Writing letters offers a lot of benefits. There’s a thrill in the connection between two people. The delight in finding something personally addressed to you. The reassurance that comes from knowing someone cares enough about you to spend some time writing. The importance of communication.
But what about ourselves? How often do we connect, care and communicate with ourselves? And what is the value of it? Would you offer advice? Share some ideas? Be compassionate? Offer friendship? Letters To Myself a new participatory arts project and theatre show explores exactly that. I had a chat with Becci from the project to find out a bit more….
When did Letters To Myself all start, and why?
The idea of the project started for me when I noticed a common thread in conversations with friends. In one way or another, when discussing a problem they would all say something along the lines of, ‘I know what I would say to me if I was you’. I was fascinated by the idea that we might know what advice we need but yet there is an invisible barrier or block that stops us being able to take it on board unless it comes from someone else. I wanted to explore how we might become better at being our own best friend, honouring ourselves with the same love, support and guidance that we give to those around us. Once I had that initial idea, the form of letter writing just seemed to make sense; it’s a way of focusing our attention, of creating enough distance from the subject matter to be able to look at things objectively but yet still facilitating a conversation with ourselves.
Writing letters to one’s self is a tool frequently used to reflect, and often considered therapeutic. Is the well-being aspect of interest to you, or is your work purely artistic?
I think ‘wellbeing’ is an overused term and it can mean many different things to different people. However, if you take a common conception that it is about self are then absolutely it’s about that. The project explores our relationship with the voice we hear the most, our inner monologue. At times this can be a negative or even destructive relationship – you might be constantly telling yourself you can’t do something, focusing on your flaws and faults or just reliving a past regret. In creating this framework we ask participants and audiences to consider various versions of themselves; almost as distinct people. In creating that space and distinction it can feel easier to forgive, praise and celebrate ourselves. If we can make peace with these different versions of ourselves, the hope is that it will open the way to love our present self. That’s not to say our focus is only on the light and the positive. When you love someone, you love them for the sum of who they are; for their flaws as much as their strengths. They can drive you mad but you love them despite it.
Lots of the letters touch on very dark subject matter; hurt, regret, pain and loss. Some of the stories that have been shared are very intimate and personal. But though they might be about a very specific situation they explore common themes. It’s about our shared experience and all the things that make us human.
This type of letter is usually kept private – but by submitting to the project people will make them very public – have people expressed anxiety around this?
I’m sure this is an anxiety for some people and certainly not everyone we speak to then goes on to send us a letter. However, when we run our pop-ups and hand out our letter writing kits we are very clear that it’s okay not to send it in. We would much rather people approach the task with complete honesty and choose not to send it than have the worry about that prevent them from writing the letter altogether. Also, although contributing letters does make them ‘public’ it can do so anonymously. There is no obligation to use your name on the letter itself.
We’ve found participants find it a very positive experience. One letter writer described how she, ‘found it liberating to be able to tell someone the things I can’t yet say out loud’. She went on to say ‘In a way it was a kind of healing process. I was also reminded of some amazing times, the times that make the struggles we face in life worthwhile. Hearing my words being spoken made me feel a whole range of emotions, I was happy and proud that my words had been used as well as a weird sense of relief that someone could say the words out loud that I couldn’t.’
How have people engaged, particularly at the workshops when they may feel more visible and vulnerable?
Where we’ve run workshops, we would never ask anyone to share anything personal in front on a group. Instead we just run through exercises that help to start thinking about what they might write their letter about. So we look at memories, important life events and hopes and aspirations for the future, but never in a way that is exposing. We get a much wider range of responses from our pop-ups as we’re just setting up in a public space (café, library etc.) and speaking to people passing by. Some people are just not interested (and that’s absolutely fine, it’s not for everyone) and some people are happy to talk to us about their experiences but don’t want to write letter. On the whole though, most people are interested in the idea when they hear about it and happy to take way a kit to decide later if they want to take part.
How have the brilliant Lauren Hurwood and Luca Rutherford found ‘performing’ people’s words in your theatre show?
There is definitely a weight of responsibility when dealing with other people’s stories and words. The way we approached it is to honour the honesty of the letters by trying to give something back in return. So, throughout the show, the performers also share their own stories, using autobiographical material that touches on the themes of the letters. We also try not to make any judgement on the material. Although we don’t read every letter in full so that we can fit more letters in, we don’t censor the material or comment on it. That feels important. We offered participants the opportunity to talk about whatever they wanted and we want to respect that.
Why did you decide to have such a multifarious output to the letter submissions – theatre, gallery, book etc?
I’ve worked in the arts for a number of years and one of the things I’m passionate about is how we make work accessible to a wide range of people. Offering multi-platform outputs is one way of doing that. Not everyone feels comfortable in theatres or enjoys watching that work in that way, not everyone is confident with technology or wants to read text. By offering a theatre show, an on-line platform, letter displays, conversation opportunities and eventually a book the hope is that everyone who wants to engage with the project’s content can do so in some way. On top of that, the advantage of digital and print material is that it allows for longevity and a legacy to the stories that have been shared.
Are there any letters that have felt particularly emotional or poignant?
Everyone will have different reactions to each of the letters depending on their own experiences and emotional connection to the material. The ones that have hit me hardest are those that talk about a subject that I have personal experience of, describing things that I’ve felt in new ways. I feel so privileged that people taking part have been so open and generous with their letters and I can’t wait for our audiences to share in that too.
For full tour dates for Letters to Myself head to their site here.
To buy tickets for their upcoming show on Tuesday 28th and Wednesday 29th March 2017, please click here.
Follow them on Twitter/Instagram @Letters2myselfx