How Writing Small Mouth Sounds Changed Its Playwright’s Life

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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