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Bess Wohl's near-silent play speaks volumes

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Using as few words as possible, "Small Mouth Sounds" hashes out the human condition and the universality of suffering. And yet, there are laughs.

Playwright Bess Wohl once signed up for a three-day retreat, but she missed the memo about the whole no-talking aspect. Assuming her time in the woods would be fun-filled, she was taken aback when the retreat leader concluded his opening speech with, "And now we will observe silence." Wohl's play, "Small Mouth Sounds," was born from this experience.

Unlike the vast majority of theater, speaking takes a back seat in "Small Mouth Sounds." Actors convey narrative through stage direction and nuanced body language. Brought together by the common thread of suffering, the characters use their brief talking moments to articulate their pain. 

The play manages to both satirize the world of spiritual retreats and elicit profound feeling from the audience. Wohl swings the pendulum between laughter and tears in a way that sharply mirrors life outside the theater. John Horn spoke with Wohl her about writing, character development, and her own retreat experience that eventually led to "Small Mouth Sounds." 

Interview Highlights

On the desire to challenge her characters not to speak:

It's different for me with every play, but with this one the environment came first. I've learned that I work that way a lot. I think of an environment or a situation and the characters sort of sprang from that. So I started this [by] saying, I want to do something at a silent retreat. I knew that at the bottom of the first page of the play I wanted somebody to say, Now we will observe silence. Once I knew that was interesting to me, I started thinking about how I would populate this play —  who is at the retreat, what kind of people do I want to see here and how do I have an interesting enough mix of people that it will give rise to interesting, dramatic situations. 

On the decision to not disclose each character's full backstory to the audience:

There's a lot of information in the play that the audience never gets at all, actually. The play begins with these character descriptions and goes into a lot of detail about the backstory of each character. And a lot of that is never known by the audience. It's a little secret between me and the actors. And there was some sort of perverse way in which I really enjoyed having this secret with the actors that was just between us and never shared. I was really interested in this idea of creating a world and then only revealing part of it to the audience and seeing what that would feel like. 

On the importance of each character having an emotional struggle:

It was important to me on several different levels. I really wanted to communicate to the actors that this play, while on the one hand it has many comedic elements — hopefully it makes people laugh, there's a lot of natural humor in these kind of worlds — I didn't want it to only be a comedy or a satire about this world. I wanted to signal early on that there was a depth and a pain to this world. And that a lot of the humor came out of that pain. We were really exploring the suffering of the human condition. And if that makes you laugh, great, and if that makes you cry that's fine too. I was really interested in the need that everyone has when they come to these retreats to find some kind of reprieve from the difficulty of day-to-day life.

On writing the retreat teacher's character:

He says at one point in the play: "You think you've come here to learn from me, but really you've come here to meet yourself." And to me that is one of the biggest things that I learned going on these retreats, and also a breakthrough moment for me in the writing of the play. Because I really didn't know what my relationship to the teacher was as a playwright. I always knew that I had been one of the retreat participants, but I never knew how to write the teacher because that character felt so removed from me. But as I thought about who the teacher is — trying to guide these retreat participants through this experience and asking them to be silent, and asking them to change potentially, or asking them to think about their lives and their behaviors — I realized that that's so similar to the role of the playwright. You're saying, Please observe silence, and please meet yourself in some way through my work.

"Small Mouth Sounds" is at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Jan. 28. 

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