Art Imitating Life: Mindfulness and the Cast of Small Mouth Sounds

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

For the seven actors in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, the line between their characters and themselves is easily blurred. “What’s wonderful about Bess’s play is that the actor and the character are charged with the same challenge,” says Brad Heberlee, who played Ned in the 2016 off-Broadway production. “Each character has ostensibly come to the retreat to listen and be present to the lesson of the Teacher, and at the end of the day, the actors [in the production] are there to achieve the same goal.”

Ben Beckley as Ned in A.C.T.'s production of Small Mouth Sounds.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
That sense of being in the moment is critical to mindfulness in acting. This awareness asks performers to be wholly engrossed in what they are doing in that exact moment. Small Mouth Sounds director Rachel Chavkin echoes this idea. She believes that many actors forget how riveting it can be to just “be” onstage. “Trust the silence and be present,” she says. “That’s compelling.”

A.C.T.’s production of Small Mouth Sounds is the second stop on a seven-month tour of the show, which has presented challenges and opportunities for the actors. Many actors aren’t given the chance to stay with a character or a cast for such a long amount of time. This length of time enables an actor to dive deep into their character, but it also requires a certain headspace to keep a role fresh each night for several months. “This is a challenging show. It’s different every night,” says Ben Beckley, who plays Ned on the 2017–2018 tour. “I write an intention for every performance to stay grounded. Every day our cast is listening to each other—and like the characters—trying to stay present while different things are emotionally resonating with us.”

For Orville Mendoza, who plays the retreat’s unseen teacher, performing in Small Mouth Sounds has helped to put him more in touch with his meditative side. “I’ve really delved into learning about meditation and mindfulness,” he says. “First it was only research, but now I’ve discovered the real benefit it gives me day to day.” Before each show, Mendoza meditates in the backstage sound booth where he performs his voice-overs during the play. “It feels like a cocoon and I treat it like a sacred space,” says Mendoza.

Connor Barrett as Jan in A.C.T.'s production of Small Mouth Sounds.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
It’s all about the journey for Connor Barrett, who plays Jan in A.C.T.’s production. “What’s most exciting about being a part of this play is getting to see how our storytelling will deepen over these next five months,” he says. “I’ve never done a play for this amount of time, so I think it’ll be a great challenge and I feel lucky to get to do that with this particular group of people. To me, Small Mouth Sounds is not just a play—it is a ritual.”

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 mindfulness and the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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