mouth Sounds Director Rachel Chavkin

Monday, October 23, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

Rachel Chavkin is accustomed to theatrical challenges. The Tony Award–nominated director of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is steadily building a theater career encompassing productions that employ music, video, dance, and other multimedia. “I’m drawn to anything that asks me to make something that I’ve never lived in before,” says Chavkin, “that requires me to learn how to do something or create a different culture. That’s not only how I think about design, but it’s also how I think about performance style, the world of the play, or the culture that I’m forging onstage.” We sat down with Chavkin to discuss the humor and heartbreak of Small Mouth Sounds.

Small Mouth Sounds director Rachel Chavkin. Photo by Chad Batka.
What was your process in terms of staging Small Mouth Sounds?

Once we had a cast, it became about doing it again and again and again. There’s this one moment in the entrance sequence that we call the “shoe carousel,” where all of the characters realize one by one that they are supposed to have taken off their shoes. And we would just run it and run it again. On what seemed like the thirtieth time, Brad [Heberlee, the actor playing Ned in the New York premiere] couldn’t get his shoes off and it was like this tremendous, beautiful shit-show ballet. Brad got caught by the shoe rack and the whole time Babak [Tafti] just keeps breathing. Meanwhile I’m peeing myself, because the actors are so in character and they’re all so fucked up and flawed and it’s just very, very funny. And this is the way we staged the whole show. It was made with such gentle improvisation because there was no other way to make it. There’s no language to alter; it’s just the way an actor opens an envelope. In that sense, this play is really an actor’s dream.

How is this play going to be different in San Francisco?

This play raises a deep question about the pursuit of happiness and whether we should be happy. Is it possible for us to be mindful and happy in a world with so much suffering? Those questions are really at the heart of California, which is such a pioneer in not only mindfulness but also libertarianism. In California—happily, hopefully—we won’t have to work quite as hard to make people understand why you would do a silent retreat in the first place. I’m truly aware that San Francisco is a place where silent retreats are alive and well and unquestioned.

Why do you think this play resonates so deeply?

It’s the humor. This work is so beautiful, but it’s also rooted in the absolute pain and mortification of being human. Each of the characters is living inside that while being sort of a fool. There’s something about the horror show of the moment that we’re in, mingled with the extreme vulnerability of living our very short and very tiny lives.

Small Mouth Sounds
runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more of our interview with Rachel Chavkin, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Meditation and McMindfulness: A Brief History of the American Wellness Industry

Friday, October 20, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Like the characters in Small Mouth Sounds, many of us turn to mindfulness as way of connecting with ourselves and our surroundings. But mindfulness in America today seems a contradiction in terms; it is not only a means to help us relax and recharge, but also a business powerhouse, raking in an estimated $4.2 billion a year. This juxtaposition of relaxation and commerce, however, has only appeared in the last 50 years.

Edward Chin-Lyn as Rodney in Small Mouth Sounds.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Mindfulness first arrived in America in the 1840s, as Buddhist Asian immigrants poured into California in search of gold, and East Coast academics became enamored of the religion and the esoteric man at its center, the Buddha. For these academics, mindfulness was just another aspect of Buddhism to be studied, not practiced in its own right. However, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, increasingly stringent laws brought Asian–US immigration to a standstill and rising ethnic tensions curtailed interest in Buddhism.

After World War II, the position of mindfulness changed dramatically in the United States. Many colleges and universities established religious studies departments, educating each new generation about Buddhism. The US government relaxed the immigration laws, opening new channels of communication and outreach between America and Asia. And young adults, disillusioned by the Korean and Vietnam wars, turned to Asian culture for solace and guidance.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that mindfulness and Buddhism began to diverge. Buddhist monks teaching in America, as well as American-born Buddhist practitioners and psychologists, all saw ways to apply mindfulness to the stresses of suburban life and modern medical practices. They started to market mindfulness as a way to increase concentration and productivity, reduce stress, and deal with chronic pain and mental illnesses.

With the turn of the millennium, the mindfulness industry received a boost from the resurgence of another industry in America: self-help. As Americans sought to improve every aspect of their lives, from clean eating to decluttering to breaking bad habits, mindfulness practitioners were ready with suggestions and support. Mindfulness’s increasing exposure caught the attention of big business; Target, Aetna, Hearst Publications, eBay, General Mills, and Ford incorporated mindfulness training into their programs to boost the happiness and productivity of their employees.

The Abbot of Watkungtaphao at the Sirikit Dam in Thailand, 2009.
Photo by Tevaprapas. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Mindfulness is now an activity that more and more people are taking up on their own. With all the books, apps, websites, and instructional YouTube videos available at the click of a button, mindfulness can now be done anywhere. But will these changes result in mindfulness becoming more firmly entrenched in our daily routines, or will it send us, like the characters in Small Mouth Sounds, to escape our gadget filled lives in the silence of a meditation retreat?

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more about the history of mindfulness, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Looking Within: M.F.A. Third-Year Actors Present Personal Anthems

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

For A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Class of 2018, this is the moment of truth. After over two years of intensive training, they have reached their final year as acting students. In light of their impending departure, the actors have been challenged to dig deep for their upcoming musical revue, Now. Here. Us., which runs this weekend only. “The actors are performing songs to which they feel a personal connection,” says director Milissa Carey, “Each song celebrates their individual artistry and style.” We spoke with four of these actors to find out what their song means to them.

A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Class of 2018 in their 2016 musical revue, Sing, Sing, Sing. Photo by Alessandra Mello.
Beatriz Miranda on “My House” (from Matilda): One of the biggest discoveries I have made during this time is how grateful I am for my home. The farther away I travel from my family, my childhood room, my apartment in Puerto Rico, and everything that has shaped me until now, the easier it is to feel disconnected from it all. But being a nomad has taught me how to understand the value of the small moments happening around me. Even if I’m far away, I’m always connected to that which I truly love; these memories make up my home. Right now, this piece speaks to me louder than ever. Every time I hear “My House,” I’m always brought back home.

M.F.A. actor Beatriz Miranda. Photo by Alessandra Mello.
Leonard A. Thomas on “Feeling Good” (based on Nina Simone’s cover of the song from The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd): Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations—she wasn’t just an artist, but an activist who had a stake in the issues of social justice and equality of her day. To me, this song represents a struggle or fight to find joy, peace, freedom, and happiness. Simone grappled with those concepts her whole life and I've grappled with similar battles. I'm singing this song to honor her, her fight, and the fight that I've picked up because of her generation.

M.F.A. actors Adrianna Mitchell and Leonard A. Thomas. Photo by Alessandra Mello.
Adrianna Mitchell on “I Know Where I’ve Been” (from Hairspray): The lyrics of this song urge me to take ownership of my journey as a Black woman and artist. I wanted to sing a song connected to the truth of facing the horrors of today's America but also one that acknowledges how far my ancestors and I have come and my hope for where we all can go. 

Peter Fanone on “Waving Through a Window” (from Dear Evan Hansen): As a kid growing up with chronic anxiety (as too many do these days), this song spoke to me about what it feels like to hide your problems from the world, for fear of failure, and to fall short of your true self because of that fear. It connects to my belief that everyone really wants to be loved and it’s only in refusing to accept love that we spread hate and fear to ourselves and others. This is a song about a troubled kid fighting for hope, dreaming of something greater despite the failures of the past.
M.F.A. actor Peter Fanone joined by Jennifer Apple, Rivka Borek, and Beatriz Miranda. 
Photo by Alessandra Mello.
Now. Here. Us. runs October 19–21 in The Garret at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Double Identity: Hamlet's Avenging Sons

Thursday, October 12, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses doubling—the mirroring of characters, situations, plot points, themes, and rhetorical devices—to make his characters and the world of Elsinore more intriguing and explore the themes of identity, power, and truth at the heart of the play. One of the more noticeable uses of this device is that there isn’t just one man in the play avenging his father’s death; there are three.

Hamlet (John Douglas Thompson) presents a play about murder to the court. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras all lose their fathers: Hamlet at the hands of his uncle Claudius, Laertes at the hands of Hamlet, and Fortinbras at the hands of Hamlet’s father. Although all three vow to avenge their fathers’ deaths, they go about accomplishing this task in completely different ways. Hamlet gathers evidence of his uncle’s guilt before acting. Laertes returns from France immediately and demands to know who killed his father; he is only stalled in his quest for vengeance by his grief at his sister’s death and Claudius’s urgings to wait for an opportune moment. And Fortinbras raises an army to reconquer the territory his father lost to Hamlet’s father before the start of the play. 

By surrounding Hamlet with other sons avenging their fathers’ deaths, Shakespeare intensifies the latter half of Hamlet, as the audience wonders which avenging son will accomplish his mission first. Will it be Fortinbras with his assembled masses marching on Elsinore? Will it be Hamlet, who has arguably had the most time and opportunity to exact his revenge? Or will it be Laertes, whose anger is profoundly mixed with grief? 

Hamlet (John Douglas Thompson) considers murdering
a praying Claudius (Steven Anthony Jones). Photo by Kevin Berne.
The addition of Laertes and Fortinbras also makes Shakespeare’s protagonist more multifaceted and emphasizes one important theme in the play: identity. Hamlet is Hamlet because of the choices he makes when confronted with the news of his father’s murder. Hamlet is a charismatic, dynamic prince; he could have raised an army, as Fortinbras does, and deposed his uncle through force and rhetoric. But Hamlet is not just driven by a desire to right a wrong, but by a desire for the truth. He wants to be certain that Claudius did in fact kill his father. Only then will he act. This choice—to seek the truth rather than take immediate action—sets him apart from the other two avenging sons and makes him a much more complex and nuanced character than the heroes of other seventeenth-century revenge tragedies. 

A.C.T.’s production of Hamlet ends this Sunday, October 15, at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more about doubling in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Observing Silence: An Interview with Small Mouth Sounds Playwright Bess Wohl

Monday, October 9, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

Small Mouth Sounds started life at a silent retreat, though playwright Bess Wohl didn’t know that at the time. She only showed up at the retreat to spend time with a friend. “I didn’t even realize that we were going to be in silence,” she says. But the experience triggered her storytelling instincts. By the end of the first day, the playwright was secretly making notes. “All I knew,” says Wohl, “was that I wanted the play to begin with a speech that ended with the words, ‘We shall now observe silence.’ I liked setting myself that challenge, but didn’t know where I’d go from there.” The play began to take shape after finding a home in Ars Nova, a New York–based incubator of new work. Small Mouth Sounds soon became an Off-Broadway hit. As the production’s national tour arrives on the West Coast, we caught up with Wohl to talk about bringing silence to The Strand.

Playwright Bess Wohl. Photo by Ben Arons.
What were the storytelling challenges (and opportunities) of silence?

Part of my interest in working with silence was to see how audiences fill in the gaps with their own ideas and assumptions. Of course, we all do that every day when we see people we don’t know, whether on the subway, in an elevator, or in a doctor’s waiting room. We write little stories in our minds and infuse details with meaning. My hope, in writing a play that holds back so much information about its characters, was to shine a light on that process of projection and to get people to see when and how those assumptions operate, for better and for worse.

Which characters in Small Mouth Sounds are you particularly drawn to?

When I began the play, I most identified with the character of Alicia, a young “hot mess,” and a former actress, going through a bad break-up. Like Alicia, I never arrived at a retreat without bringing copious snacks, and I had a lot of trouble being in silence. As I’ve worked on the play, however, I find myself identifying with each of the characters in different ways. The biggest breakthrough in writing this came when I realized that the character I identified with most is actually the unseen teacher, or guru. In many ways, the Teacher is the voice of the playwright, never seen onstage but continuously leading the experience. The Teacher tries to set rules, just as a playwright does. He hopes that his audience will observe silence. But, most of all, he prays that they will be changed by the experience he’s presented to them, in spite of knowing what a very tall order—almost preposterously arrogant—that is.

Why do you think Small Mouth Sounds has resonated so clearly with audiences today?

A friend and colleague of mine noted that every time an audience goes to a play, whatever the play, they’re expected to sit and be quiet—essentially, they’re on a silent retreat. My hope is that the play creates a sense of community for the audience and that they’ve participated in an active experience together. On another level, that same sense of participation is also embedded in the way audiences are encouraged to watch this play: you have to sit forward and become a detective, actively engaging with the storytelling, or else you could miss something. It’s been a joy to see audiences sit forward and take pleasure in that element of the experience.

Small Mouth Sounds begins performances October 11 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more of our interview with playwright Bess Wohl, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Like Climbing a Mountain: An Interview with Hamlet Actor John Douglas Thompson

Friday, October 6, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Reviewers have lauded John Douglas Thompson’s performance in A.C.T.’s production of Hamlet. Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times says Thompson “shatteringly portrays the melancholy Dane” in a way that “heightens the plight of a character forced by treacherous circumstances to relinquish his youthful ideals.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Lily Janiak says “Thompson’s crisp and loving enunciation of every consonant” is a “testament to the power of classical training if there ever was one.” We sat down with the Tony Award–nominated actor to gain insight into his process as an artist and how he approached creating this demanding role.

John Douglas Thompson in A.C.T.'s Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.
The character of Hamlet has almost 1,500 lines. How much of a challenge was this to take on?

When I did Tamburlaine the Great, people would ask me, “Why are you doing it?” Here’s a play in which I had 1,700 lines, more lines than Hamlet, a larger role than anything in Western literature. Part of the attraction was that it was this huge mountain which was in front of me—I wanted to see if I could climb it and see what was at the top. It was arduous, physical, and intellectually rigorous work, but I did it. Had I tried to climb the Tamburlaine mountain and failed, I probably would have had second thoughts about trying to do Hamlet.

Where do you get inspiration for creating characters?

What makes acting wonderful is that we’re constantly doing research on the streets of our lives. I walk around the street. I look at people. In my mind, I’m thinking, “This person moves like a Hamlet or they’re dressed like a Hamlet or they’re posed like a Hamlet, or they’re talking to someone like Hamlet would be in a state of anger or joy or anxiety.” I’m always on the lookout for little things that I can bring into the patchwork of the character. It can be an item of clothing, a gesture, or a piece of music that speaks to me.

What part of the production process has been the most fulfilling?

Finding Hamlet’s journey for myself. There’s something about finding the parameters of performance and testing those boundaries. The joy of this is finding my way. It’s a painful, arduous, joyful, anxiety-ridden process.

Oftentimes I look at characters like Hamlet or Tamburlaine and say to myself, “You’re not going to be able to climb this mountain. You’re in over your head. You’re going to be discovered as a phoney.” That’s in the artist’s mind—I’m not going to succumb to it but that’s the built-in fear. When I start a project it can feel like I don’t understand what it means. I’ve been reading this play, I’ve been talking about it for years, and now I’m doing it and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. That’s a good place to start. Then you hope to get to that moment in rehearsal when you see something in your mind’s eye and it can be manifested through your physical and emotional life in the play. And that’s a great moment, because the work paid off.

A.C.T.’s TBA–recommended production of Hamlet runs through October 15 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more of our interview with John Douglas Thompson, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

How Writing Small Mouth Sounds Changed Its Playwright’s Life

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Mindfulness is seemingly everywhere: touted by celebrities, your boss, your best friend, online, at the gym, and in your local bookstore. Many of us are searching for ways to disconnect from our increasingly busy lives and reconnect with ourselves. This longing is at the core of A.C.T.’s new comedy, Small Mouth Sounds, which begins performances at The Strand next week.

The cast of the 2017–18 national tour of Small Mouth Sounds. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Written by Drama Desk Award winner Bess Wohl, the play follows six strangers as they struggle to find inner peace during a weeklong silent retreat. They are guided by an unseen guru who encourages the retreaters to look within themselves for answers. The guru recommends that these men and women practice mindfulness, or exist consciously in the present moment, as a key to unlocking the self.

The meaning of mindfulness shifts depending on its context, but as it is used in Small Mouth Sounds (and largely in modern Western society), it is associated with self-care and self-knowledge. Through being acutely aware of oneself, a person can use mindfulness to empty the mind of negativity and embrace joy from within. Mindfulness can also help its users to become more in tune with one’s surroundings. Wohl learned this firsthand when she attended a silent retreat with a friend seven years ago.

The experience was the playwright’s first foray into the world of mindfulness and she was instantly hooked. “By the end of the first day,” she says, “I began to secretly take notes. As I started writing, I was drawn to the funny, frustrating miscommunications that happen in enforced silence. But soon I stumbled on the fact that most people who come to a retreat have a very strong need connected with wanting a reprieve from the most painful aspects of being alive.”

Playwright Bess Wohl. © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey.
Out of those surreptitious notes came the initial draft for Small Mouth Sounds. The playwright’s exploration of silence and mindfulness unfolded both on the page and in real life, as she continued to attend silent retreats and interviewed people who had spent time in silence. “Their stories of misunderstandings, frustrations, unspoken bonds formed between retreat participants, and my own personal experience all informed me greatly. As I began to share the play with the world, I met more and more people who were involved in spiritual communities, and what had begun as research really transformed into a deeper spiritual journey.”

The time and energy Wohl put towards exploring mindfulness in Small Mouth Sounds was transformative. “I’m always seeking to be a different person when I’m done with a play than I was when I began it,” she says. “Now I meditate daily (or as much as possible), practice yoga regularly, and have in many ways become a part of the world I was writing about.”

Small Mouth Sounds runs October 11–December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more about mindfulness as its portrayed in Small Mouth Sounds, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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