Who Knew You Could Organize So Much Activity Around A Show About Writing Letters

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.

Not A Can Of Whoop-Ass, Opening A Jar Of Artistic Experience To Forge Comradeship

Artsjournal.com linked to a Washington Post story about a Boston based project call “The Jar” whose “goal is forging comradeship via conversations about artistic experiences among groups that otherwise find few opportunities to commingle.” The project seems to start from the premise that it is going to be difficult to diversify audiences and experiences if people continue to participate with those who share the same general demographic profile as themselves.

The approach of The Jar is to intentionally shape the composition of the audience and setting. They start by getting people of diverse backgrounds agreeing to be conveners for some sort of event. Each of these conveners agrees to invite five others to the event at $10 a person with the goal of having a maximum of 96 people in attendance.

Here is where their recipe for assembling an audience comes into play:

One invitee in each “jar” of six people is an intimate of the convener; two are “usuals” — friends or colleagues. But two others must be “unusuals,” people the convener barely or only incidentally knows. Or as Ben-Aharon put it, “people who you wouldn’t normally experience culture with — two people who may not look like you, love like you, pray like you.”


“Let’s say you go to church, and you’re a White gay man, and you go to this church with your husband, and your normal circle is White gay men — why wouldn’t that be? That’s just the way society dictates we live.

“But suddenly you’re invited to The Jar and you have to think of who are the two ‘unusuals,’ and you invite a Black lesbian couple from that church. And suddenly you create a friendship with them. Suddenly you create a bond — and this actually happened, by the way.”

I don’t know if the quality of the artists is always as high as the pairing of Yo-Yo Ma and New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly, but if it is, I would guess that might be a factor in overcoming reticence in accepting an invitation to an event from people you barely know. The pairings of artists are also intentionally unexpected. Ma played cello in response to questions from the facilitator while Donnelly sketches of Ma and the audience were projected on a screen.

The project is funded by a $750,000 multi-year grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation if you are wondering how they can afford artists of this caliber hosting events that are intentionally designed to generally a maximum of $960. They apparently don’t have any problem gathering audiences in these days of increasing social disconnection. However, given the design of the events where intimate experiences are the point, they are having difficulty with scaling it to transfer to other cities and garnering the funding required to accomplish that.

As you may suspect, conversation is an important element of the experience rather than just passively observing.

Rob Orchard, formerly founding managing director of American Repertory Theatre…attends Jar happenings. “It’s unusual, using the arts as the catalyst for understanding differences. You hear people who experience the same piece as you, and you get to appreciate how their response to it is totally different from yours.”

While there is definitely an element of self-selection inherent to the project – inviting people with whom you have an incidental or tangential relationship means that you and they travel in the same general orbits and the willingness to accept the invitation means they are generally open to having the experience. However, the design of the program still requires one to stretch slightly past their comfort zone to make or accept the invitation, which is an obvious important first step toward opening oneself to new experiences, new conversations and new relationships.

Creating Connections With Inside Jokes Shared By 6 Million People

I believe it was Artsjournal.com that shared a story a week or so ago about the Philadelphia Inquirer’s attempt to increase subscriptions and engage a younger audience with an ad campaign that makes inside jokes about life in and around the city.

The article put me in mind of the idea that while sharing in inside information creates a sense of belonging, for arts organizations the idea that there are rules you need to know in order to not stick out creates a sense of alienation. Though there are obvious benefits to citing insider knowledge shared by 6 million people living in the greater Philadelphia area. Arts and cultural organizations might tap into a similar situation on a smaller scale in their own communities in order to build a greater sense of connection and identity.

The Inquirer campaign employs the repetition of the simple phrase, “Unsubscribe from…, subscribe to…” So for example, “Unsubscribe from one-bell city, Subscribe to Nobel-winning city,” referring to two University of Pennsylvania scientists recent win of a Nobel prize and, of course, the Liberty Bell.”

Another does a call out to the mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, “Unsubscribe from Philly is gritty, Subscribe to Gritty is Philly.” And other references the city’s iconic LOVE sculpture and Greek translation of the city’s name as “city of brotherly love:” “Unsubscribe from I heart NYC, subscribe to Philly love.”

As you might imagine, people are coming up with their own ideas for couplets following the same pattern.

There isn’t any clear indication about how much the campaign may have increased subscriptions, but with 85,000 digital subscribers, they are within striking distance of their goal to get 90,000 by the end of the year.

Experiences More Valuable Than Material Goods When It Comes to Happiness and Social Cohesion

Sunil Iyengar who directs the research arm of the National Endowment for the Arts recently posted on the idea of arts experiences as one way for individuals to create connections with others. He points to two studies conducted in 2020 where people received a text every few hours and were asked to respond about a purchase they had made within that period of time.

Study subjects were asked whether they had made a material (furniture, clothing, jewelry, electronic goods, etc) or experiential (concert tickets, trips, restaurant meals, going to sporting events) purchase.

In both studies, experiential purchases were associated with significantly greater self-reported happiness than were material purchases. Also, because the data collection methods enabled participants to respond within an hour of each transaction, the reports of happiness can be described as “in-the-moment” returns from these experiential investments, the authors suggest.

“People’s experiential purchases, in other words, live on longer and are likely to provide more active, moment-to-moment happiness as they lead people to feel better about themselves and connect more with others,” Kumar et al. write. Stressing the implications of these findings for social connectedness, the authors add that “because experiences also lend themselves more to re-living and sharing memories with others, individuals can also advance their momentary happiness through these types of extended consumption as well.”

Long time readers know that I am wary about any prescriptive claims about the arts curing social ills, raising test scores, boosting economies, etc., so I was pleased to see that Iyengar wasn’t making any claims that carved out special benefits attributable to arts and cultural activities but instead implied they were part of the mix. Certainly, we all recognize that there are many moving pieces that contribute to people having an enjoyable experience, including restaurants, traffic, parking, babysitters, etc.

Enjoyable changes don’t occur in a vacuum where they are attributable to one cause. Last night I idly started to look at Google Streetview in the neighborhoods around where I live and work, flipping back to pictures from 10-15 years ago and it became clear how different decisions by governments, businesses, and developers contributed to the attractiveness of these places and increased availability of local resources as well as the closure of some businesses and increased traffic.

In the same respect, arts and culture contribute to, cultivate, preserve, social connection and cohesion, but aren’t the sole product to be applied to solve issues that face communities.