Mail In Your Theatre with ARTISTIC STAMP
Are you looking for a unique way to participate in theatre at home? Theatrely recently chatted with West Hyler and Shelley Butler, the artistic directors behind Artistic Stamp, an experience that uses handwritten letters to tell stories over the course of four months.
Theatrely: Tell me a little bit about your background before the pandemic.
West Hyler: Well, we're both directors. We actually met at the old Globe Theater in San Diego about 15 years ago when we were both assisting different people. I was assisting Darko Tresjnac at the time.
Shelley Butler: And I was working with John Rando.
WH: We went on to have freelance directing careers, so we never worked together. I did a lot of musicals. I was the associate on Jersey Boys and then did circus with Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil and some Shakespeare as well.
SB: And I direct a lot of new work: new plays, new musicals, some classics as well. But I premiered Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 for South Coast Rep. So lots of development of new work.
WH: So, you know, we have these theater careers going, but always in different rooms, I mean, directors don't work together. She'd go and do a show here. I'd go and do a show there. And then the pandemic hit and all the work we had lined up disappeared in a day, like all theater artists. And over the next few months, really the spring and the summer when it was shut down and we realized that this was going to last very long time, we started thinking about how to create an analog theatrical experience that would capture what we loved about live theater: it's one on one, it's person to person, it's human. All the things that this Zoom format does not capture. And we came up with this idea to do plays by mail.
T: How did you guys exactly land on plays by mail? I feel like most at-home theatre is digital based, what was the importance of having it be an analogue format?
SB: Well, we were wrestling with the idea of live: what is theater, what do we love about it, what's most important to us about it? And that interaction kept coming back to us and we were looking at the old art of letter writing and how intimate that is. And what that experience is when you open an envelope and you have that laughter by yourself or surprise or all the things that it can spark and how much that give and take actually feels like what we do when we create theater, having that audience response felt really integral. So we started sort of on that path. West did the Orchard Project Liveliness Lab, and we encountered an artist named Natalie Ann Valentine, who is the author of The Otherwise, one of our series. She was a lot of the early inspiration, just talking about letter writing and all the things that you can do that are interactive in terms of sending somebody seeds and having them plant them, or a scented letter, or a kiss on a letter, all the tactile parts of that. And we got really excited about that. And then as someone who develops new work immediately thinking about that, we thought let's bring playwrights into this and see what kind of narrative arc we can create.
WH: And we realized we could do almost a repertory company with this. That we can have lots of different plays, we can create a whole season, and we could employ a great deal of actors. Each actor gets 10 audience members and has this one on one relationship with those 10 audience members over four months. And while they have what the playwrights wrote, they're improvising throughout to make sure that they really have a pen pal relationship. So it's sort of like they're given the character, the back story, the given circumstances, and a lot of the dialogue that's going to keep the plot moving forward. But around that is plenty of space for them to create a whole relationship with the audience member.
T: What's the response been to Artistic Stamp as you get ready to launch season two?
SB: It's been really exciting. So I think we spent a lot of time prepping, we put this together quite quickly and these playwrights were game to jump on board and see what we could make, but was really a bit of a wild adventure. The range of pieces is very different in terms of what they're asking of the audience. We spent a lot of time initially trying to engineer a response, setting it up to make sure we would get a response and we didn't have to do that. We have found audiences were hungry to respond in all kinds of very different ways, but we know what our audience is thinking in a way that we never have before as directors because they write back and we see what they respond to.
WH: I really think it's about human to human connection. And somehow even though we're more connected and we're talking on Zoom right now, we can see this, we're texting all the time, we get emails from people – it doesn't feel hot. That kind of connection doesn't have the heat of person-to-person connection, and somehow a handwritten letter does. When you receive it in the mail, just knowing that someone touched that letter that you're holding, that their handwriting is so expressive of their personality, it wasn't a font that was dictated by Microsoft. It feels very intimate and you really feel seen and connected. And I think that's why the audience members, they want to write back, because they love that connection. They're hungry for we're all hungry for it right now, and it feels like this is fulfilling it.
T: What have been some of the challenges you've faced so far? I would imagine having an analogue format creates some different challenges that a Zoom performance doesn't encounter.
WH: Well the whole process is analog, but the infrastructure is digital. And that's really what lets this happen now because we have so many letters. We've already sent or received over 2,500 letters. I mean, it's a massive amount. And for season two, we have thirty eight actors all over the country who are writing back audience members. So I worked with George Youakim, him and I were at the New York Musical Festival together, and we created an entire digital portal in which all the letters come to South Carolina where we are based right now, and we upload them to this portal and then the actors can download the letters themselves so they can respond wherever they want. And it also keeps sort of a chain of what the audience has written back. So if you have a question you can always go back and see what that relationship was. So a lot of it is managing the post, obviously. It is a massive amount of work to keep this thing going and everyone getting their letters on time and nothing falling through the cracks.
SB: We definitely learned a lot of lessons about the post office. You know that. Who knew that that was going to be part of our artistic life. But the very first audience reply postcard that we sent out, we were so excited. We got these stamps that had the return address, they were in a circular pattern that looked really cool and could only be read by about 60 percent of the scanning machines. So we had to change the whole stamp and reach out to the audience and track those postcards down that had gone missing. So that was a big lesson in terms of how much of the USPS is actually not analogue, it's run by computers. So you have to figure that out. We learned another lesson, which is that you can if something is still under the one ounce weight but can't go through the scanner, you can add a 15 cent stamp and put "non-machinable" on it and then it can be sent. So initially we were spending a lot of postage on props because even though they were quite light, because it couldn't go to the scanner, so something like a matchstick can't go through the scanner. But if you just change that, yeah, you can get it through. The wax seals that we just did on the holiday gift notes required that. But then they go through.
WB: But every day you learn something. I mean, the USPS is our partner in this. They didn't ask to be our partner, but they are our partner. And a lot of the ways that the postal system works is not publicly known, like you wouldn't find out unless you literally went there and asked a Postal Service employee, "how do I do this?"
SB: And season one hit against the election and then hit against the holiday mail. So we really know! People call us frequently and are like, "so I sent this letter, how long do you think it will take?" And we kind of know right now.
T: What are some of your favorite moments from season one?
WH: It's all about the relationships with the audience members and how the actors relate to the audience members. I won't say the names, but there was an audience member in The Otherwise, in the play she says she's the last of their line. And we got an audience member who said, "I'm also the last of my line. I have older brothers and older sisters, but I'm the youngest. And so I feel this great responsibility on my shoulders." That was sort of a beautiful exchange. We had another write back, this was another kid who wrote back and said, "I have a secret. My secret is that I'm a female." And the actor wrote back, "that's the most powerful secret you can have because women are the most powerful beings." I mean, it was beautiful. And we had another lady who started hand painting her responses. And so she got all the postcards we sent and she would make these little sort of hard paper paintings and put them in big envelopes and send them to us. And the first one came and it was gorgeous. And then each subsequent one has been bigger and more impressive. So those kinds of relationships, when you see that stuff happening, it’s really special.
SB: I would say a favorite moment for me is in one of the pieces there's a young person's basketball poem, and we have an audience member who loved the poem and asked for more poems and got them. So for that one audience member on their branch they got a bunch of exclusive poems.
T: You have 38 actors getting ready for season two, what kinds of diverse content can we look forward to?
WH: I mean, in terms of age, we have children's shows, and we have a romance where you're writing and receiving love letters, which is clearly 18 and over. In terms of genre, we have sci-fi shows, we have a historical epic where you're writing Ida B Wells, we have a sort of musical in the mail where you get sheet music, Timothy Huang has written a piece that comes to you from China. And then in terms of representation and voices told, you know, our writer base is a very diverse writer base and so is our actor base. We've been able to keep getting amazing writers who want to work on this. I mean, Liz Duffy Adams,Timothy Huang, I think what November Christine created is phenomenal, Natalie Ann Valentine, Ben Bonnema just won the Richard Rodgers Award this year, he's a 2020 award winner. So it's a phenomenal group of writers that I think want to participate because they love handwritten letters.
SB: Almost all of them had a connection to that experience themselves or previously made some kind of mail art, or just love to connect to their friends that way. We're definitely getting more holiday cards this year than ever because we're connected to so many people who are excited about that kind of connection.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.