In 2008, in the high reaches of the Catskills, playwright Erik Ehn led the first all-silent playwriting retreat. It was a rigorous experiment. Ehn asked playwrights to abstain from all speech—even body language and “meaningful” eye contact. Writers “went into silence” on a Friday night, then broke it the following Sunday morning. And at the time, those few hours felt dangerous. Many were agog at their own bravery. (“We thought we were so badass!” quips the workshop’s organizer, Anne Washburn).
Seven years later, a who’s-who list of playwrights can’t seem to get enough silence. Ehn has now led a host of such retreats—most stretching to more than a full week—and there’s talk of trying out a month-long version. Just the thought of 30 days of silence makes Washburn’s eyes gleam.
So why such a (quiet) clamor to join what Ehn calls “this rolling, silent circus”? Perhaps because the workshops, which interweave structures from contemplative monastic orders and composition classes, work like nothing else. Ehn—who does speak during the retreats—pushes attendees to write an entire play in their short time with him, and writers like Washburn, Annie Baker, Francine Volpe, Ally Collier and Adam Bock have used the workshops to generate an astonishing volume of new work.
In that first, brief session in the mountains, Ehn projected that they would write 40 pages. “Sure we will,” thought a skeptical Washburn. “Right.” But Ehn’s methods tapped a staggering well of productivity, and Washburn says she wound up with the bulk of what would become The Small, an exquisite miniature thriller. “Later, I only had to add 12 pages,” she says. “It was so violently sudden in its conception. Erik teaches you to just keep going and going.”
Ehn is one of the theatre’s most deeply ethical poet-playwrights, and, as director of writing for performance at Brown University, a tireless teacher as well. His 17-part cycle Soulographie grappled with American involvement in the mass killings of the 20th century, and he has just written the libretto for Vireo, a broadcast-only opera written by Lisa Bielewa for California’s KCTE. He may be best known, though, for his Saint Plays, a lifelong endeavor to write a play for each of the canonized. “I like long projects,” Ehn says, in a wild understatement.
Ehn’s interest in silence-as-practice began with his 2001 trip to Rwanda, which was part of his research into the genocide there—a long-held interest that would eventually result in his harrowing Maria Kizito. (See “Saints, Sin and Erik Ehn,” AT May/June ’04.) He has been to Rwanda many times since, but in that first trip, he was looking for a structure, a way to frame his time in an unfamiliar place.
“I went online and found a group of Jesuits—in part, it was simply a way into the country,” Ehn says. The retreat happened to be a silent prayer retreat, and, regardless of his original intentions, the artist found himself profoundly altered. “You can’t just mess around with silence,” he warns. “It enters you.”
The Jesuit retreat was patterned on St. Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual exercises, which encouraged Ehn to think of silence as a “technology,” a meditative process so formal and clear that it could be engaged outside of the prayer context. The methods began to inform his playmaking.
“The quality of hearing, the attentiveness and patience, are not merely analogous—they are the same,” he says. “The same patience you need for prayer is the patience you need for writing—there’s no qualitative difference. Of course, writing is different from God.” He pauses, then adds, “Though they are both invisible in certain ways.”
Ehn completed the Rwanda retreat, then another like it—and soon intentional silence had become central to his life and work. But when he was invited to lead a Pataphysics Workshop at New York City’s Flea Theater in 2008, he hadn’t yet incorporated it into his teaching. The Pataphysics Workshops (the title comes from Alfred Jarry’s imaginary “science of the impossible”) are designed for playwrights to study without going back to graduate school. Washburn, who runs them in a loose affiliation with other playwrights, began them with Mac Wellman and Jeffrey M. Jones, and the sessions have since provided access to such eminences as Maria Irene Fornès, Charles L. Mee and, of course, Ehn.
During Ehn’s non-silent two-weekend course, Washburn—herself a Guggenheim fellow and Whiting Award winner—was deeply impressed by the efficiency of his structural exercises. Once she learned he was interested in putting together a silent retreat, she rented NACL (the North American Culture Laboratory in the Catskills) and advertised for participants.
The Catskills retreats were roaring successes. But money became an issue. Ehn wanted to make the workshops longer, to move more fully into silence, yet renting venues that could be totally self-sustaining for a week at a time was difficult. Happily, a theatrically interested friend mentioned that a family compound might be available. So, each summer for the past five years, Ehn and nine or so writers have been deep in the Texas Hill Country, two-and-a-half hours from San Antonio, entering into silence for 10 days at a time. (Grants now cover all costs besides airfare, and theatres will occasionally sponsor a playwright to handle the rest.)
Madeleine George, a participant and co-organizer from the earliest days—she started her Pulitzer-nominated play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence on one retreat—describes the Texas site as a kind of blazing heaven. “It began as a boy’s camp in the ’30s, so it’s a big house and a semicircle of tiny stone cabins on a ridge above a green-and-blue river,” she says. George’s sister, a poet and chef, cooks, and everyone pitches in on chores. The landscape there is extreme: 107-degree semi-desert scrub with water running through it, a place full of cottonwoods, armadillos, snakes, scorpions, horses, deer, cattle and minks. “We have two bobcats,” George says. “We hear the coyotes at night.”
That loud silence is, of course, the irreducible element of Ehn’s retreats. But, Ehn cautions, “Silence isn’t magic—just the mere act of shutting up is not going to get you anything. Rather, it’s a way of working, and it helps you do your work.” Turning the Ignatian exercises into something focused on writing meant prioritizing this sense of a concrete goal.
In their 10 days, Ehn still expects participants to complete a new play; he says he has led workshops in which playwrights wrote a play a day. This element—the emphasis on finishing—is the second dominant color (after silence itself) in Ehn’s teaching.
“You clear the table and build a play,” he says, “But more important, you build a complete writing action. That practice, that move—starting and going all the way through—helps the set of muscles that you need to write a play, and it makes you stronger.”
Playwright and novelist Gary Winter, who coordinates the retreats with Washburn and George, calls this emphasis on “sitting with the work” the “most helpful thing.” “Endurance isn’t the right word, but he establishes a pattern of being with your work the entire day and realizing you can work through periods that are really difficult,” Winter adds.
Ehn has referred to acedia, a term understood by monastics as the “noonday demon,” a kind of depressive inactivity that can slide toward sloth. “That midday panic,” says Winter, “is the time when you want to go crazy. Working through that difficulty has helped a lot.” It may also be, one playwright has suggested, that working for 10 hours a day for 10 days gives anyone enough time to move through all the stages of procrastination—self-loathing, jealousy, grief—and to still have a good chunk of the writing day ahead.
Erin Courtney, another Guggenheim fellow and frequent silence retreater, began her Obie-winning play A Map of Virtue at that first Catskills getaway. She emphasizes the third element that makes the workshops so effective: Ehn’s task-based writing prompts.
“Just being in silence and writing is powerful,” she says. “But because of Erik’s structural brain and his poetic brain, he’s able to craft exercises that become benchmarks for your writing. Through him, I learned how to approach time and space in a way I didn’t have control over before.”
A refreshing practicality infuses much of Ehn’s teaching. He gives writers poems to memorize (to “instill new words, language that’s not your own,” Courtney explains) and invents clever physical chores that encourage writers to rearrange scenes, to make lists, to use little toys to envision their plays as tangible objects. “There’s a certain deployment of tchotchke,” Washburn remarks wryly.
Even now, Courtney remembers the poem she memorized in 2008, an Edmond Jabès poem from The Book of Questions. “In every retreat I’ve done,” she says, “the poem has somehow subconsciously become a roadmap for the play.” Jabès’s poem—written in the black shadow of the Holocaust—asked if there could be art after horror, and Courtney’s terrifying abduction drama A Map of Virtue throbs with the same question.
Washburn says Ehn’s “interventions” are all about jarring you from your habits and introducing new elements. “The workshop may be silent,” she says, “but it’s not serene. It is not peaceable—Erik’s constantly shaking it up. He’s constantly throwing wrenches into your writing process. We’re not just doing laps—it’s a stumble course. But you find yourself doing odd, extraordinary things with your body.”
“Sometimes,” Ehn admits, “silence fails. There are times I need to be silent and times I need to be busy. If you’re not living Furious 7, you should at least be seeing Furious 7. Silence may not be the only thing you need.”
George would certainly agree. One summer, a fellow playwright, overly dedicated to silence, didn’t tell George about the six-foot snake that had just slithered into the swimming hole. “She was so proud of herself,” George laughs, “and yet that sort of thing is literally why humans invented language!”
But more often than not, the playwrights describe silence as, perhaps counterintuitively, creating a deep sense of community. When every unconscious sound—“Sighing is speech! Conspicuous pouting is speech!” Ehn has told them—can break silence, the peace itself becomes something communally held. George says that the experience can be incredibly freeing, even within the restriction.
“If people have any kind of orientation toward people-pleasing, you wind up being totally liberated,” she says. “You rigorously protect other people’s privacy, but there’s no other kind of taking care. Anne [Washburn] and I have noticed that on the first day, everyone scatters, everyone goes into the field. But over time, people drift together, because we aren’t a threat to each other. People write next to each other on the couch; they’re there, but they’re not in your mental space. In silence, people are with you in a way that they can’t be in normal life.”
This blend of warmth and un-lonesome privacy seems to give writers an access to their voice that may be unmatched. There’s no stylistic continuity among the plays that have come out of silence—there are few links to be found among George’s Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, Peg Stafford’s Motel Cherry and Washburn’s Antlia Pneumatica. Yet they do share a certain lineage of cohesion, perhaps because the rush of focused activity overwhelms the customary anguish of self-doubt and rethinking.
Ehn is always, always teaching. Asked to point to other thinkers who have influenced his work, he sent Thomas Merton’s poem In Silence. It ends:
How can a man be still or
listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
when all their silence is on fire?
Ehn is the teacher who dares to sit with those in silence, who listens to all things burning. And yet he cannot be the only one. He insists that everyone can “go and find some silence,” and George—typically—is boosterish.
“I just think it’s a replicable thing,” she says, perhaps thinking of the similarly structured Writers Army (“A Room of One’s Own, Shared with Others,” AT Dec. ’14) that she, Washburn and Winter have begun in New York. “Erik is not replicable; he is a beautiful and extraordinary individual. But people can do this—people can uncover these things inside themselves. The model, after all, is thousands of years old.”
Helen Shaw is a New York City–based critic and arts reporter.