November 10, 2004

The Epistolary Play

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The letter has certainly become an archaic mode of self-expression. With the advent of AIM, e-mail and free nights and weekends, few people have enough patience remaining to transcribe their feelings to another. But that’s not to say that the letter has lost any of its power. Letters contain a singular power to emote feeling, becoming manifestations of human personas.

Very Truly Yours, … , the latest offering from the Black Box series at the Schwartz Center, captures this essence. An original piece directed by Kathleya Afandador ’06, Catherine Galasso ’06 and Satya Stainton ’06 and featuring original music composed by Robert Whalen ’06, the play takes letters written throughout the 20th century and personifies them as black-clad characters on stage.

The project began last spring, when Robert approached Kathleya about doing a collaboration between the music and dance departments.

“I started composing some of the themes in here three years ago,” says Whalen. “The idea’s always been there. It was really when I talked to Kathleya that things began to happen.” However, the original conception of the piece did not include letters as monologues. “When we met at the beginning of the semester we were talking about the themes that we wanted to have. But they somehow drifted away from the process,” says Stainton. “We wanted to have political themes, romantic themes, religious themes and philosophic themes. When we chose the letters, we actually chose letters surrounding those original themes. It came full circle.”

The Black Box series offers students the opportunity to write, direct, act in and produce their own theatrical productions. Usually done through the theater department, this Black Box event is unique, since it draws on dance, music and film to create a motion-based, choreographed piece.

“Since we started talking about combining music and dance and using film, we’ve talked about the different art forms as forms of communication and how we transfer the feelings of one into another, or just how you work them together,” says Afanador. “The letters are another form of communication that’s written and not normally spoken. What we’ve tried to do is just take the emotions in the letters and create these little vignettes around them.” The production uses actual letters that Galasso found in a book entitled Letters of the Century, and includes correspondences such as Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton, and a father to a child he will never have because of his wife’s hysterectomy.

On a stage set with only tables and chairs, the letters become living entities, with the actors embodying the letters they represent through facial expression, positioning and movement. The score composed by Whalen uses historical styles as modes of expression and changes those within the piece. Touching on everything from minimalism to jazz to French expressionism, the music is matched to the temporal period of the letter. The founder of the Cornell Avant Garde Ensemble, Whalen pooled his own musicians, incorporating a flute, cello, violin, clarinet, piano and a soprano rendition of the Russian poem “Silencium.” “I see this as a mixed media pastiche of American history in the past century,” explains Whalen.

Working as a transposition of mediums, time periods and a contrast between intimacy and alienation, Very Truly Yours, … is a unique and creative revision of what has come to be expected of the Black Box Series.

“Letters create intimacy, but also establish distance,” says Galasso. “Letters allow you to say what you want to say without having to face the immediate reaction of the person.” Very Truly Yours, … will be at the Black Box Theatre on Friday, Nov. 12 at 4:30 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $2.

Archived article by Zach Jones
Sun Arts & Entertainment Editor