Emily Zemba & Kelly Kerwin

The Theater of Letter Writing

We explore the art of letter-writing as a theatrical form. A correspondence between Emily Zemba & Kelly Kerwin.

Dear Kelly,

I just received your postcard! Thank you!

The anticipation as I unlocked the tiny pre-war mailbox in the lobby of my building… the surprise of discovering your delightfully strange postcard… and the understanding that came with reading and taking in your sweetly personal note—well, the whole experience was live, ephemeral, and moving in ways that I think only THEATER can achieve. And it got me thinking: Could letter writing be its own theatrical form?

Anywho, as you are not only an avid mail-sender but also a brilliant theater-maker/dramaturg/producer, I was wondering if you could share how you came to adopt this fantastic postcard ritual… and also what your thoughts are about the connection between letters and theater.

Sincerely,
Emily

Dear Emily,

I’m so glad the postcard made it to you! I started this hobby when I first moved to New York after graduating college. Sending found postcards to friends ended up feeling more personal than an email or a Facebook message, and I’ve been dropping them in the mail ever since.

Postcards are, of course, my favorite, but I’m a sucker for a letter in an envelope as well. The envelope becomes a vessel, keeping hidden the words, the story, the signature, the postscript, the stationary choice. It’s no wonder Shakespeare used letters as a hot plot device—Ophelia returns letters to Hamlet and he freaks out! And then, of course, Juliet’s letter never reaches Romeo, so they both DIE! Letters have always played their own role in the theatrical canon; they gave the drama that slow burn. Once a letter was sent, it was a mysterious matter of time before the receiver would get the news and then all would be revealed!

Yours in revelation-through-letter,
Kelly

Dear Kelly,

Right! Letters themselves are kind of just tiny packets for instant drama!

Question: What specifically do you think is theatrical about a letter?

As ever,
Emily

Greetings Emily,

Just as theater is a connection between the work onstage and the particular audience, letters (and postcards) make a specific connection between writer and receiver. Words are shared that would not otherwise be shared in the same way (rarely does one type the same way they would write longhand), and there is a relationship created across space and time.

Often, I will write something on a postcard that I would never think to tell someone in any other context. I’ll describe a strange person I saw on the street; I’ll jot down a weird memory that involves the recipient. These “secrets” connect the writer to the receiver. This is what I find most theatrical about the art of letter writing.

And, well, I also love slipping some confetti into the envelope. But you already know that!

Best,
Kelly

PS: My favorite is the NEON PARTY CONFETTI from ohhappyday.com. Highly recommended.

Oh hey Kelly,

I love what you say about connection: that thrilling experience of unsticking that envelope and peeking at the words, questions, fragments, punctuation, all put there artfully and intentionally for you.

It makes me think about THE GIFT PLAY, which is a form I learned from Sarah Ruhl at Yale School of Drama. Sarah would have us begin each semester by writing a short GIFT PLAY for one of our fellow playwrights. It was as rewarding to craft and gift one of these plays as it was to receive one. Just, I think, like letter-writing.

I ASK YOU: Can a letter BE a play??! Is a play a play without an audience? What about reviews??

I anxiously await your reply and dramaturgical guidance when it comes to this matter,

         Emily

         PS: And thank you for choosing the LARGE flutter-fetti. Much easier to pick up.

To Whom it May Concern (Emily),

Oh my, well, this is a great question.

If one was to create a story in a letter and used the envelope as the stage, then there’s an argument that it could be a play. The recipient becomes the audience and pulls back the curtain (opens the envelope) to reveal a tiny theatrical world meant entirely for them.

Someone else’s hands once held this letter, wrote these words, folded the paper, and sealed the envelope. Someone wrote the address and placed the stamp. There’s a physical touch endowing the piece of mail, which brings in the connection to another world. It’s a tangibleness that we don’t often get in our current digital age, but we do get when we go to the theater.

I wonder if the tools of playwriting could be applied to letter writing?

Your comrade,
Kelly

Kelly –

I notice you gracefully ignored my question about reviews. Well played.

The process of writing a letter, I think, is very much like the process of writing a play. There’s something about those dangling threads of conversation. When you write a letter you are creating a document that leaves space for another person to engage. And then: the frazzled eagerness that comes with sending the letter… hoping that it will make it to its intended recipient intact, AND with good-timing and flair! Well, all of that sounds pretty much exactly like making a play, doesn’t it?

I also think the structure of a letter itself naturally mirrors the structure of a play:

THE BEGINNING

You start by introducing the characters (“Dear Kelly”) and setting the tone: Is this an earnest letter? A silly letter? An educational letter? All three? (“I miss ya, you big idiot. Just wait ‘til you hear what I found out about our mutual nemesis, “Carl.”)

THE MIDDLE

You may reveal some interesting information, and perhaps pose some specific  and/or existential questions (“The tree outside my window is blooming. Is the weather warm where you are? How are you?”)

THE END

It’s possible for a letter to be filled with more questions than answers… yet still leave you with that satisfying feeling of catharsis (“Be well, old friend. I’m thinking of you.”) The best letters, in my opinion, close with an invitation to continue correspondence. A reminder that we’re not alone out here. Our barbaric yawps into the mailboxes of the world will be heard, and answered.

I make this offer to any fellow playwrights who may intercept this correspondence: why not make your next play a letter to a friend? There’s so much connection to be found.

In solidarity,
Emily

About the author
Emily Zemba & Kelly Kerwin
Kelly Kerwin is a dramaturg, producer, and performance curator originally from the Ozarks. Most recently, she line produced The Public's A Bright Room Called Day and Soft Power. www.kellykerwin.com

Emily Zemba is a playwright based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently working on producing her play Superstitions with THE POOL 2020.  www.emilyzemba.com