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

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.

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