When the theatre industry came to a grinding halt last spring, New York City’s the Orchard Project launched the Liveness Lab to bring theatremakers together to brainstorm ways storytelling could expand beyond livestreamed video platforms.
“We started talking about this idea of plays by mail—an analog experience—and I got really excited,” says director West Hyler. “You could have a shared space, even if it’s only an envelope.”
Hyler and his wife Shelley Butler have since forged ahead with Artistic Stamp, an immersive theatre experience that connects far-flung playwrights, actors, and audiences via handwritten correspondences over the course of four months. “We’re all trying to find out what are these new forms that we can create theatre in, and how can we create something that’s really interactive and exciting,” says Hyler. “The fun thing about plays by mail is the history of snail mail art, but I think in terms of theatre, it’s relatively new.”
Last month, Artistic Stamp released six different choose-your-own-adventure mail plays penned by Ben Bonnema, Matt Schatz, Elyna Quan, Jahn Sood, November Christine, and Natalie Ann Valentine. Among the offerings are a musical in the mail about a queer musicologist from the future, a TYA adventure about saving the planet, a hunt for a hidden time capsule, a correspondence with Ida B. Wells, a magic-inspired play filled with spells, and a search for epistolary romance. Tickets for the next season of plays will go on sale Thanksgiving weekend.
The audiences interact with characters one-on-one through the letters and can possibly alter the arc of the pieces through their correspondences. For a few of the play tracks, audiences can select particular characters to follow and even determine outcomes based on their response letters. “It’s a bespoke adventure—a tailor-made adventure specifically designed for you and your experience,” explains Hyler. Butler adds: “We coupled our impulse toward capturing liveness with elements of our directing experience and years of new-play development with writers.”
The six writers are on board for the months-long experiment and shifting and flipping the stories as the response letters come in. “Some audience members have replied with intricately designed letters full of artwork and doodles, and some have shared deeply personal information with characters and begun to build profound relationships,” says Butler. “We have been awestruck by these reactions from our audience. It has validated our belief that so many are looking for connection right now, and that these long-form interactive adventures we’ve created have the potential to truly excite and engage.”
While the storylines are altered by the playwrights in response to each correspondent, it is actors who are tasked with writing the individualized letters. They use improvisation to do write these letters (and even on some phone calls, scheduled for later in the “run”), and they must be able to write legibly. Indeed one unique audition requirement for the job was a handwriting sampling, not just as a check for legibility but also for penmanship style. “Somebody who is writing a time capsule letter for their 1990s high school assignment is going to write very differently than Ida B. Wells would pen a letter,” says Butler.
The Artistic Stamp project is stretching Hyler and Butler’s skills as directors too. The duo is managing a mail center of sorts out of their home in Greenville, S.C., and will be tracking letters from audience members to actors and back all across the country. The 30 actors are in charge of approximately 10 correspondences, and each show is capped at 50 tickets.
“We’re administering all this out of our living room, so it’s not like we can delegate to the logistics department—it’s just us!” says Butler with a laugh. “I never thought I would be spending this much time in Excel spreadsheets as a theatre director, but here we are.” A website was built to track the chains of letters and responses.
The U.S. Postal Service also plays an integral role in the project. “These people are so phenomenal and they’ve been really excited and supportive,” says Hyler, noting that the local post office staffer in charge of bulk mail shared her cell phone number with the team to help with the expected 300 weekly letters. “We were a couple weeks into [planning] when suddenly it seemed like the U.S. Postal Service was on the line in a scary and dangerous way,” concedes Butler, referring to election-related machinations that have appeared to threaten the service’s independence. Artistic Stamp has plans in place in case letters need to be rushed or replaced, she notes. “We believe in the system, we feel excited to have created a business that completely depends on the post office, and we feel great that part of the ticket cost is going towards the post office.”
The U.S. Postal Service will also play a part in another play by mail project this year, one that will include international as well as U.S.-based correspondents. Pittsburgh’s RealTime Interventions—also inspired by the Orchard Project’s Liveness Lab—is planning a whole season of plays by mail with theatre companies and artists across the globe called Post Theatrical.
RealTime’s artistic directors Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin, another husband-and-wife team, are in the beginning stages of putting together this multi-pronged international project, to launch in January of 2021. RealTime will serve as a hub of sorts for other companies who are self-producing productions via mail, and the Pittsburgh company will host a ticketing system and website for all the participants.
In addition to penning their own project, RealTime will support the other companies and artists with marketing, and will also host meetings centered on community engagement and audience building. “Why not coordinate this national wave with all the folks who were interested in doing this kind of work and really sort of lift up this genre together?” says Rice.
Rice can attest to the power of connection via courier. For her 2004 play, also called The Birth of Paper, audiences left with envelopes and an invitation to write Rice at a post office box, and she received mail for two years after the show closed. In 2015, she created an art installation of communication stations throughout Providence, R.I., called Talking With You From Far Away, and was mailed letters from people of all ages inspired by the work.
For this latest venture, Rice and Thelin hope that this national-meets-local project will spur connectivity in communities. Projects include a piece from Lance Horne, an artist and chandler who makes candles to support out-of-work theatre artists, and a multi-city collaboration that will involve writing letter to inmates, among others. The participating companies include New Georges, NYC; the Drilling Company, NYC; Tiny Box Theater, with Joy Tomasko and Sarah Murphy, NYC; the Wallpaper company with Elsa Lepecki Bean, Adam O’Connell, and Federico Mostert, Troy, N.Y.; Visual Echo with Irina Kruzhilina, NYC; and the individual artists comprise Erin Courtney, Melisa Tien, Scott Adkins, Alex Hare, Emerie Snyder, Avery Rausch, Naomi Bennett, and Cynthia Sampson.
“One of the things that we’ve all talked about in our meetings is just the delicious tension of waiting for the mail, and that that is in fact an engine for some of these pieces, not a deterrent—it’s one of the things these pieces will highlight,” says Rice.
In their hometown of Pittsburgh, RealTime is tapping Handmade Arcade, a makers’ community organization with more than 300 artisans, to craft “mail kits” as part of the project. RealTime plans to fundraise to help bring Handmade Arcade’s work to all Post Theatrical collaborators, which might also include props. RealTime is also working with City of Asylum, a nonprofit that houses writers exiled from their countries for their controversial writing. RealTime is connecting with the organization’s international counterparts to further expand the network of participating companies.
In addition to planning how the letters will be mailed across borders, Post Theatrical has led Thelin and Rice down a rabbit hole of research about the history of mail systems. “The Mesopotamians were sending mail, the first postal system was in Egypt in 2400 BC, both the Persian Empire and the Han Dynasty had mail—there’s really an international need to connect with mail,” explains Rice. Thelin adds that RealTime wants to support the U.S. Postal Service with this project: “We’re specifically using the U.S. Postal Service as opposed to commercial alternatives, because we love it.”
Rice adds: “It’s been really amazing to watch these analog forms of entertainment occur in the context of our economic, political, and social situation. We’re looking for unity across the country, and the mail speaks to that in a very particular way.”
In Philadelphia, EgoPo Classic Theater is reimagining its 2020-21 season, called “Isolations,” with interactive and socially distant theatre shows. Among the offerings is Emily, a mail event created by Brenna Geffers that explores the life of Emily Dickinson.
“We were looking for different delivery modes of theatre, all of which were completely safe within social distancing, but also reimagining the way that audiences could interact,” explains artistic director Lane Savadove. “Not just on the form side, on the content side as well—we were looking to make pieces that were a reflection of the isolation experience.”
Who better to represent the isolation experience than the famously reclusive Emily Dickinson? For the project, 200 households signed on to receive five weeks of planned letters. (The first round is sold out, and the next round begins Oct. 26.) Participants are sent stationary and envelopes to correspond to one of the letters, and the final letter in the series will be a personalized response.
Geffers, who collaborated with designer Natalia de la Torre for the project, concedes that she wasn’t a big fan of Dickinson prior to digging into her oeuvre for research. “I feel like I now have a way deeper appreciation and understanding of somebody who’s actually very important in our literature and in our cultural history,” says Geffers, noting that the final letter in Emily debunks some common misconceptions about the author.
EgoPo believes the waiting period between mailings will add to the project’s 19th-century sensibility. “It comforted me to think that it was probably true in Emily Dickinson’s time that mail was not arriving on schedule,” says Savadove with a laugh. Another logistical hurdle was easily solved: “There’s an Emily Dickinson font that mirrors her very unusual handwriting,” says Geffers.
The trend for plays by mail is growing, and as the winter looms, epistolary theatre will be a great way for people to connected while cooped up indoors. “We’ve been given a gift by having to reimagine how we tell our stories and why we tell our stories,” says Geffers. “So it’s very much our responsibility to take advantage of this gift and do something good with it.”
Allison Considine (she/her) is senior editor at American Theatre. email@example.com
An earlier version of this article misnamed RealTime Intervention’s mail initiative as The Birth of Paper. The collaborative project is called Post Theatrical, and RealTime’s contribution will be The Birth of Paper.
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