When the Voice You Hear Is Not the Actor You See

When the Voice You Hear Is Not the Actor You See

In the darkest moments of a household tragedy, when the playwright Mona Pirnot couldn’t discover the power to verbalize her emotions to her boyfriend or her therapist, she tried one thing just a little unorthodox: She typed her ideas into her laptop computer, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.

It was a coping mechanism that additionally sparked a inventive pivot: Pirnot’s then-boyfriend, now-husband, Lucas Hnath, can be a playwright, with a longtime curiosity in sound and a more moderen historical past of constructing reveals round disembodied voices. His final play, “A Simulacrum,” featured a magician re-creating his facet of a dialog with Hnath, whose voice was heard by way of a tape recording; and his play earlier than that, “Dana H.,” featured an actress lip-syncing interviews wherein the playwright’s mom recounted the trauma of getting been kidnapped.

Now Hnath is directing Pirnot, who wrote and is the lone actor in “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” a diaristic exploration of how she was affected by a life-altering incident that incapacitated her sister at first of the pandemic. In the 65-minute present, in previews Off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop, Pirnot sits on a ladderback chair, dealing with away from the viewers, whereas a Microsoft text-to-speech program reads her traces. Between chapters of storytelling, Pirnot performs the guitar and sings songs that she wrote.

The laptop’s voice is male, robotic, and, after all, unemotional; its cadence, and the size of pauses, varies primarily based on how Pirnot and Hnath have punctuated the textual content. The program makes occasional errors — a working joke considerations the pronunciation of Shia LaBeouf — that the artists cherish. Hearing a machine recount tales of very human ache might be awkwardly humorous, and audiences are laughing, notably early within the present, as they modify to the disorienting expertise.

“I just like the relentlessness that I can get with [the computer’s] voice that’s form of surprising and stunning, and I discover it to be at instances very shifting however at instances extraordinarily anxiousness scary,” Pirnot mentioned. “This really appears like I’m capturing and sharing just a little little bit of what this felt like.”

The manufacturing options a few of Hnath’s signature fingerprints. Like “The Christians,” his 2015 play set in an evangelical church, “I Love You So Much I Could Die” consists of snaking cords and cables, reflecting his desire for clear stagecraft. The set, designed by Mimi Lien, is awfully spare — a folding desk, a lamp from the couple’s bed room, some audio system, and, within the nook, a purple canister for the present’s one, virtually imperceptible, haze impact.

“It’s so not slick,” Hnath mentioned. “It principally pronounces ‘We’re not pretending. We’re simply attending to work.’ I obtained fearful about it turning right into a pristine artwork set up. Anytime one thing will get slick, I cease trusting it, or I query, ‘What are they hiding?’”

Hnath has been experimenting with unsettling makes use of of audio for a while. “The Thin Place,” his 2019 play a couple of psychic, and “Dana H.” embody moments of deeply jarring sound. And in “Dana H.,” “A Simulacrum” and now “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” every with sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, there may be the separation of speech from speaker, in numerous methods.

“I feel there’s a part of me that, deep down, is a annoyed composer. My past love was music, and I at all times needed to compose music, so numerous how I strategy playwriting could be very compositional,” Hnath mentioned. He enjoys “the extent of management I may have over the sonic qualities and the rhythm,” he added. “I can construct it so it doesn’t change and it’s precisely what I imply.”

Hnath’s performs have typically concerned what he unapologetically calls “a gimmick” — a job for a performer that leaves little room for error, like an actress completely imitating the phrases, breaths and pacing of one other lady. His subsequent play is about line memorization, and dramatizes an older performer working traces with a youthful performer; Hnath describes it as “a nightmare to study — someone getting a line incorrect 5 other ways — I don’t know the way you study that.”

For “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” Pirnot and Hnath settled on the text-to-speech resolution steadily. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot was writing about her unhappiness simply as a technique to course of her emotions. Some of it was akin to journal entries; some was virtually a transcription of conversations with relations. At one level, Hnath thought Pirnot ought to flip the fabric right into a memoir.

When they started speaking about staging the work, it was nonetheless peak pandemic, when in-person gatherings have been sophisticated. So they held an early studying, with actors, by way of video assembly; Pirnot and Hnath briefly mentioned having her script carried out every time by a unique actor studying the phrases chilly.

Pirnot test-drove the text-to-speech thought with a brief podcast monologue. And at dwelling, she would work at a desk by the foot of their mattress, which means that typically, when he was seated on the mattress, she would play the fabric together with her again to him, and that setup knowledgeable the play because it moved to their lounge, Ensemble Studio Theater, Dartmouth (for a residency), and now New York Theater Workshop, the place it opens on Wednesday.

Over time, the story grew to become extra about Pirnot’s emotions, and fewer about her sister’s medical scenario, which she doesn’t element within the play.

“Everything that’s included within the present could be very deliberately to report on the expertise of when life breaks open and utterly falls aside, and what you do with all these items and the way it makes you are feeling and the way you proceed to maneuver ahead,” she mentioned. “I felt like I may present that have with out saying, ‘And by the way in which, right here’s the precise order of extraordinarily excruciating, relentless sequence of occasions that made for my new understanding.’”

Why write about one thing so painful for those who don’t need to share the specifics?

“After combating so laborious to maintain a liked one alive, the query turns into for what and why?,” she mentioned. “This is what I’ve to share. This is basically what I need to categorical. Even although I query each evening, ‘How may I be doing this? How may I be sharing this a lot?,’ it feels much less unhappy to me than doing one thing that I’ve solely put half of myself into.”

For Hnath, the collaboration matches into his personal longstanding storytelling pursuits.

“One of the earliest initiatives I did in grad faculty was an adaptation of the Zen koan about Sen-jo. Sen-jo separates from her soul — there’s the soul after which there’s the physique. And which one is the actual Sen-jo? I feel I’ve been form of fixated on the stress between bodily and psychological or mental. So that’s at all times been within the background.”



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