When the Voice You Hear Is Not the Actor You See

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Within 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 a bit of 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 artistic 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 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 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 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 strains. Between chapters of storytelling, Pirnot performs the guitar and sings songs that she wrote.

The pc’s voice is male, robotic, and, after all, unemotional; its cadence, and the size of pauses, varies based mostly on how Pirnot and Hnath have punctuated the textual content. This system makes occasional errors — a working joke issues the pronunciation of Shia LaBeouf — that the artists cherish. Listening to 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 stunning and shocking, and I discover it to be at occasions very shifting however at occasions extraordinarily nervousness frightening,” Pirnot stated. “This really seems like I’m capturing and sharing a bit of 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 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, nearly imperceptible, haze impact.

“It’s so not slick,” Hnath stated. “It mainly pronounces ‘We’re not pretending. We’re simply attending to work.’ I received apprehensive 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 a whole lot of how I method playwriting may be very compositional,” Hnath stated. 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 process 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 strains with a youthful performer; Hnath describes it as “a nightmare to be taught — any individual getting a line flawed 5 alternative ways — I don’t know the way you be taught that.”

For “I Love You So A lot I Might Die,” Pirnot and Hnath settled on the text-to-speech answer progressively. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot was writing about her unhappiness simply as a technique to course of her emotions. A few of it was akin to journal entries; some was nearly a transcription of conversations with members of the family. At one level, Hnath thought Pirnot ought to flip the fabric right into a memoir.

Once they started speaking about staging the work, it was nonetheless peak pandemic, when in-person gatherings have been difficult. 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 distinct actor studying the phrases chilly.

Pirnot test-drove the text-to-speech concept with a short podcast monologue. And at residence, she would work at a desk by the foot of their mattress, that means that generally, 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 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.

“The whole lot that’s included within the present may be very deliberately to report on the expertise of when life breaks open and fully 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 stated. “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 when you don’t need to share the specifics?

“After preventing so exhausting to maintain a liked one alive, the query turns into for what and why?,” she stated. “That is what I’ve to share. That is actually what I need to categorical. Regardless that I query each night time, ‘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 suits into his personal longstanding storytelling pursuits.

“One of many earliest initiatives 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 strain between bodily and psychological or mental. In order that’s all the time been within the background.”