I usually don’t advocate for specific shows on the blog here, but I recently presented a group whose format really lends itself to a variety of audience engagement opportunities you may dream up. The group is called Letters Aloud. They basically read letters written to and by famous and less famous individuals, often organized around a theme, with the letters and images of the subject projected on a screen and accompanied by accordion theme music.
Last weekend we hosted, Thanks, But No Thanks–Best Rejection Letters Ever. My concept was that Thanksgiving time was a good opportunity to reflect on preserving past rejection and being grateful for the lucky breaks or assistance from family and friends that helped us along the way.
The show includes letters from Sidney Poitier to President Franklin Roosevelt asking to borrow $100 so he can return to Jamaica; John Cleese telling a fan that he doesn’t have a fan club because Michael Palin’s fan club killed them off, and then Palin and Eric Idle writing follow up letters channeling elements from the Monty Python Holy Grail movie; Muhammad Ali’s letter opposing being drafted to serve in Vietnam; a student rejected from Duke University, rejecting the rejection and insisting she was showing up for Fall semester.
While many of the letters had the audience roaring with delight, others had them applauding in support of the strength of character people exhibited.
The format allows for engagement opportunities from many points of view. We had people posting on social media bemoaning the fact kids can’t read cursive and letter writing is becoming a lost art. The group actually has a school outreach program with a lot of resources and curriculum materials called, Be The Change, that schools can use in advance of a visit (or a virtual Zoom session) that explores letter writing and features letters written by young people. It isn’t really an attempt to revive writing letters on paper as much as it is advocacy of writing as a powerful form of expression.
Taking some inspiration from Nina Simon’s invitation to people to bring artifacts from bad relationships for a pop-up exhibit in a bar, we asked people to bring stories or objects representing rejection to the show. I not only got our volunteers involved in helping make a promotional video for the lobby exhibit, they also shared stories from their own experiences with rejection and wore labels with some of those phrases for promotional photos that we also used to seed our lobby display.
Then on the night of the show, volunteers wore those labels again to create an ambiance for the show. We had forms audience members could fill out with their own stories. Letters Aloud has a form on their website that allows people to submit their stories, but no one had in advance of the show so they read some of the contributions to our display from the stage after intermission.
Additionally, the production has an opportunity for people from the community to read letters during the show. We recruited three people, the mayor, city poet laureate, and a member of the city cultural services board as readers. The production provided 10 letters for them to choose from a couple weeks in advance of the show so they could become familiar with the short pieces and then had a brief orientation before the show so the readers knew what to expect.
So overall there were a lot of avenues to create a sense of connection to the show for the audience and community. If there was a letter or story with a resonance to a particular community, I imagine they would be open to integrating it in to the show to create a greater sense of relevance. Similarly, it is also relatively easy for the presenting venue to create some imaginative promotional materials.
Certainly, there are other shows and projects out there with a degree of inherent flexibility of topic and structure that lends themselves to similar promotional and engagement opportunities. I encourage people to keep their eyes open and their imaginations churning.