Mouth­piece ex­per­i­ments with the fe­male voice

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - Mouth­piece runs Tues­day (Jan­uary 31) to Fe­bru­ary 5 at the Cultch, as part of the Push In­ter­na­tional Per­form­ing Arts Fes­ti­val. > BY TONY MON­TAGUE

At the core of Mouth­piece is the fe­male voice. When they started work­ing on the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary show, Amy Nost­bakken and No­rah Sa­dava—its cre­ators, per­form­ers, and pro­duc­ers— felt it had yet to be ex­pressed freely and to its full ex­tent.

“We looked around try­ing to find a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an au­then­tic fe­male voice we re­lated to,” says Nost­bakken, reached by Skype to­gether with Sa­dava at their Toronto homes. “We looked for one in pop­u­lar cul­ture, in movies, in lit­er­a­ture and tele­vi­sion that cov­ers the whole spec­trum of what it is to be a woman, and when we couldn’t find it we made this show. Our sounds in­clude the gut­tural, the ugly… It’s hard to ex­press with words what we do. It’s the dis­so­nance in our heads when we’re think­ing two po­lar­ized thoughts at the same time, or we’re con­fused, or feel rage.”

The two ac­tors play dif­fer­ent parts of the same woman’s mind. “So what we’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing are the thoughts go­ing on in her head but also the emo­tion, which of­ten doesn’t have words,” says Sa­dava. “There’s no di­a­logue. We never re­ally have a con­ver­sa­tion.”

The mind in Mouth­piece be­longs to Cass Hayward, who’s lost her voice, not just fig­u­ra­tively but phys­i­cally, in the wake of her mother’s death. “She wakes up in the morn­ing and finds it gone, so the­mat­i­cally this works for what we wanted to talk about,” says Nost­bakken, who also di­rects and wrote the mu­sic for Mouth­piece. “We use our voices a cap­pella through­out, cen­tred on ‘Look what two women can do on an al­most-bare stage. You just have to open your mouth and speak.’

“And we have to speak, be­cause the show is so hon­est, it’s so re­veal­ing, and we’re so vul­ner­a­ble,” she con­tin­ues. “The way we wrote it is that we have to re­veal the most em­bar­rass­ing se­crets we would never want any­one else to know. That’s why it was so ter­ri­fy­ing to pre­miere. But the re­ac­tion was beau­ti­ful—not ‘Bravo, you did that,’ but ‘Me too.’ I think the show re­veals how we nor­mal­ize dif­fer­ent ways that we’re op­pressed and ha­rassed in so­ci­ety. So we’re act­ing as a mouth­piece to in­spire oth­ers to do the same.”

The duo presents a kind of short­ened his­tory of the fe­male voice in pop­u­lar mu­sic. “We open in dark­ness and it’s just our voices, taking you through har­mony and dis­so­nance,” says Sa­dava. “Then you’re brought through opera and duets, we have the An­drews Sis­ters, Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Ja­nis Jo­plin, Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Bey­oncé, and women’s choirs.”

Mouth­piece is very de­mand­ing for the per­form­ers, who have to draw deep on their emo­tional re­sources while co­or­di­nat­ing move­ments and voices with ease and pre­ci­sion. “When build­ing up to the run that we re­cently did in Toronto, we bought a tread­mill and sta­tion­ary bi­cy­cle, and we’ll do the play while run­ning and cy­cling,” says Nost­bakken. “Mu­si­calthe­atre ac­tors and pop stars make it look so easy, but to sing and dance at the same time is the hard­est thing. No­rah and I are run­ners—we do half-marathons—but there’s noth­ing more ex­haust­ing than that. This show knocks you out be­cause we have sing­ing and danc­ing and act­ing as well; it’s an emo­tional show, it’s an hour long, we never leave the stage, and it’s very phys­i­cal. We def­i­nitely have to look af­ter our­selves; we don’t go off-stage to have a fag and a cof­fee.”

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