Sunday, March 3, 2024

When the Voice You Hear Is Not the Actor You See

Within 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 a bit 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 also 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 aspect of a dialog with Hnath, whose voice was heard through a tape recording; and his play earlier than that, “Dana H.,” featured an actress lip-syncing interviews through which 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 A lot I Might Die,” a diaristic exploration of how she was affected by a life-altering incident that incapacitated her sister firstly of the pandemic. Within the 65-minute present, in previews Off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop, Pirnot sits on a ladderback chair, going through 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 pc’s voice is male, robotic, and, in fact, unemotional; its cadence, and the size of pauses, varies primarily based on how Pirnot and Hnath have punctuated the textual content. This system makes occasional errors — a operating joke considerations the pronunciation of Shia LaBeouf — that the artists cherish. Listening to a machine recount tales of very human ache will 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 occasions very shifting however at occasions extraordinarily anxiousness frightening,” Pirnot mentioned. “This really looks like I’m capturing and sharing a bit 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 A lot I Might Die” contains snaking cords and cables, reflecting his desire for clear stagecraft. The set, designed by Mimi Lien, is very 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 mainly declares ‘We’re not pretending. We’re simply attending to work.’ I obtained frightened 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 Skinny Place,” his 2019 play a few psychic, and “Dana H.” embody moments of deeply jarring sound. And in “Dana H.,” “A Simulacrum” and now “I Love You So A lot I Might 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 all the time needed to compose music, so quite a lot of 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 activity 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 operating traces with a youthful performer; Hnath describes it as “a nightmare to be taught — someone getting a line fallacious 5 alternative ways — I don’t understand how you be taught that.”

For “I Love You So A lot I Might Die,” Pirnot and Hnath settled on the text-to-speech answer steadily. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot was writing about her disappointment simply as a solution to course of her emotions. A few 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.

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

Pirnot test-drove the text-to-speech thought with a brief podcast monologue. And at residence, 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 along with her again to him, and that setup knowledgeable the play because it moved to their front room, 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 state of affairs, which she doesn’t element within the play.

“Every little thing 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’re 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 best way, right here’s the precise order of extraordinarily excruciating, relentless collection of occasions that made for my new understanding.’”

Why write about one thing so painful in the event you don’t need to share the specifics?

“After combating so exhausting to maintain a beloved one alive, the query turns into for what and why?,” she mentioned. “That is what I’ve to share. That is actually what I need to categorical. Though 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 many earliest tasks I did in grad college 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. In order that’s all the time been within the background.”

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