Punctuate! Theatre‘s The Silence Project is an original work of theatre that takes place in almost complete silence. There was no music before the show started, just the hushed talk of patrons getting seated in the darkened room of the TACOS space. After a prologue with several characters chattering over top of each other and one playing a singing bowl, there were no sounds at all other than the unavoidable sounds of breathing and movement. This made me very aware of those incidental sounds.
The five performers and creators, Julie Ferguson, Elizabeth Hobbs, Elliott James, Andréa Jorawsky, and Sheiny Satanove, combined to portray about twelve distinct characters. The main character was wearing a silver mask with some peripheral decoration which made me think of an alien. The others appeared with various stylized costume elements (an apron, a raggedy overcoat, a cleanroom suit, a sparkly bra) and props (a hipflask, a twinkly ball, a pocketwatch) allowing them to be distinguished. There was also some effective use of lengths of shiny fabric to hide faces or turn bodies into non-human shapes. It was the kind of setup which I would have classified as a modern dance piece if there had been background music … but there wasn’t. Instead there was the rhythm of breath, and heightened awareness of the main character’s anxious and uncertain body language.
Like a modern dance piece, I started by just enjoying the shapes and wondering what I was missing, but gradually I was able to tell myself a consistent enough story that I felt as if I understood. The repetition and patterns of encounters helped in this. The confused isolated traveller is first unable to communicate with each of the strangers she encounters, although they all try to connect with her. (I say “she” and “her” because the performer appeared to be female, but the character did not seem to be strongly gendered.) After the traveller receives a gift enabling her to share a language of gesture with each stranger, she encounters each of them again, learns from each of them, and communicates using the collection of gestures acquired, moving towards a climax involving the triumph of community over despair or death.
The program notes say
We follow our main character, a traveler, as she enters into a dream world in order to escape the isolation of her everyday life. Through the use of a dream mask, she enters the world of her imagination. On her journey she encounters a myriad of characters that represent psyche, her hopes and fears. What will the outcome of this expedition be? Will our traveler be able to recognize herself in each character and connect honestly in order [to] return as a whole being to her world of reality?
So I was close.
Since attending this performance, I’ve been interested to see some of its techniques echoed in my Rapid Fire Theatre improvisational theatre workshop, where we worked on the skills needed to create an environment without props, miming objects and maintaining consistency with the definitions created by our fellow players. Similarly, in my Foote Theatre School acting class this week we produced some tableaux, moments frozen in time that could tell a story to our classmates from our facial expressions, body position, and interactions. Both classroom experiences made me aware of how effectively the performers and show creators of The Silence Project had communicated their emotions and narrative to the audience, without dialogue, scenery, musical background, or sound effects to help them. It worked.
One measure of how well it worked was that during the performance, I kept forgetting that the silver-faced character was wearing a neutral-expression mask, and thinking I’d seen changing expressions on a painted face. But it was a mask, supported by very expressive eyes, head position, shoulder movement, and convincing story. It really worked.