The acclaimed play Small Mouth Sounds is showing at The Broad Stage January 11-28. Small Mouth Sounds received rave reviews when it opened in NYC. It has subsequently traveled the world. Small Mouth Sounds follows a group of students at a silent retreat where they work through questions such as what it means to find inner peace and is it possible to create change. The playwright Bess Wohl was inspired to write the story from her own experiences while on retreat. LA YOGA chatted with Bess about her inspiration and her own questions.
Small Mouth Sounds Playwright Bess Wohl
LA YOGA: It sounds like being a seeker while simultaneously maintaining a sense of questioning are part of your experience.
Bess Wohl: Completely. Part of what I was struggling with in the writing of the play is a question that the director helped me find at the heart of this play. We’re all searching for some sort of peace. But given the chaos of the world that we live in, this brings up the question: Is peace the appropriate response? Should we be peaceful? One of the characters asks in the play, “Should we be at peace?” Given what’s happening in the world, shouldn’t we do something?
LA YOGA: Oh, that’s a great question!
BW: Yeah. And it’s one of the questions of the play. It’s something that I’ve come to more of an understanding of as I’ve worked on the play, and learned through writing it.
One of the great things about Small Mouth Sounds is that it has drawn a community of teachers and spiritual people that I’ve met and learned a lot from through the making of this play.
But the question of whether or not we should be at peace, this is a question that I’ve struggled with as I was on these retreats. It is the question that is at the heart of this play. This is a question that the characters are struggling with a lot. I think that you can find peace and you can retreat from the world, yet the world right now is in dire need of people to engage with it and actively work to make it better. One thing that I’ve learned through the making of this play is that those two things don’t necessarily have to be at odds. But I wasn’t sure when I started.
Small Mouth Sounds and Theater as a Force of Change
LA YOGA: How has the process of writing this play changed your own practice as a seeker?
Bess Wohl: It has changed me dramatically. One of the people I met through the making of this play was this wonderful teacher named Sharon Salzburg. She said something in one of her talks that I thought was so great. Sharon said that there’s a Tibetan idea that a work of art should be judged how much it changes the person who made it…how much the making of it changes the artist, and the journey they go on. I think that’s an interesting idea.
I start, always, with a question that I honestly don’t know how to answer. Sometimes I never find the answer. And sometimes I find some kind of answer through the making of it.
In addition to “Should we be at peace?” I wondered, “Is change possible?” And “How do people change?” Is the attempt to change a futile journey? Just when you think you’ve changed, you get smacked in the face with an old habit or an old idea.
All of the characters in the play are struggling with the question of whether change is possible. When trying to change, some of them do and some of them don’t. In the process I realized, “Oh, change is not only possible, it’s the only thing there is!” Change is constantly happening! It hadn’t occurred to me until I had gone on a pretty long journey with this play, finished the writing of it, and started to step back from it a little bit.
LA YOGA: It sounds like this work is not only about your change; it is also about the director’s change, and even the audience’s change. Is there something that you were hoping to stimulate in the audience or are you leaving it open a bit?
Bess Wohl: One thing that I always hope for when I write a play is that the experience of watching the play will create some kind of change in the audience. Even if it’s temporary or even if it’s just for the time when they’re in the space as the actors.
So I do think that my hope is for some kind of movement or experience for them. At the same time I never really want to prescribe exactly what it should be. I think that everyone will have their own experience. The funny thing about this play is that because there is so much silence in it, I’ve found that audiences tend to have very different and personal experiences of the play. Some nights it’s hilarious, some nights it’s very quiet. Some people find it very sad, some people think it’s completely ridiculous and funny.
I think there is a strange way in which the absence of words creates a little more flexibility in terms of how the play can be interpreted and experienced. It also creates a dynamic in which what you put into it is what you get back.
At one point the teacher in the play says to the student, “You think you’ve come here to meet me, but really you’re only here to meet yourself.”
When the play is operating best, the audience meets themselves in the experience of watching the play.
LA YOGA: You’ve spoken about feeling a sense of identification with the teacher, in the sense of the playwright as narrator, as the voice from the side giving ideas that everybody has to process in their own way. This made me think about your experience as being a point of reflection that offers people the jumping point of their own experience.
Bess Wohl: It was tricky to find the balance between the wise teacher and being able to have fun with that character. I wanted to be able to mine the humor and I also wanted it to have truth to it. I didn’t want it just fall into parody or satire. That was really important to me. I wanted the teacher to have his own journey. He was the last character to reveal himself in terms of making sure it felt like he was a fully-fledged human.
The thing that cracked it for me was realizing, “Oh wait, I’m closer to this character than I thought.” In leading these people through this retreat, the teacher is trying to do the same thing that I’m trying to do when I try to lead an audience through an experience. I started to empathize with the teacher. It’s a man in our current production but it’s written as being gender-less. When I did empathize with the teacher, I could find the humanity of that character.
LA YOGA: I appreciate that challenge, because it could be situation where you could just make fun of someone. Some things that a teacher says at any kind of retreat, especially taken out of context, can sound sort of ridiculous.
Bess Wohl: Exactly.
Small Mouth Sounds at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica
LA YOGA: But in context, those words can be thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to seeing it play out. Are you going to have the opportunity to see it in Los Angeles?
Bess Wohl: I’m coming out to Los Angeles for rehearsals and I’m looking forward to sharing it with LA. There is this community of people who are interested in this world, thoughtful about spirituality, and who are seekers and committed to self-discovery. I’m so curious to see how it is received by the LA community. Part of what’s fun about this play is the people who have never even heard of a yoga retreat who encounter it, and people who have been on 8,000 yoga retreats or even people who own retreats come and encounter it. I’m hopeful that we have a good time sharing the play with LA.
Read more of the interview with Bess Wohl on la.events.yoga
For more information and to order tickets, visit The Broad Stage at http://www.thebroadstage.org