In case you haven’t heard, there’s a disembodied voice floating above the seats at the Round House Theatre this month.
The voice belongs to Timothy Douglas, an award-winning director whose work has brightened the stages of theaters in the US and abroad for nearly a quarter of a century.
Like many directors, Douglas started out as an actor. And he returns to acting whenever he can, which is once every two or three years.
Happily, that “once” is now, and Douglas—no stranger to Round House—dominates the action in Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl’s semi-comic play about six people who’ve come to a silent retreat in search of what’s missing from their lives.
Although he is invisible—a conceit dictated by the playwright—the actor’s sonorous voice challenges the actors to look for connections.
“In the script, I’m called ‘The Teacher,’” Douglas told me over the phone from Oregon, where he was directing The Color Purple at Portland Center Stage.
Describing the role, he explained that he’s not supposed to be a god-like figure. “There’s no manipulation in what I do. I don’t give orders. I’m a facilitator. I ask questions, much the way a therapist would.”
In that sense, I suggested, the role is a lot like directing. Or directing through indirection. Douglas agreed. “The director’s role is often to lead the actors on a journey. And this play is certainly a journey—with the audience taken along.”
Ironically, the Teacher, while unseen, is virtually the only character who speaks. Asked about the silence, Douglas explained that Small Mouth Sounds is a hybrid form of drama, quite new to the stage.
“It’s very challenging for the other actors,” he said. “They have to communicate without words. They use body language and some signing, but it’s not mime. Mime for me is entertainment, not communication.”
Although the voice of Douglas is a familiar sound at Round House—where he has directed five productions so far—Small Mouth Sounds marks his debut there as an actor.
“I love acting. It’s like a vacation,” he said, pointing out that directing, while more fulfilling, is also more work. “The director is responsible for everything that’s going on. With acting, I have only my own performance to think about.”
He would act more often, he said ruefully, but for the fact that the director’s job is contracted way in advance, long before casting even begins.
“That why the part in Small Mouth Sounds is so perfect,” he told me.
“Since the character is unseen, Ryan”—that’s Ryan Rilette, the Artistic Director of Round House, who also directed the play—”realized that I didn’t have to be there for the public performances, just the rehearsals.”
Of course, he added, it helped that the two knew each other’s work and had shared the stage many times. (In fact, Douglas actually directed Rilette, then an actor himself, in San Francisco in 1995).
Douglas rehearsed with the entire cast, under Rilette’s direction, then recorded the part before heading off to Portland.
According to the critics, the results are highly effective. Most people are completely unaware that the disembodied voice they are hearing is, in fact, a recording. (Read my colleague John Stoltenberg’s excellent review of Small Mouth Sounds here).
How did this all come about? I asked him to tell us a little bit about his early life.
Timothy Douglas was born in New York City and grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island. A self-described bookworm, he joined the drama club in junior high, where he “liked the idea” of acting, but got a little spooked and switched to the technical side.
The turning point came in his junior year at Marymount Manhattan College, when he had the chance to perform in Samuel Beckett’s End Game. “Beckett was so hard to understand, yet the work opened up a whole new part of me. I discovered I enjoyed acting. And the feedback was wonderful!”
From Marymount, he went on to the Yale Drama School and then straight into regional theater. But with acting, he discovered, “You can do only one show at a time.”
Wanting more, he took up directing at Shakespeare and Company, in the Berkshires. Subsequently, while teaching drama at the University of Southern California, he directed a show that went to the Mark Taper Forum and ran there for two years.
That was 1994. “From that time on I was a full-time freelance director who did occasional acting gigs,” he said.
Although he is based in New York City, Douglas spends a lot of time in D.C. “The theater community here is wonderful,” he said.
He’ll be back soon. He returns to Round House as director of August Wilson’s Gem Of The Ocean in late November.
Running Time: One hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission.