If you watch enough theatre, you’re likely to find that some of the most interesting things happen during silences. Take, for example, the way characters look at each other when they’re not speaking or the way characters behave when they are not necessarily the focus of a given moment. When actors know their characters well, when a moment on stage is filled with truth, there can be a lot of information in silence.
Of course, we know this to be true of life as well. In a moment of quiet reflection, when the noise of the world can be pushed just far enough away, we are sometimes able to find epiphany or relief.
The six characters featured in Small Mouth Sounds — which opens November 2nd at the Station Theatre in Urbana — find themselves in need of such relief. Their reasons may vary, but their destination is the same, and these characters find themselves at a silent retreat. Cut off from the distractions of the outside world, adhering (more or less) to a code of silence, they seek to heal, to recharge, or simply to get away.
It’s a fascinating premise for a play, and it’s certainly an interesting prospect for a night at the theatre. A play that relies on silence? Characters who are intentionally not speaking? How’s this going to work?
Pretty well, based on the glowing reviews received by the 2015 and 2016 Off-Broadway runs. Called a “quiet gem” by the New York Times and “flawless” by Variety, Small Mouth Sounds debuted at Ars Nova and made its way to the Signature Theatre. Then, instead of transferring their popular and critically-adored show to Broadway, the producers made the bold step of embarking on a national tour. This is common enough for a musical, of course, but it’s fairly unusual for a play to move from theater to theater — in this case, from New Haven to Santa Monica to Miami, with stops in between.
What’s not so unusual is for an intimate new play to open at the Station Theatre shortly after an acclaimed professional debut. The Station production, under the direction of Jaclyn Loewenstein, is described thusly on the Celebration Company website:
Six runaways from city life embark on a silent meditation retreat. As these strangers confront internal demons both profound and absurd, their vows of silence collide with the achingly human need to connect. Filled with awkward and insightful humor, this unique play asks how we address life’s biggest questions when words fail us.
I spoke with Loewenstein, who had plenty to say about what we say when we can’t say anything. Or words to that effect.
Smile Politely: What is your history with this play? How did you first become aware of it?
Jaclyn Loewenstein (pictured, right): I discovered it on the Kilroy List, an annual list of noteworthy new plays by female and trans playwrights. The description of Small Mouth Sounds intrigued me, so I requested a PDF from Bess Wohl’s agent. I read it once and knew it would be a perfect fit for Station’s space and our open-minded community of theatregoers.
SP: What do you look for in a play, when you’re thinking of directing? Are there particular stories you’re looking to tell?
Loewenstein: I’m typically drawn to contemporary scripts with characters who can make me laugh and cry. I’ve always appreciated plays that are a bit absurd and/or have an unusual storytelling style. I suppose I’m most interested in relatable stories about human connection.
SP: For those who don’t already know the play (and that would be most people because it’s a new play), what can you tell us about the characters?
Loewenstein: The six people attending this silent retreat are all in some sort of agony and are searching for peace, guidance… possibly “enlightenment.” In the script, the playwright includes extensive (and hilarious) backstories for each character, but most of that information remains a mystery to the audience. Each audience member will develop individual reactions and assumptions about each character. Just as we do in life.
SP: A lot of auditions involve performing a prepared monologue or reading a scene with someone. Your play has a minimum of dialogue, so I wonder what you were looking for in actors?
Loewenstein: As with any production, I was looking to cast whichever actors seemed most believable in each role, and of course they needed to fit together well as an ensemble.
I conducted these auditions more like a small class than a typical audition. We sat in a semi-circle, and everyone did some silent improvisation as a specific character from the play. And they stayed in character and observed while others performed short scenes and monologues. (Spoiler alert: Everyone speaks at some point in the play!)
SP: You and I have worked together, so I have some sense of you in a rehearsal process, but I have to ask: How do you rehearse a play that has virtually no talking?
Loewenstein: It definitely requires heightened awareness from all of us. The script is filled with detailed stage directions, so we follow those (with some creative additions of our own) and allow the silent interaction to tell the story. Instead of waiting for cue lines, the actors often wait for specific movements (or small mouth sounds!).
SP: Were there any surprises along the way?
Loeswenstein: This script offers a rare sort of freedom for the actors, so they constantly surprise me (in the best ways!). I think the biggest surprises will come when we have an audience and get to hear their reactions to the guru and retreaters.
SP: Personally, I think the concept of the play is brilliant. And I think a little quiet reflection might not be the worst thing right now. What else would you like for us to know about the show?
Loewenstein: Similar to our production of The Christians last spring, Small Mouth Sounds is somewhat immersive, and you’re right — audience members may feel inspired to do some reflection of their own as they experience this retreat. (Or they can simply observe!)
I should mention that the play includes brief male nudity, as well as incense and some other interesting things that burn. And seating is limited… so advance reservations are important! This Friday 11/3, adult tickets are 2 for only $20.
Small Mouth Sounds features actors Gary Ambler, Thomas Nicol, Jason Dockins, AJ Curry, Katie Prosise, Faith Ramsey, and Lincoln Machula.
The play has performances November 2-5, 8-12, and 15-18 at the Station Theatre in Urbana. Ticket prices, which have changed this season, are as follows: $15 regular admission; $10 for students and seniors. And, as the director mentions above, tickets are two for $20 on Friday, November 3rd. All shows are at 8pm, except for the 3pm matinee on Sunday, November 12th.
For reservations, one may go online or call 217-384-4000.