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Lions Roar : September 2015
Why did attending a retreat with Pema Chödrön inspire you to write Small Mouth Sounds? Theater is about transforma- tion, about watching char- acters go from one state to another. Characters with an immense need for something to change in their lives are inherently dramatic. People go to a retreat hoping to be transformed, so I felt it was fertile ground as a setting for a play. How do you portray the teacher- student relationship? In the play, the teacher says, “Perhaps you’re the teacher and I’m the student.” You go on retreat to meet a teacher but you’re actually there to meet yourself. We spend so much time distracting our- selves from ourselves. The silence on a retreat allows you to meet yourself. Yet the other retreatants are also an impor- tant part of the experience. They’re great because they can be real irritants [laughter]. In regular life, somebody might irritate you for five minutes. Then you can walk away and get some perspective. What’s hard about the retreat setting is that there’s no escape from the other people. You just keep seeing them over and over. When you observe how irritated you are, it’s a great lesson in noticing your reactions to things. Pema Chödrön tells a story about a retreat where there’s one person every- body hates. The person finally decides to leave, but the teacher brings him back. Everyone says, “Why did you do that? We were all so glad he left.” The teacher says, “I pay him to be here! He teaches you about yourself.” In your portrayal of the characters, what were you trying to achieve? I wanted characters who are flawed and make mistakes. I hope—even though some of their qualities might be unsa- vory—that we fall in love with these characters because we see ourselves in them and they allow us to embrace parts of ourselves. The title Small Mouth Sounds refers to non- verbal noises people make, such as sighing and crying. As I worked on the play, I realized that just because it’s silent onstage, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Every moment of the play— for it to work—has to have nonverbal dialogue. There always has to be somebody trying to do or communicate something or actively try- ing to shut someone out. I’d always been uncomfortable with silence on the stage, especially in my own plays. If somebody wasn’t talking, I’d get anxious—almost the way you can get anxious in conver- sation when there’s a pause. So the challenge for me was to get comfortable with silence. Was the silence difficult for the actors? Sometimes when actors get into a routine, they coast on the language. They say the words but aren’t fully invested in every moment. The actors felt this play was draining for them because they had to be fully invested all the time—there was no dialogue to do the work for them. How do you maintain your retreat experience now that you’re back in New York? It’s calming to be in a pristine, beautiful place, but what’s important is to make some kind of a rupture with your nor- mal routine. As I was writing the play, I thought about the mini silent retreats that we go on with other people in our day-to-day life. It’s a mini silent retreat when people ride in an elevator or the subway without talking. ♦ Q&A Small Mouth Sounds BESS WOHL attended a retreat with Pema Chödrön and wrote a play based on her experience. Small Mouth Sounds has just finished a successful run in New York. ©JOANNAELDREDGEMORRISSEY Playwright Bess Wohl’s characters take a vow of silence, so the script is mostly stage direction, not dialogue. SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2015 15 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE