Bringing Private Letters to a Public Space

paul_stetler_portrait_via_website.jpgPortrait of Letters Aloud founder, Paul Stetler. Photo by Sal Celis

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

The editors who compiled the book, “Letters of the Century”, write in the foreword that "Letters are what history sounds like when it is still part of everyday life."

That book is one you’ll find in the home of Letters Aloud organizer, Paul Stetler, who formed a literary act around the concept of reading famous people’s correspondence to an audience. The Kodiak Arts Council will bring the act to town for a one-time showing this week. Actors will read letters with the theme of fame, accompanied by a musician who plays the accordion.

Stetler says when it first occurred to him, the idea of reading correspondence aloud struck him as perfect for theater.

“If you think about it, you go see a play, you sit in the dark, and you’re watching actors pretend to do a scene, and the actors are pretending the audience isn’t there. It’s a very voyeuristic experience. And what’s more voyeuristic than reading someone else’s letters?”
Stetler says something about eavesdropping on other people’s lives can create a profound experience.

And he’s always been fascinated with letters and letter-writing, a connection which he remembers began with his father.

“I have a stack of letters that my dad wrote me throughout my lifem, and he was an English professor, and that’s where I kinda got my love of English and literature. What he would do is he would take a sheet of typewriter paper and he would tear it in two and he would put that half a sheet of paper into his typewriter and he would just write me a note on both sides.”

He says he guesses he has two hundred of those letters about everything from a thought his father wanted to share to a movie they both loved, and Stelter says there’s one he treasures in particular.

“One day I just got a letter from him saying – and he didn’t talk much about this – but he wrote a letter about what it was like to meet my mom and how they met and how they courted and what it was like getting married. It was just a tremendous gift. It harkened back to a time that I never saw, when they were at their best, when they were in love and they had a future ahead of them.”

The intimacy of letters leaves room for insight into people’s lives that the public would never have otherwise. They can be sad, shocking, and funny. Stetler shares one letter addressed to novelist Sinclair Lewis, who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

“He became a bit of a celebrity and got fan-mail from all over the country, and there was one woman who wrote in asking to be his personal secretary. And in her letter she writes ‘I’ll do everything for you and when I say everything, I mean everything. And Lewis tended to respond to all of his fan-mail himself, but in this particular case, his wife Dorothy replied, and she writes ‘My dear miss, my husband already has a stenographer who handles his work for him. And as for everything, I take care of that myself. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Dorothy Thompson.’”

Other famous writers in Letters Aloud include Marilyn Monroe, Gene Wilder, and Joe Biden. Stetler and his team will be flying up to Kodiak from Seattle as part of their Alaska tour, and you can attend the performance on Thursday, November 12. Check out the Kodiak Arts Council website to find out more.

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