© 2022 90.5 WESA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts, Sports & Culture
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip: news@wesa.fm

Pittsburgh Theater Troupe Responds To Pandemic With Plays By Mail

These days, people can get everything by mail, from exercise equipment to meal kits. Why not theater?

RealTime Interventions presents: Post Theatrical festival of theater by mail, through June

Plays-by-mail are a growing phenomena sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, performance spaces around the country went dark. Groups’ stock-in-trade of live, shared, in-person performances became all but impossible for the immediate future. Many troupes stayed active with Zoom-based play readings, barebones performances for webcam, and even – after distancing restrictions eased – fully produced film adaptations of stage works.

All the approaches had their merits. But Pittsburgh-based company RealTime Interventions had other ideas.

“Can it go beyond Zoom?” asked RealTime’s Molly Rice. “Can we do better, or can we do things that are more interesting than that?”

Credit Rick Southers, On The Run Images
Karla C. Payne plays Mary Fields in Demaskus Theater's "Black Mary."

RealTime’s answer is Post Theatrical, a festival of theater-by-mail. A dozen troupes from around the country are contributing works enabled, at least in part, by the U.S. Postal Service. While the first performances began in February, the festival is ongoing, with new projects rolling out into June.

One of the festival’s two Pittsburgh-based projects lets ticket-buyers correspond with an Old West legend. “Black Mary,” staged by Demaskus Theater Collective, was inspired by the life of Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary. Fields was born into slavery, but in 1895, in Montana, she became the first Black woman to work as an independent stagecoach driver for the U.S.P.S.

“It’s meant to give people a glimpse into her life, her story and who she was,” said Demaskus artistic director Shaunda McDill.

Mary was a tough woman who took on the stagecoach route when she was past 60. She was known to tote both a shotgun and revolver.

“The fact that she is known to have pulled rifles on many white men – people who challenged her authority – and who she was, it all just speaks to her courage and wisdom and just general bravery during that time,” said McDill.

“Black Mary” is highly interactive. Ticket-buyers will receive writing prompts from Mary, via text or video, as performed by actor Karla Payne and written by the show’s playwright. McDill called them messages of healing and liberation drawn from Mary’s adventuresome life. For one month, ticket-buyers will be asked to keep a journal and submit what they write. Those writings will be incorporated into dramatized short videos about Mary that Demaskus will produce.

“We’re not just asking people to go on the journey with us. We’re actually going on their journey and seeing what we learn about them as participants and ticket-buyers,” she said.

Participants can even opt to receive – by mail, of course – a satchel of items Mary might have used, from medicinal herbs to beef jerky. (McDill notes that Mary was also fond of cigars and whiskey, but that Demaskus is choosing not to mail those items.) Audience members who don’t wish to participate in the interactive forms of the show can choose to simply watch the five videos Demaskus will post on Juneteenth – the holiday marking the date in 1865 the last enslaved African-Americans in the U.S. learned they were free.

“We all are healing from something or moving toward healing, or coming out of a process of healing for something,” said McDill. “This is not therapy … but it is an opportunity for people to take a journey that could land them in a better place of healing and feeling more liberated than they did when they started.”

Credit Realtime Interventions
Realtime Interventions
Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin are co-artistic directors of RealTime Interventions.

The “Black Mary” mail experience begins April 12. Tickets ar on sale through April 1.

RealTime’s own piece in the Post Theatrical festival is titled “The Birth of Paper.” A reworking of a project the troupe produced in 2003, it’s a complex hybrid of live performance, online experiences, and the mail, said Rice, who is the group’s co-artistic director along with her husband, Rusty Thelin.

The show will connect ticket-buyers to an audience in Beirut, Lebanon, where people are still struggling with the aftermath of the explosion that devastated their city last August. Ticket-buyers will watch an online live performance by a character named “Paper,” played by Beirut-based performer Milia Ayache, performing dialogue written by Rice. Audiences in Beirut, meanwhile, will receive gifts hand-made by Pittsburgh crafters. Following the performance, Beirut audiences will write to Rice by mail, and also can choose whether to correspond with other remote ticket-holders.

“We are exploring what you can do when you can connect with someone tactilely, through an actual letter, through an actual object that’s sent in the mail,” said Rice.

Virtual performances of “Birth of Paper” run June 3-12, with tickets on sale through June 3.

Other ongoing or upcoming Post Theatrical projects include: “Spite & Malice,” by Los Angeles-based Chelsea Sutton & Slipped Beyond Productions, which uses playing cards, found objects, new media and mail-based interactions to tell a fantastical narrative involving the King, the Queen and the Jack (tickets on sale through April 4); “Party Line,” by New York’s Scott Adkins & Let’s Make A Theater Company, which lets ticket-buyers eavesdrop on phone calls between two fictional strangers, then start a correspondence with their favorite character (runs April 6-13); “Dream / Home,” by New York’s New Georges, Emerie Snyder & Lina Younes, described as “an object-based theatrical exploration of your own home and surroundings, led by a playfully mysterious map that connects you to others across the country” (tickets on sale March 29); and “Capricorn 29,” by New York’s The Tank and Alex Hare with Julia Izumi, an interactive “digital musical experience loosely inspired by the dystopian 1976 cult film ‘Logan’s Run,’ set in a society that kills people when they turn 30” (tickets on sale April 29).

'The shared space of an envelope'

RealTime was inspired to create Post Theatrical last spring by participating in the Liveness Lab, a multi-week workshop run by New York’s Orchard Project that gathered some 135 troupes and individuals from around the world to discuss how to do theater in the social-distancing era.

Most of those groups choses to explore virtual options. But RealTime was not the only Live Lab participant to go all-in on theater by mail. The South Carolina-based team West Hyler and Shelley Butler, both directors with Broadway credits, created Artistic Stamp, a theater-by-mail initiative that began last summer and is now prepping its third season.

“We were sort of searching for a way to keep what we love about live theater going,” said Hyler. “The audience having a sensory experience, it being one-on-one, feeling like you have a shared space. We hit upon the idea that plays by mail did that. That you could encounter a show in the shared space of an envelope.”

Artistic Stamp has birthed nine original, interactive productions. In each, a playwright creates a storyline, and a group of actors hand-writes letters presenting it to ticket-buyers who have also assumed roles in the shows. The productions span genres, from romance and science fiction to works based on history – even a mystery for younger audiences. But each develops based on what audiences write, with the actors required to undertake employ level of improvisation in composing their characters’ responses. (Actors are paid by the letter.)

“What we really wanted was that one-on-one interactive experience where each letter is unique to the person receiving it, and when the audience replies, they become a collaborator in the storytelling,” said Hyler. “We say it’s like a mix between role-playing, choose-your-own adventure, and immersive theater.”

“I thought it was really going to be pulling teeth to reach into people’s homes and get them to play,” said Butler. “And that turned out not to be the case. The great surprise is that people were eager to play.”

Another advantage of plays by mail: Like virtual theater, it can reach audiences who wouldn't normally have access to a physical theater space, even without the pandemic. Many of Artistic Stamp's ticket-buyers live in remote, rural areas, Hyler said.

Artistic Stamp said audience members have told highly personal stories in their letters. Some 6,000 letters have been sent and received through the project since September, Hyler said.

“We’ve realized how in need of connection people right now during this pandemic. How hungry they are for it. How necessary it is,” said Hyler.

For more information on Post Theatrical, see RealTime's web site.

Start your morning with today’s news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. Sign up for WESA’s Inbox Edition newsletter.

Listener contributions are WESA’s largest source of income. Your support funds important journalism by WESA and NPR reporters. Please give now — a monthly gift of just $5 or $10 makes a difference.