Director Rachel Chavkin SOUNDing On Bess Wohl, Being the Audience's Proxy & The Gift of Re-Do's

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

Director Rachel Chavkin has had her creative input in the various reincarnations of Bess Wohl‘s SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS since its inaugural production at Ars Nova in 2015. We had the opportunity to chat with Rachel just before she began rehearsals for this current (and third edition) to be presented at The Broad Stage beginning January 11, 2018.
Thank you for taking the time out for this interview, Rachel!
This is your third collaboration with Bess Wohl and her SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS. (First at Ars Nova in 2015, then at Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Theater in 2016, and now this touring production landing at The Broad Stage.) How did you first become involved with SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS?
Bess Wohl wrote SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS as part of being a member of the Ars Nova play group and I had worked with Ars Nova very closely on NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812. Ars Nova was seeing if they could produce SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS and set Bess up with a handful of directors to talk about the show. Bess and I kind of fell for each other when we spoke and decided to work together.
You’ve directed all three SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS. Were there a lot of tweaks between the 2015 and the 2016 productions?
Not really. The original transfer was just about upsizing. The space got about two and a half times as big as the original, however, it was the same approach with alley seating and subtle video design.
And any more major/minor changes between this touring production and the 2016 show?
This touring production actually prompted larger changes: we’ve moved from an immersive seating where the audience was in the room with the participants, to a larger proscenium setting. But we’ve worked hard to maintain that feeling of intimacy in our touring production.
And we have been extremely fortunate with our touring cast. This play is unlike anything I’ve ever worked on before. It’s, of course, a narrative and tells this wonderful story of these six suffering individuals at this silent retreat. But it’s also like a dance score because there are almost no words. What’s been remarkable is that in each of these unique productions, we have been able to find strong performers whose metabolisms are similar to the people who built the original score in that first production. But they are also their whole, unique, vivid, weird selves.

How would you describe the plot of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS in a three-sentence pitch?
Six very lost people, who are each suffering in their own way, come to a silent meditation retreat for a sort of healing. The story unfolds as they each confront the questions: How can one be happy, and should one be happy?
Have you yourself experienced silence in a retreat?
No. Bess Wohl has done a lot of them. For me, it’s my existential nightmare. It’s worth noting that the play works as much for people who are skeptical of self-help and self-healing pursuits, as well as, people who are very devoted to these practices. That’s the remarkable thing about Bess’ writing is that she is able to gently find humor around something while also really trying to meet it earnestly at the heart of itself. I think that’s why this play has been so successful; it’s not just a comedy about people at a silent meditation retreat. It’s also a moving story that is of the place of internal processing or suffering that makes one feel the need to pursue this kind of deep healing.
What reactions did you receive from the Ars Nova and the Romulus Linney audiences that surprised you?
In a sense, every response was a surprise because this play is unlike anything I’ve ever worked on before. A big part of that is that, as a director, my job is to try to be the proxy for the audience in the rehearsal room. If I’m being moved or affected by something, then I have to trust and hope the audience will feel the same. But this play confounds that in that I know what the back stories of these characters are. Once you know something about a person, you can’t un-know it. Once you know (or think you know) what each character is confronting at their core, it rocks you and you never see them the same way again. Because I knew that, there were things that seemed so obvious to me, and I thought, “The audience must know it, too.” However, as I’d hear the revelations hit the audiences at different moments throughout the show, it proved how much sleuthing we do just watching people and how often we notice different things at different times because of our own histories. That is one of the reasons why the play works so well.
What similarities of directing challenges did you find between the more intimate SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS and more encompassing NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, besides the obvious size difference of the casts?
As a director, my greatest joy is the eclecticism of my body of work – each piece of work is hopefully wholly itself. So, I have to be a different director with each piece. What most of my work shares is creating as whole and thorough of a culture as possible in a production. The cultures of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS and COMET are quite radically different, but the desire to create a wholistic world from top to bottom, and to make sure the performers understand what that culture is to let it permeate their being on a very deep level – that’s shared.
On your Broadway directing resumé, I see three shows that repeatedly pop up – SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS; NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 and HADESTOWN. How wonderful is it that you get a second opportunity to direct a show you worked on before?

It’s always nice getting a second (or third) chance at a show, because so rarely is the first time as full as it can be due to the collaborative and slow nature of theater. And SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS is an extraordinary and singular world, and I’m happy to re-enter it at any point. What’s most exciting is to get to share it with that many more people. Theater artists’ work is ephemeral and very local. Even on a Broadway scale, it’s 1,200 people sharing a space. So, it’s exciting to get this opportunity to be sharing it with so many more folks.

The original SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS design team will be also be working this production at The Broad Stage and re-staging from the original traverse to a proscenium staging. Do you have a preference (traverse vs. proscenium) in presenting this show?
Each has their own ups and downs. It’s fun to get to sit three feet from someone as they’re going through a profound experience. I find that exhilarating. However, directorially I love being able to make pictures and images, which you can only really do when someone is far back enough to see the whole stage. I can say there are images and moments that we discovered over the course of rehearsing this production that I think capture the story in deep ways, and I can’t believe weren’t in the original production.
Will you be multi-tasking projects in 2018?
I’ll be working on many, many things. HADESTOWN, which I have been attached to, is going through a similar journey as SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS in that it started as an immersive show that we’re now opening up into proscenium. I am directing LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE by Caryl Churchill at New York Theatre Workshop; it’s a stunning play about the English Revolution in the mid-1600’s. It’s really about resistance and the pursuit of collective liberation. It’s hard for me to imagine a more timely play.
I’m also directing STATUS, a new solo piece by a British performance artist named Chris Thorpe. This piece is about Brexit and why a British or UK passport can give you this feeling of immunity when traveling, and why we often think of our nationality and the color of our eyes in the same breath when really, they’re very different things. It’s about the waves of nationalism currently washing over our world, and how, as liberals, we might relate.
Thank you again Rachel for taking your time for this interview!
For SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS ticket availability and schedule through January 28, 2018, log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.