While the global pandemic has made it challenging for individuals to connect with the arts, such as theater, Centre College alumnus and Broadway director West Hyler ’99 and his wife Shelley Butler developed Artistic Stamp, a bespoke theatrical adventure combining pen-pal interaction with imaginative storytelling.
“The idea for the project began when I was part of the Orchard project’s liveness lab, which is a great lab they did over the spring and summer,” Hyler explained. “In it, hundreds of theater makers came together to discuss ways of recreating the sense of a live experience during this pandemic—in which almost no live theater is taking place. As we explored what ‘liveness’ meant, certain ideas kept coming up: that the audience were participants and their reactions could affect the performances, that the relationship between performer and audience member was immediate and intimate, that it happened in a shared space, and that it was an experience that involved the senses.”
Hyler also realized that many of these components also exist in a relationship with snail mail.
“There is an intimate connection between the parties writing each other. There is a shared space—even if only the space of an envelope—it can involve the senses—scented letters, tactile pages—and because the audience can write back to the performer, they become participants in the story,” he added.
“When Shelley brought her expertise in new play development and began working with playwrights to craft original pieces, we knew we had something exciting and novel on our hands. We then assembled a team: six playwrights, 30 actors and an administration staff to put together all the complicated logistics involved with mounting what is, in effect, a repertory company that sends and receives nearly 300 letters a week.”
Initially, Hyler’s goal with Artistic Stamp was to find a way to do what they do best—create theater—with amazing collaborators. As the project grew and took root, he said it became an opportunity to build connection when social distancing, masks, Zoom and safety are keeping people far apart. This project also became an antidote to screen fatigue, by giving audiences and actors a chance to delve into handwritten correspondence. Along the way, they also discovered that it could help the United States Postal Service (USPS) in a time of need.
For example, in Elyne Quan’s “The Hidden Slipstream,” a girl from an alternate reality reaches out to you and needs your help. She’s cut off from her planet and trying to find her missing partner and get back home. To make matters worse, she has never been on Earth and has no idea how to dress, what to eat or where to find the information she needs. This is just the beginning, and her needs grow greater as the series goes on. In fact, the main monster she is chasing will eventually come from the imagination of the audience member when they draw it for her at one point.
Hyler explained, that as the audience writes back, their responses help steer the story and determine the choices she makes—where should she look for her partner? Should she chase after the monster? And to begin with, what should she even wear and eat? Each audience reply gets folded back into the story and determines how the story branches and how the character interacts with Earth.
The arts can do many things, but Hyler said he’s always been most interested in the particular ability of the arts to create and build empathy.
“When you become involved in the story of someone other than yourself, living a life with different circumstances than your own, you can’t help but empathize with the character,” he added. “From there, it is a small jump to empathize with those who are suffering in the real world outside. Artistic Stamp is very successful at building empathy between audience and character, because you’re writing to them and they’re writing back in a private correspondence. As our country becomes more divisive every day, using the arts to exercise our empathy seems especially important.”
By providing people this kind of interaction with theater, Hyler said he hopes Artistic Stamp gives participants something to look forward to as each installment arrives in their mailbox.
“I also hope this gives them some of the same joy and excitement that they receive from a great theatrical piece; where they feel like they’ve gone on a journey and had an experience that, while not live, has some of the elements of ‘liveness’ that we are all missing,” he added. “Most importantly, we hope that every audience member feels seen as they interact with our actors and with the story and find a way to truly connect during this time of isolation.”
Developing Artistic Stamp in the middle of COVID-19 has made Hyler consider access in a radical way.
“We are all being cautious and safe during this pandemic, but I realized that this has the opportunity to continue to reach people who might not have access to theater houses when an antidote becomes available,” he said. “The elderly, those with disabilities, those who may have mobility issues, those who are uncomfortable in crowds and those who live in rural areas with no live theater nearby—I hope to continue to find ways to increase access to the interactive experiences and reach groups who were homebound long before COVID-19 appeared on the scene.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
October 8, 2020