Local performance brings love letters to life

Jessi Marlow directs “Letters Aloud.” She studied directing at Pacific Lutheran University and has directed plays in Portland and Seattle.  

In three performances over the weekend, Kodiak actors will be reading dozens of love letters written by real people throughout history. 

They range from three-page letters by John Steinbeck to one that reads, “Dear Ashely, would you please be my girlfriend? I like you a lot. Yes, no, maybe.”

The show is called “Letters Aloud: Love Me or Leave Me.” Three performances will be livestreamed by the Kodiak Arts Council on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. All shows start at 7 p.m. 

“During a time of such extreme divisiveness, we could all hear more messages of love,” director Jessi Marlow said. 

“What we need as a community right now is to feel a little bit more loved.”  

“Letters Aloud” is originally the production of a Seattle theater company. They collect and read private letters on all kinds of themes, accompanied by live music and a slideshow. 

The group performed in Kodiak in 2015 at the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium as part of a statewide tour. Kodiak Arts Council executive director Katie Oliver thought it would be an ideal theater production for the pandemic world and reached out in May to work out a licensing agreement. 

“Often our community theater shows are big shows that are multi-age, lots of people onstage, lots of interaction, and that wasn’t something we could do in a pandemic,” Oliver said. 

“So we were looking for theater that could be staged while keeping people safe.” 

“Letters Aloud” agreed to let the Arts Council do the show, and Oliver reached out to Marlow and asked if she’d like to help put the show together. 

Marlow studied directing at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. She’s directed several plays in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, and has generally been involved in theater for most of her life. 

This production is a little different. It’s “reader’s theater,” meaning the script doesn’t need to be memorized. Actors dramatize the reading of the letters onstage, but don’t move around much. That helps with social distancing. 

“We choose to do reader’s theater because we can’t have actors being super close to each other right now,” Marlow said. 

Rehearsals have been mask-on, so Marlow can’t see the actors’ expressions, which makes directing a little harder. Other rehearsals have been over Zoom. The group has been rehearsing for five weeks. 

The final production will be streamed using equipment the Arts Council bought using Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) money from the Kodiak Island Borough. It will look and feel like a real theater production with lights, sound and music. 

“It asks people to take a risk and experience local theater via livestream for the first time,” Oliver said. 

But the drama comes from the letters themselves. There’s close to 50 or 60 letters that will be read. Some are from famous people, such as Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Others are from ordinary husbands writing to their wives. One is a postcard from Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton.   

“It’s a fun show. It’s funny and has some really poignant moments,” Oliver said. 

Actors for “Letters Aloud: Love Me or Leave Me’’ include Roy Thomas, Mat Freeman, Lindsey Johnson, Zoya Herrnsteen and Hannah Heimbuch. Music is by Walter Muelling. Tickets are $10 and are available at kodiakarts.org

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