When the Voice You Hear Is Not the Actor You See

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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 energy to verbalize her emotions to her boyfriend or her therapist, she tried one thing somewhat 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 through a tape recording; and his play earlier than that, “Dana H.,” featured an actress lip-syncing interviews by 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 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, 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. The program makes occasional errors — a working joke issues the pronunciation of Shia LaBeouf — that the artists cherish. Hearing a machine recount tales of very human ache may be awkwardly humorous, and audiences are laughing, significantly early within the present, as they regulate to the disorienting expertise.

“I like the relentlessness that I can get with [the computer’s] voice that’s kind of shocking and surprising, and I find it to be at times very moving but at times extremely anxiety provoking,” Pirnot mentioned. “This actually feels like I’m capturing and sharing a 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 choice 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 basically announces ‘We’re not pretending. We’re just getting to work.’ I got worried about it turning into a pristine art installation. Anytime something gets slick, I stop trusting it, or I question, ‘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 think there’s part of me that, deep down, is a frustrated composer. My first love was music, and I always wanted to compose music, so a lot of how I approach playwriting is very compositional,” Hnath mentioned. He enjoys “the level of control I could have over the sonic qualities and the rhythm,” he added. “I can build it so it does not change and it’s exactly what I mean.”

Hnath’s performs have usually 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 learn — somebody getting a line wrong five different ways — I don’t know how you learn that.”

For “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” Pirnot and Hnath settled on the text-to-speech resolution progressively. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot was writing about her unhappiness simply as a solution to course of her emotions. Some of it was akin to journal entries; some was virtually a transcription of conversations with members of the family. 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 difficult. So they held an early studying, with actors, through video assembly; Pirnot and Hnath briefly mentioned having her script carried out every time by a distinct 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 turned 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 in the show is very intentionally to report on the experience of when life breaks open and completely falls apart, and what you do with all those pieces and how it makes you feel and how you continue to move forward,” she mentioned. “I felt like I could provide that experience without saying, ‘And by the way, here’s the exact order of extremely excruciating, relentless series of events that made for my new understanding.’”

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

“After fighting so hard to keep a loved one alive, the question becomes for what and why?,” she mentioned. “This is what I have to share. This is really what I want to express. Even though I question every night, ‘How could I be doing this? How could I be sharing this much?,’ it feels less sad to me than doing something that I’ve only put half of myself into.”

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

“One of the earliest projects I did in grad school was an adaptation of the Zen koan about Sen-jo. Sen-jo separates from her soul — there’s the soul and then there’s the body. And which one is the real Sen-jo? I think I’ve been kind of fixated on the tension between physical and mental or intellectual. So that’s always been in the background.”

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