It seems safe to say that most theatre goers associate plays with dialogue—a witty exchange maybe, or perhaps a moving monologue—but for Wild Side Productions’ latest, director Jim Guedo chose a show about six strangers attending a silent retreat. Small Mouth Sounds is written by American playwright Bess Wohl and its script relies much more on stage direction than it does on spoken words. Edmonton actor Kristi Hansen, who appears in the production, says the cast has had to learn how to communicate without words.
“It’s really fun to navigate as an actor … After doing something several times, going ‘Well, now I’ve figured out a better way to communicate this, but [for] this character, this would be the first time they tried to communicate some of this stuff,’” she says. “So just knowing that it can be a little messy and that we’re figuring it out too.”
Because there’s so little dialogue, Hansen says the actors have to be very aware of their movements on stage.
“It makes you have to really lazer in as an audience member … Any little thing all of a sudden becomes [meaningful],” she says. “Whereas at the beginning of the play they might be just waiting for the dialogue to start so they can follow that, but … by the end we have to be very aware because the audience is going to be so much more heightened by that sense that every little thing does mean something.”
Hansen plays Judy, an editor at O magazine who attends the retreat with her partner Joan. The two are having relationship problems, at least some of which stems from Judy being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The other four people attending the retreat are all strangers, but each is experiencing their own agony.
“These are very unhappy people trying to find connection, in a way, but also to find enlightenment through the self,” Hansen says.
Though by the end of the play, the audience should have some sense of what is afflicting each of the characters, a lot of it is never explicitly stated. For instance, Hansen says Judy’s cancer is never actually discussed on stage.
Wohl wrote lengthy character descriptions for each of the six retreat guests in her script, so that the actors portraying them would understand the sources of their agony, but didn’t intend for them to be shared with the audience:
“Much of what is in these descriptions will obviously remain a mystery to the audience—that’s okay by me,” Wohl writes in the author’s notes. “The audience should always be able to follow the main story lines, but should also have a little bit of room to make—and revise—their own assumptions about who the characters are.”
Hansen says the character of Ned, played by Garrett Ross, is the exception to this.
“The guy who’s really angry at the world kind of gets to have a time where he asks the guru a question and it turns into this big monologue sort of about his life that is revealed, if you read the play, in his character description,” Hansen explains. “So he’s one of the only characters who really gets to verbalize what his path is.”