"I think of theatre ultimately as a sonic event, rather than a visual one."
So says playwright Anne Washburn, who's certainly honoring that credo with her new show. Playing through July 18 at Soho Rep, 10 Out of 12 is about what we hear as much as what we see.
In fact, the importance of listening is stressed from the moment we step in the door. When we pick up our tickets, we also get headsets, along with instructions to turn them on as soon as the show begins. That creates a fascinating tension: What's going to happen in our ears that isn't happening in front of our eyes? What kind of messages or secrets are going to travel through the airwaves?
When the show begins, it initially seems like the mystery has been solved. After all, the play is about "tech week" – the final stretch of rehearsals before an audience sees a production, when technical cues, unexpected glitches, and last-minute crises get sorted out. (The title of the play is a bit of theatre slang. It refers to the fact that tech days usually last 12 hours, with 10 hours spent working and 2 hours taken for meals.)
Our earpieces let us hear the chatter between stage managers and designers as they request changes to the show or make small talk while the director tweaks blocking.
And for a while, it seems like that's where things will stop. As everyone in the company gets more and more frustrated by their bizarre little show, which features everything from women in giant hoop skirts to demons with glowing neon hands, they seem like they're headed for a dizzy farce.
But then things get more complicated. A temperamental actor starts making increasingly powerful speeches about suffering for his art, and his suffering becomes shockingly literal. Subtle tensions between company members erupt into passionate outbursts. Gestures that seemed meaningless at the beginning start to feel weighted with meaning.
Then there's what's happening in our earpieces. Though the rehearsal chatter never stops, it gets punctuated with strange song lyrics and disarmingly eloquent statements about why art matters in people's lives. Sometimes, it's hard to tell if the voices we're hearing are live or pre-recorded, and sometimes they resonate unexpectedly with the things the actors on stage are doing.
Ultimately, this play about theatre people expands to become a play about the performances in everyone's lives. "We're all of us playacting, even if it's not our profession," says Washburn. "We're always trying to sort out another way of being. [This] is a play about why we pretend to be people we aren't: The ways in which it is satisfying and the ways in which it is dissatisfying; the ways in which it is injurious and the ways in which it is… healing is probably the wrong word, but 'compelling.' Very compelling."
For her, the "sound-only" elements of the storytelling are crucial to making this point. "There's an intimacy and an elegance to 'sonic theatre,'" she says. "You're not dealing with people entering the space and exiting the space. They wink into existence, and they wink out. You've got this 'mobility of consciousness.' That sounds weird, but you do."
In other words, when we're balancing a visual reality with an aural reality, our minds can zip all over the place. We can immediately comprehend what we see on stage, but we can also imagine the world we hear in our earpieces. By living in two realms at once, we can perhaps think more deeply about how the world in front of us is sometimes just a cover for what people really think.
Washburn notes that during rehearsals, she and director Les Waters tried staging some of the earpiece scenes so that audience members could see them. Often, it sapped something vital out of the production.
And that's why Washburn calls theatre a sonic event. "There's a backstage, and if someone comes out and says, 'A woman just killed her two children right back stage,' you see it because you saw it in your imagination," she says. "You made it. You have it in your head. And if it just flashes by you [as an image], you have no ownership of it. So the degree to which it's a sonic medium is the degree to which you create your own version of the play."
Mark Blankenship is the editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Julieta Cervantes. Top photo: Sue Jean Kim in 10 Out of 12.