Letters Aloud sheds light on flip side of being famous

Three months before “Born to Run” was released, Bruce Springsteen scrawled a note to his landlady explaining that he couldn’t pay the rent. Amelia Earhart got cold feet on her wedding day. Clyde Barrow of infamous crime duo Bonnie and Clyde wrote a fan letter to Henry Ford a month before he was killed in his Ford V8. Bruce Lee’s 1969 diary includes a promise to himself to become “the highest paid Oriental super star in the United States.”

These facts are among those revealed to the audience of a few dozen people at Homer High School’s Mariner Theatre on the night of Nov. 11, during a Homer Council on the Arts-sponsored performance by a group called “Letters Aloud.” The event was a public reading of the private thoughts of some of history’s prominent people, set to a slideshow of photos and punctuated by live accordion music.

Seattle actor Paul Morgan Stetler formed “Letters Aloud” two and a half years ago to share a secret passion of his: reading the letters and diaries that make up the flip side of public personas we recognize.

Stetler has lots of names for the documents: “little handshakes with the past,” “what history sounds like when it’s happening” and his wife’s nickname for his vice, “literary crack.” 

Reading the letters was more cathartic than intrusive, he said — they humanized celebrities and shed light on themes that affect us all. So he decided to share them.

In the past, “Letters Aloud” shows have explored the themes of fatherhood, war and love. Nov. 11 marked the beginning of the group’s first tour outside Seattle — post-Homer, they headed to Anchorage for a few more Alaska stops — and their debut performance of “Fame: They’re Not Going to Live Forever,” a meditation specifically on the perks and price of fame as it’s evolved over the years.

The letters, performed by two actors with introductions by Stetler, alternated from funny: Monty Python’s John Cleese explaining to a fan that he was much too important to be writing him back; to sad: Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, asking the president for a loan of $100 money to go home to the Bahamas because he couldn’t afford to return to his family; and inspirational: comedian Stephen Fry offering advice to a fan on surviving depression. 

Often, Stetler wouldn’t reveal the author of a letter until after its reading, prompting reflective sighs and laughs from the audience.

Stetler ended with a quote from Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: “Fame is a four letter word, and like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love, what matters is what we do with it.” 

HCOA Director Peggy Paver said she was very impressed with the show but disappointed with the turnout. The day before, the performers had held a workshop at the arts council for the community, and only six people showed up. One was a member of the HCOA board.

“We lost a significant amount of money on (the show), which happens sometimes,” she said. “But it’s a little too new in my career here to feel okay about it.” Paver has been at HCOA since the summer’s end, when she moved to Homer from Oregon.

She’s not sure what caused the low turnout — maybe the lack of name recognition for a new act, or the cold weather, or the fact that the show was on a weeknight.

“But I learned a lot through the process of trying to promote this event, and it gives me a lot of good information about what kinds of factors to consider moving forward,” she said.

On Friday, the local band “Work in Progress” donated proceeds from a concert at the HCOA gallery to the council to help make up for the losses.

Paver said she took comfort in the enthusiastic responses of audience members who did show up to the performance and workshop.

At the workshop, attendees wrote letters of advice to themselves at 16 years old. Stetler invited everyone to share what they had written at the end, but was clear that they were under no obligation to do so, citing the personal nature of the letters.

“And every person in the room shared theirs, which kind of speaks to me of Homer,” said Paver.  “I just feel like the people here are very open and introspective and honest and truthful, and that showed in the workshop.”

Saturday, Nov. 21, the student actors of HCOA’s TheaterShakes program will present their production of Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors.” Tickets are $5, on sale at HCOA

In the spring, HCOA welcomes “Wonderheads,” a Northern California-based physical comedy troupe whose members wear larger-than-life papier mache masks and perform without speaking. 

According to Paver, their style has been likened to “a combination of Pixar animation, Jim Henson puppetry and Doctor Who imagination.”

Annie Rosenthal can be reached at annie.rosenthal@homernews.com.

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