The Person Behind a Letter: Lehigh’s Notations Series Welcomes Letters Aloud

If my memory serves me correctly, I was in fourth grade the last time I wrote someone a letter and actually sent it in the mail (excluding the few following years that I still penned a letter to Santa). This experience isn’t unique to me; as a society, we’ve largely shifted to digitized forms of communication. Texting allows us to carry on multiple conversations without verbally uttering a single word, and video chats like FaceTime put that smile we’ve been missing right in front of us in real time. Why wait for a response through the postal service when the answer lies at the touch of our fingertips? This isn’t to say that this shift in how we interact is wholly negative; it’s quite remarkable actually. It lets us cross continents and oceans in a matter of seconds and makes it so the world around us doesn’t seem as big. However, it’s important to consider what we’ve lost in allowing written letters die out.

The second installment of Lehigh’s Notation Series  did just that by welcoming Letters Aloud, a show consisting of seasoned actors reading letters from both historically famous and infamous figures out loud. Founder and Curator Paul Morgan Stetler began Letters Aloud as a means to connect live audiences to these figures and reintroduce the disappearing written letter. That’s certainly the effect the performance had on everyone who came to Zoellner Arts Center that night.

Letters Aloud Logo. Image courtesy of Northshore Performing Arts Center

It’s easy to forget that celebrities aren’t too different from the rest of us. They’re still people who face a lot of the same challenges we stand up to in daily life: love, self-doubt, rejection, and financial hardship. We don’t see these things in the media because such personal experiences aren’t publicized in our society, but that doesn’t mean we don’t all experience them. Famous or not. Letters Aloud’s “FAME (they’re not going to live forever)” captured the essence of what it’s like to rise to superstardom. Presented in four parts, the show took us into the lives of some of history’s greatest names through the letters they personally penned to friends, loved ones, fans, and anyone else who would listen. The letters made us realize there have been times where even those who seem big enough to take on the world can still feel small. The reason? They’re human.

Part I: The Struggle

The first installment of the four-part show, Part I spoke to the long and arduous fight to fame’s perfect window of opportunity. We were introduced to fourteen year old Stephen King pitching his short story to Spacemen Magazine, which was ultimately rejected. The audience also listened to a letter from Bruce Springsteen to a friend about how he struggled to pay his rent on time. The insecure F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor in search of reassurance for titling his newest novel The Great Gatsby. Even the most successful have met failure, but it’s how they chose to push through that failure that ultimately let them succeed.

Part II: Hitting it Big

The second part was a welcome reminder that many of them acknowledge their success wouldn’t be possible without the people who commit to supporting them. It was impossible to miss the genuineness behind the thank you letters written by David Bowie to his first American fan and Roald Dahl to a young girl who had sent him a dream in a bottle after reading the BFG. Even a simple note from Marilyn Monroe thanking a man who sent her champagne serves as evidence that not all famous people forget where they come from; they care enough to make their gratitude known.

Part III: Stardom

With the goal of fame finally being achieved, Part III demonstrated the ways in which celebrities have used that fame as a creative platform or a means to offer their service to our society. Gene Wilder’s letter to director Mel Stuart sketched out his iconic entrance scene in Willy Wonka in exact detail. Annie Oakley wrote to President McKinley in 1898 assuring him that she could get together a company of fifty lady sharpshooters if he ever needed any backup in the Spanish American War. Similarly, Elvis Presley offered his services to President Nixon in 1970 as a ‘federal agent at large’ if ever necessary.

Part IV: Giving

The most important section was the last because it showed that no amount of fame could ever erase a person’s capacity for kindness. Oprah’s letter to her younger self was filled with compassion; she begged the beautiful, almost twenty year old in the photo to see herself with her own eyes and love herself with her own heart. Kurt Vonnegut imparted similar advice to a group of students from Xavier High School who had written letters asking him to visit their school. Vonnegut wrote back and explained it was past his time to make public appearances since he resembled an “iguana.” In spite of this, he wanted to encourage them to practice any form of art, literature, sculpture, or hobby that could make their soul grow. No matter how well or badly they did it, they would experience the process of “becoming.” He gave them an assignment so they could practice: write a rhymed poem and rip it up before showing anyone. In doing this, they had already taken the first step to knowing what’s inside them.

Like Vonnegut’s task for the Xavier High School students, Letters Aloud gave all of us in the audience an assignment of our own. They asked us to find a piece of paper, a decent pen, and the time to sit down and write a letter to someone we love. We were then reassured that many blue mailboxes still exist on street corners, and it was our job to find one and mail what we had written.

There’s an unmistakable intimacy in writing a letter, and that can be kind of terrifying. It’s your handwriting on the page, not a computerized type font. The recipient will touch the same paper you pored over for hours as you tried to figure out what to say. Smudged ink would give away your tears or the quick movement of your hand that smudged it before it dried. They can see all the times you refrained from writing the words you want to say; the crossed out lines give you away. You’re on the page in your most complete and honest form, and you can’t take that back once the letter is sent. You can’t hide behind a computer screen, and maybe it’s this vulnerability that scares us so much. However, so much can be accomplished if we conquer our fears. Oprah and Stephen King and F.Scott Fitzgerald did, and look where that got them.

At the end of it all, we’re presented with two choices. We can either keep the letter locked away in our desk drawer, never to be read by the eyes it’s meant for, or we can go up to that blue mailbox and drop the letter inside. We can leave our words left unsaid, or we can take a leap of faith and put ourselves inside that envelope.

Send the letter.

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