When the Voice You Hear Is Not the Actor You See

In the darkest times of a household tragedy, when the playwright Mona Pirnot could not discover the toughness to verbalize her inner thoughts to her boyfriend or her therapist, she tried out one thing a tiny unorthodox: She typed her views into her laptop computer, and prompted a text-to-speech application to voice them aloud.

It was a coping system that also sparked a imaginative pivot: Pirnot’s then-boyfriend, now-spouse, Lucas Hnath, is also a playwright, with a longtime desire in sound and a additional current history of building shows all over disembodied voices. His final play, “A Simulacrum,” showcased a magician re-generating his aspect of a dialogue with Hnath, whose voice was read by way of a tape recording and his engage in ahead of that, “Dana H.,” featured an actress lip-syncing interviews in which the playwright’s mother recounted the trauma of acquiring been abducted.

Now Hnath is directing Pirnot, who wrote and is the lone actor in “I Like You So Much I Could Die,” a diaristic exploration of how she was affected by a existence-altering incident that incapacitated her sister at the start off of the pandemic. In the 65-moment exhibit, in previews Off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop, Pirnot sits on a ladderback chair, struggling with away from the viewers, although a Microsoft textual content-to-speech method reads her lines. In between chapters of storytelling, Pirnot performs the guitar and sings songs that she wrote.

The computer’s voice is male, robotic, and, of course, unemotional its cadence, and the duration of pauses, differs dependent on how Pirnot and Hnath have punctuated the textual content. The program makes occasional faults — a operating joke concerns the pronunciation of Shia LaBeouf — that the artists cherish. Hearing a machine recount stories of extremely human ache can be awkwardly humorous, and audiences are laughing, particularly early in the exhibit, as they adjust to the disorienting working experience.

“I like the relentlessness that I can get with [the computer’s] voice that’s form of surprising and astonishing, and I come across it to be at times extremely moving but at periods particularly stress and anxiety provoking,” Pirnot said. “This really feels like I’m capturing and sharing a very little bit of what this felt like.”

The generation features some of Hnath’s signature fingerprints. Like “The Christians,” his 2015 perform established in an evangelical church, “I Enjoy You So A great deal I Could Die” incorporates snaking cords and cables, reflecting his choice for transparent stagecraft. The established, built by Mimi Lien, is extraordinarily spare — a folding table, a lamp from the couple’s bed room, some speakers, and, in the corner, a purple canister for the show’s 1, pretty much imperceptible, haze effect.

“It’s so not slick,” Hnath reported. “It essentially announces ‘We’re not pretending. We’re just getting to function.’ I received apprehensive about it turning into a pristine art set up. Anytime a little 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 some time. “The Slender Spot,” his 2019 participate in about a psychic, and “Dana H.” contain times of deeply jarring audio. And in “Dana H.,” “A Simulacrum” and now “I Adore You So A great deal I Could Die,” every with sound style and design by Mikhail Fiksel, there is the separation of speech from speaker, in distinct techniques.

“I consider there is component of me that, deep down, is a disappointed composer. My first enjoy was tunes, and I always wished to compose new music, so a whole lot of how I technique playwriting is pretty compositional,” Hnath reported. He enjoys “the amount of control I could have in excess of the sonic traits and the rhythm,” he extra. “I can establish it so it does not adjust and it’s precisely what I indicate.”

Hnath’s plays have often concerned what he unapologetically phone calls “a gimmick” — a job for a performer that leaves little place for mistake, like an actress properly imitating the text, breaths and pacing of a different lady. His subsequent participate in is about line memorization, and dramatizes an more mature performer running lines with a youthful performer Hnath describes it as “a nightmare to study — any individual getting a line wrong five diverse ways — I do not know how you master that.”

For “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” Pirnot and Hnath settled on the textual content-to-speech resolution gradually. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot was producing about her disappointment just as a way to approach her emotions. Some of it was akin to journal entries some was pretty much a transcription of discussions with family members members. At just one issue, Hnath considered Pirnot should flip the content into a memoir.

When they started talking about staging the get the job done, it was continue to peak pandemic, when in-person gatherings had been sophisticated. So they held an early looking through, with actors, via video clip meeting Pirnot and Hnath briefly reviewed getting her script executed just about every time by a different actor reading the terms cold.

Pirnot check-drove the text-to-speech concept with a brief podcast monologue. And at residence, she would perform at a desk by the foot of their bed, meaning that often, when he was seated on the mattress, she would perform the material with her back to him, and that set up informed the engage in as it moved to their residing area, Ensemble Studio Theater, Dartmouth (for a residency), and now New York Theater Workshop, in which it opens on Wednesday.

Over time, the story turned more about Pirnot’s inner thoughts, and fewer about her sister’s health care situation, which she does not detail in the participate in.

“Everything which is provided in the present is incredibly deliberately to report on the encounter of when life breaks open up and fully falls aside, and what you do with all individuals pieces and how it will make you really feel and how you carry on to transfer forward,” she mentioned. “I felt like I could provide that encounter with no indicating, ‘And by the way, here’s the precise get of extremely excruciating, relentless collection of occasions that designed for my new knowing.’”

Why publish about some thing so painful if you never want to share the particulars?

“After preventing so tricky to maintain a loved a single alive, the issue gets for what and why?,” she said. “This is what I have to share. This is really what I want to categorical. Even while I dilemma each and every night, ‘How could I be accomplishing this? How could I be sharing this significantly?,’ it feels a lot less sad to me than executing something that I have only set 50 % of myself into.”

For Hnath, the collaboration suits into his personal longstanding storytelling interests.

“One of the earliest tasks 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 and then there is the body. And which 1 is the true Sen-jo? I assume I’ve been sort of fixated on the pressure among bodily and psychological or intellectual. So that is normally been in the track record.”