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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Beauties and beasts: A mixed bag of culture

Kind of a Chinese menu of a post today. A little theater, a little film, a little TV and some fine music.

Jean Cocteau on stage

The Artistic Home has mounted a riproaring family sex story at its venue on Grand Avenue. This Jean Cocteau farce is Les Parents Terribles—it’s two hours-plus of high-speed theater. Very funny, very well acted. My Gapers Block review is here. The play runs until April 13.

In the course of writing the review, I thought about Cocteau’s other work. His 1946 film, La Belle et La Bête, is unforgettable and visually arresting. Here’s the trailer so you can check it out. It happens that the lobby of my apartment building has a giant framed poster of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, so I am reminded of it every day.

Wondrous Japanese animation

thewindrisesAnimated film has not been one of my interests, since I always connected it with dreadful cute animals. But recently I’ve been educated in the beauty and sophistication of animated film and I’ve seen three films lately by the Japanese master, Hayao Miyazaki.

My film group had a discussion on Miyazaki this week and it was fascinating because several of the members are anime, animation and Miyazaki experts. His current (and final, he says) film is The Wind Rises, which just opened in local cinemas. His work is always beautiful, rich in hand-drawn detail, and sophisticated in its use of Japanese history and mythology (most of which I probably miss because of my own education gap).

His other films are mostly works that would be of family interest, but The Wind Rises is quite adult in plot and character. The leading character is Jiro, who is enchanted with flight and idolizes an Italian aviation engineer. He grows up wanting to design beautiful airplanes that carry people—but he ultimately designs the planes that are used in World War II, specifically to bomb Pearl Harbor. (There’s kind of an Oppenheimer effect at work here. Oppenhemer and the other Manhattan Project physicists designed the atomic bomb and then were chagrined at the results.)

War is an underlying theme in the film but not the main topic. In addition to Jiro’s engineering work, there’s a love story; his fiancée suffers from tuberculosis. The film is beautiful and gets many four-star reviews. (Seeing the “rising sun” logo on the airplanes was slightly unsettling for me, a child of that wartime period.)

I recommend this film highly and would also recommend Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (1997) as two of his more typical films. He uses strong female characters and in each case blends in Japanese history and mythological symbols. His films are enchanting and I have a list of four or five more on my list to see.

Women of Letters

The Australian literary salon known as Women of Letters is bringing its project to revive the lost art of letter-writing to Chicago. Women of Letters will be performed with local writers and artists on Friday, March 21, at the Mayne Stage. Here’s my Gapers Block preview. Sounds like good literary fun and I’ll report on it back here.

 Chicagoland: My favorite city on TV

CNN, apparently trying to become something more than just another cable news outlet, has just started an eight-part series called Chicagoland (Thursdays at 9pm CT, with several reruns). The first episode ran last night and so far Mayor Emanuel looks good—perhaps a little too good. However, given the principals involved, I believe the series will be fair and well done—and I hope I’m not wrong. The production has the Sundance/Robert Redford imprint so I’m expecting quality.

The first episode had some great footage of Chicago but the story was depressing. The reporting focused on murders and gang activity (with an emphasis on Fenger High School) and the city’s closing of 50 public grammar schools, almost all of them in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. We saw parents and teachers protesting the closings and CTU president Karen Lewis telling us what she thinks of Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, I’ll watch the other episodes, even though I know the story probably doesn’t have a happy ending. But to make up for that, I have a special Chicago musical treat for you, even though someone who shall be nameless remembers it as a song “I used to listen to in college while stoned.”

The song is “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliota-Haynes-Jeremiah. It was a big hit in 1975 and rereleased on CD in 1998. If you love the song, you can download it on iTunes and put it on your iPod, so it’s always with you, despite what the person quoted above calls “a jarring piano line.” If you’re not a Chicagoan, you may think that the LSD mentioned in the lyrics and shown in the visuals refers to a drug …. but to Chicagoans it refers to the drive that runs along the lakefront from Hollywood Avenue to 66th Street. The Lake Shore Drive Wikipedia page is a nice history of its construction, use and appearances in popular culture.

And now for some related posts….

On the subject of animation: One of the five sort of obscure movies I recommend is Richard Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life, an amazing approach to animation–and philosophy.

For some thoughts on J. Robert Oppenheimer, see my review of the current play being mounted by Saint Sebastian Players.