Theatre B’s ‘Small Mouth Sounds’ examines humanity’s existential noise
The play, which follows six people attending a silent meditation retreat, has very little verbal dialogue, meaning actors and audiences alike depend on nonverbal communication to understand characterization, scene, setting and other dramatic nuance.
MOORHEAD — If you’re uncomfortable with silence, “Small Mouth Sounds,” on stage at Theatre B in Moorhead April 28 through May 20, may not be the theatrical performance for you.
Or maybe it’s the story you’ve needed all your life.
The play, written by contemporary playwright Bess Wohl and directed by Theatre B ensemble member Crystal Cossette Knight, follows six people attending a silent meditation retreat. As such, there is very little verbal dialogue in the production, meaning actors and audiences alike depend on nonverbal communication to understand characterization, scene, setting and other dramatic nuance.
The result is a giant existential metaphor about human connection. Watching “Small Mouth Sounds” is like having someone whisper in your ear, “Do you know who you really are?” and then you just have to sit with it.
“It’s a very different type of play than people would be used to seeing. It requires much more active watching and listening for the little hints,” Lori Horvik, who plays a silent retreat attendee named Judy, said. “There’s a lot less for the audience to go on as far as background, character formation, and we have to communicate that with our actions and our reactions.”
With the exception of the retreat teacher, played by Monika Browne-Ecker (who has speaking parts but no stage presence), actors rely on body language to tell the story, which creates a sort of shared experience between the audience and the cast members.
What emerges is a “heightened theatrical experience,” as Cossette Knight describes it. "There's a vulnerability to people whose words are taken away,” she said. “The play has a lot of humor and a lot of pain in it.”
The sound of silence
Theatre B Operations and Production Manager Monika Browne-Ecker, who’s cast as the retreat teacher, said the mostly silent format of the play creates an intriguing active exchange between the characters on stage and the audience.
“There is an interesting question that emerges, and that is if physical communication is more sincere than using language,” Ecker-Browne said. “When you take away the dialogue, you are removing a sort of mask.”
Going into silence
To prepare the cast for the unique aspects of acting without words and essentially “going into silence” as one would at a silent retreat, Cossette Knight organized choreography training that focused on nonverbal cues, such as intimate sounds and yoga mat poses.
“We work really hard on stage to draw in sounds to get the audience’s attention on a specific person or something that’s happening to help the audience a little bit more,” Cossette Knight said.
Cast members agreed that performing a play without dialogue isn’t necessarily more difficult — just different.
Andrew Johnson, who plays Rodney in his debut performance with the theatre, said he enjoys the challenge of training to convey a message through body language.
“An action that I have can have 50 different meanings, depending on how fast I turn or what my face is doing. Just using body language can be interpreted in as many different ways as a verbal line,” Johnson said.
Director’s approach informed by silent retreat experience
To prepare for her directorial debut, Cossette Knight felt compelled to experience a five-day retreat of her own.
In 2022, she applied for and was awarded a $1,400 Individual Arts Partnership grant sponsored by The Arts Partnership to fund a five-day meditation retreat at The Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina.
Cossette Knight “dabbled” in meditation and yoga during high school and later in life, but she never took it too seriously. What she learned at the retreat not only informed her creative direction for “Small Mouth Sounds,” but it also awakened her to new levels of communication and awareness.
“I went to the retreat thinking I was going to do some research for this play, but when I got into it, I was like, ‘yeah, I’m actually going through some really heavy stuff,’ ” she said.
Just as the characters in the play discover, Cossette Knight realized there’s more to learning about other people and oneself than making verbal declarations.
“There were moments in our group that we couldn't speak to each other where we all connected the most. A simple touch on the shoulder to check in on someone meant so much more than just asking how someone is doing,” she said.
Cossette Knight is changed by her experience at the retreat, and she’s looking forward to bringing a similar experience to life on stage at Theatre B.
“This play is such a different experience for people and I'm just so hungry for it,” she said. “I can’t wait for people to experience this.”
About TAP’s Individual Arts Partnership grants
The Arts Partnership established the Individual Arts Partnership grants in 2012 to support artists working in any genre and who are at any career stage. In the past 11 grant cycles, 114 artists, musicians, writers and performers have received grants totaling $170,424. A total of $19,800 in grants were awarded to 11 artists in 2022.
IF YOU GO
What: "Small Mouth Sounds"
Where: Theatre B, 215 10th St. N., Moorhead.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 28-29, May 4-6, May 11-13, May 18 - 20; and 2 p.m. matinees (masks required) May 7, 14
ASL will be provided April 29 and audio description provided May 14. A “Sunday Salon” post-show social and discussion will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 14
For bookings or more information, contact Theatre B at 701-729-8880 or at www.theatreb.org .
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.