Women of Letters: Letter-writing as performance art

If you weren’t at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park last night for an evening with Women of Letters, you missed a profound and theatrically moving event—for writers, performers and for women. Seven Chicago female artists sat at a table and in turn came to the mic to read the letters they had written addressed “to the moment the lights came on.”

GB-WomenofLettersThe letter-writers were:

— Wendy McClure, author, columnist and children’s book editor
— Kate Harding, author of Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture
— Kyra Morris, actor, physical theater artist and director
— Claire Zulkey, author and blogger
— Arlene Malinowski, solo artist, writer and instructor
— Kristen Toomey, comedian and actress
— Tavi Gevinson, writer, actress and founder of Rookie Magazine

Women of Letters started as an Australian literary salon focused on celebrating the lost art of letter-writing. This is their second US tour and first appearance in Chicago. The large and enthusiastic audience at the Mayne Stage should ensure a return visit in 2014.

One of the guidelines for Women of Letters is that events are not recorded, so that participants can feel free to write about very personal subjects. Therefore, even though I took notes, I won’t use any quotations. But I will tell you a little about the letter-writers and the event.

The moderator was Marieke Hardy, an Australian writer and co-curator of Women of Letters. She introduced each writer and later conducted a Q&A with the panel on letter-writing.

The letters verged on storytelling; they often had a confessional nature. They were in turn funny, poignant, sad—and always moving. One of the performers wrote about her disastrously disorganized life, while another wrote about disappearing into the dark as a high school drama prop master, and another speculated that people treat each other horribly because they fear scarcity. The readings lasted from a few minutes to more than 10 minutes each.

Tavi Gevinson, a teenaged celebrity who will celebrate her 18th birthday next month, has achieved renown for her blog, which focuses on issues affecting teenage girls and is written mainly by teenage girls. She has appeared on TV, acted in short films and had a role in the 2013 Nicole Holofcener film, Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini.

After the readings, Hardy asked each performer to talk about how letters may have been important in her life. They also discussed how the WOL letter-writing process had worked for them. Audience members had a chance to ask questions of the performers.

Each audience member received a stamped WOL postcard and a stamped “aerogramme” to encourage us to do our part in restoring the art of letter-writing.

Women of Letters started with events in Melbourne, co-curated by writer/journalists Hardy and Michaela McGuire. Monthly events brought together five of Melbourne’s “best and brightest writers, musicians, politicians and comedians.” For each event, the participants were asked (in advance) to write a letter on a specific topic. The series has been so successful in Australia that three books of letters have been published as a result.

Women of Letters raises funds for the animal rescue shelter, Edgar’s Mission, a sanctuary for rescued farmed animals set on 60 peaceable acres in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range at Willowmavin, Kilmore, in the state of Victoria, Australia.

The 2014 US tour included performances in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin (during SXSW). Two performances are scheduled for next week in New York, one of which is titled People of Letters and features male and female letter-writers, including Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Hours. The New York topics are “a letter to the thing I wish I’d written” and “a letter to the night I’d rather forget.”

What would you write about?

The letter topics make me think about the letter I might write.
I’d love to know what you would write about ….

♥ The moment the lights came on

♥ The thing I wish I’d written

♥ The night I’d rather forget


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One Comment on “Women of Letters: Letter-writing as performance art”

  1. Sandra Matson says:

    Great post!


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