Early January 2019, we began our rehearsal process for Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl with a very unusual day of activities … unusual because they were all experienced in voluntary silence.

The premise of Small Mouth Sounds is this: six characters arrive at a retreat center to participate in a 5-day silent meditation workshop. All the characters are suffering and in pain; mental, emotional and/or physical, so they are looking for some kind of relief from their agony by leaving behind their normal lives and making the effort to enroll and participate in the retreat. The twist comes in the fact that since they have committed to practice silence during the workshop, there is almost no spoken dialog in the play. Instead, we (the audience) observe the characters reacting to the teaching sessions (we hear the lectures of the Teacher, another character, over a microphone) as well as interacting with each other intensely and intimately but mostly without spoken language. It’s a bit of a mind-exploding idea for a play, isn’t it?

Do I look like Smurfette in this pic? You’d tell me, right?

Our director, Anne-Marie, proposed a full-day optional experience of silence that she would program for us, to help with “cast bonding” (as it was right at the start of the rehearsal process) and to give us a taste of what keeping silent for a somewhat extended time period would feel like in today’s Las Vegas. We arrived and began with a yoga class, followed by a guided mindfulness meditation session.

Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.

After that, a very experienced hiker (and appropriately, also a doctor in theater) Dr. Ian Pugh arrived to be our guide on an outdoor hike that would take up the rest of the cold, beautiful winter afternoon. Ian made the inspired decision to keep silence along with us, but he had prepared some informational signs that he showed us to give us important background information about the hike, and along the way we learned some geological tidbits and were shown stunning and delicate fossils that I have no doubt we all would have missed had we been chatting in the usual manner of friends hiking together.

After the hike we returned back to the warmth of Anne-Marie & Joe’s house and had dinner all together as a group, still keeping silence, and then cleaned up according to our assignments that we had been given earlier.

Almost as old as Joe.

Only after the dishes were done, the food put away and the table wiped clean did we begin speaking again. At that point it had been somewhere around 7 hours of silence – not comparable to 5 days, but still a very unusual way to spend a day in 2019 with a group of 8 or 9 people!

Everyone had personal, unique things to share about their experience of not speaking for almost a full day. It was fascinating, and some people had very emotional responses, even shedding tears. The participants who have children seemed to experience a day of silence quite differently than those who do not, for example. I remember one person saying that if they were at home and the family wasn’t talking, it would immediately be interpreted as a “bad thing” or full of tension, but our planned voluntary experience was almost the opposite. So there was an emotional shift of perspective about the same circumstance (not speaking). This catapults right to the heart of the play itself, because one of the functions of mindfulness and especially a retreat situation is to take the experience and put intentional “brackets” around it, if you will, and when that is consciously chosen, a person may have an opportunity to change their perspective or their feelings about something that is causing them suffering.
Another way the “brackets” can facilitate change or relief is by taking away extraneous distractions (no speaking, no cell phones, no alcohol, etc are usual parameters for retreats of this kind). Often times, participants in multi-day silent retreats will experience their discomfort ramping up exponentially at first, to an almost unbearable amount, with none of the usual distractions available. Only after that does the chance for change, relief or peace appear. I think that even during an abbreviated day like we had together, we experienced a version of that progression! It was strange and uncomfortable at first, and yet by the end of the long & strenuous hike, I could feel everyone in the group sort of softened out and grounded in a way that was not present when we began.
My own experience of that day has a particular poignancy for me because of something I went through long ago, in the early 1990’s. I experienced a chronic vocal injury that required me to practice complete vocal rest for over 2 months, and limit use (no talking on the phone for example) for another 4 months, and I had to strictly observe this if I wanted any hope of recovery without surgery. That time was scary and traumatic for me, because I did not even know if the outcome would be a good one, but I had to try it if I even wanted a chance of success. It did turn out well in the end, but I got used to the idea of taking compete vocal rest (no talking whatsoever for a certain period of time) as a way of practicing radical self-care and taking control of my own health. So what had been associated with the worst time in my life, was consciously re-framed by me to represent taking the best care of myself, if you will. I thought about this almost constantly on the 3-hour hike, because it dovetailed perfectly with the subject matter of the play. None of the characters can experience any relief from their suffering unless they re-frame both their experiences AND their actions. Only then can change be possible.
And that is a deep and universal truth that both art and spiritual practice can help illuminate for us as human beings.
I hope you will join me at Small Mouth Sounds to experience the journey for yourself!
-Dina Emerson, February 2019
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  Small Mouth Sounds starts this Friday and runs through March 10 at The Usual Place. Call for info or to make reservations: 702-735-2114. Come join the conversation. -DK
2 replies
  1. John Bernstein
    John Bernstein says:

    I was raised by a hearing-impaired mother who I used no vocal sound with for 56 years. I found that whenever I had a profound emotional experience, I was silent. Now, I had a hearing father and siblings so I also balanced the silence with sound. The perspective of silence taught me one powerful teaching: words have immense power to heal or to harm.

    Reply
  2. Ann
    Ann says:

    Dina, What a profound experience you all had! Thank you for sharing this. I also appreciate John Bernstein’s comment (above). Yes, words have immense power to heal or to harm. We are teaching youth that once the words are out of our mouths, they are like toothpaste once out of the tube. Again, thank you!

    Reply

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