Darlinghurst Theatre Company is hosting the Australian premiere of Small Mouth Sounds by Drama Desk Award-winning playwright Bess Wohl. Set at a silent retreat and involving little dialogue, it’s a piece that explores how one speaks their mind when they’re unable to say a word. 

“Six people come together looking for enlightenment”, says Justin Smith, who plays the role of Jan. “I think it’s safe to say they all come in with a certain amount of emotional baggage. We like to say, in one way or another, they’re in agony – and I don’t mean that in a depressing way, necessarily.

“There are moments of high comedy and gentle, lovely pathos as well. It’s a really amazing play in that regard.”

Smith provides a brief insight into his character, Jan.

“He’s been sent on a search by his church to explore spirituality so he can return to his flock and be a better leader for them. He has some personal things that he brings with him that I won’t give away,” he says. 

Sharon Millerchip is playing the role of Joan.

“Joan is a sex educator by trade,” Millerchip tells Theatre People. “She’s very open, she’s gregarious, she’s quite joyful, she’s optimistic and enthusiastic, but we do learn that she’s experienced some trauma early in her life. Nestled deep inside her is this burning pit of pain and anger and resentment and, despite her best efforts, sometimes that bubbles to reveal itself through the course of the play.”

Millerchip talks about the relevance of Wohl’s play to contemporary audiences.

“At the risk of sounding cliché, I think in this world of connectivity, of course we are feeling more isolated … We are all seeking some kind of engagement with other people, and I think that’s a theme that this piece really drives home – about how united we all are in this human experience and how we yearn to really affect the people around us and connect with them in a true way.” 

Sharon Millerchip and Justin Smith in rehearsal for Small Mouth Sounds
(Photo by Robert Catto)

Millerchip recalls her feelings reading Small Mouth Sounds for the first time.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a theatrical experience that, stylistically, is similar to this, and so that’s immediately intriguing,” she says. “And I think people have really responded to that – the fact that it’s an innovative way of storytelling … It finishes and they think, ‘Wow! That was nuts! I haven’t seen that!’ And, obviously, that’s our ambition with this production.”

Smith talks about the challenge as an actor of working with a script with so little dialogue. 

“Part of the role of the actor is obviously to create a three-dimensional character … I like to write down everything that the other characters say about [my character], write down everything [my character] says about [himself], and hopefully etch together a well-rounded human. But in this play, we don’t have that resource in the script.

“We’ve spent the time being faithful to [Wohl’s] direction in the script, but also finding stuff inside that as well. It’s been a different process for us.”

Directing this Australian premiere production is Jo Turner. Smith describes the play as being “right up Jo’s alley”, with Jo having trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris (which focuses on physical theatre).

“He brings such an expert eye to it,” Smith says. “And also, being a great actor himself, he’s really empathetic and smart and funny, and he’s got a great sense of comedy and tragedy, and how they can come together in the one moment.”

Sharon Millerchip in rehearsals for Small Mouth Sounds
(Photo by Robert Catto)

Millerchip also reflects on the rehearsal process for Small Mouth Sounds.

“When you don’t have this template of script to hang performances around, it’s much more of an ephemeral rehearsal experience really, so we have to be hyper-perceptive to what people around us are doing,” she explains.

“Jo directs us almost like a symphony – one piece of action comes to the fore and then moves back into the background, as somebody else’s business comes forward and then melds into the background, so the audience knows where the camera is pointed and knows which piece of action to pick up on at any given time. It has to be choreographed like a dance in a way, because we don’t have that coat hanger of dialogue to hang the scenes on.

“Jo usually starts the day with a bit of playful game workshopping, which usually has us in absolute fits of laughter. I think he does that on purpose to get the giggles out of us early in the day so that we’re more useful once we’ve had a good laugh!”

Asked about the target audience for this play, Smith says Small Mouth Sounds is a show for everyone.

“It really is a show for everyone from any walk of life, really. These people are all from different backgrounds … You’ll find a bit of yourself up there in one way or another.”

Millerchip says Wohl’s piece offers an insight into the sides of a person they don’t show.  

“It amplifies this idea that we have one face for public but, underneath, we’re all just ducks badly treading water,” she says. “It reminds us that we’re all similar in that regard and, hopefully, it makes people smile and have a giggle. That’s pretty therapeutic.”


Season: Playing now until 26 May, 2019
Where: Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse
Link: www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/small-mouth-sounds
Phone: (02) 8356 9987