Fuse Theatre has been among the many performing arts groups that looked to online platforms to reach audiences while theaters have mostly been off-limits for the past year and a half. And the Redwood City-based company's latest production is still made for a remote audience, but rather than using Zoom, the show relies on a much older form of communication: the mail.
Starting in mid-September, Fuse's show "Special Delivery: Theatre by Mail" will unfold via a series of letters sent to audience members who "subscribe" to the show by buying a ticket.
The company was inspired to create a theater-by-mail production in part because so many projects had migrated online, said Fuse Theatre's Artistic Director Stacey Ardelean.
"We were looking for creative ways to not only work together but also address the pandemic and how that has isolated, many, many people ... (we were) thinking about the communities that didn't have access to the internet and how difficult that would be," Ardelean said.
"Special Delivery" isn't about the pandemic per se, which is more of a backdrop, but it does explore how people have kept in contact in these unusual times, and asks what has been lost amid the isolation.
"We kept coming back to this idea of 'not using technology, how can we do theater?'" Ardelean said.
Over the course of about a month, "Special Delivery" audience members will receive mail — 12 pieces in all — every two or three days that advances the story. The letters are written by different characters, some of whom discuss the same events but from different perspectives.
As a recipient of the correspondence, the audience gets to be a character in the show — though no interaction is required. But they can engage further with the play, thanks to some optional online extras. "Special Delivery" will have its own website (separate from Fuse Theatre's online presence), where audience members can seek out some extras if they choose, such as sharing photos of themselves posing with the "props" that arrive with one of the mailings.
The online component is offered as more of a bonus, though; the main story of "Special Delivery" takes place via mail.
So what is this show of letters all about? Ardealean didn't want to give too much away, but said it focuses on relationships and connections.
"This story is about our friends, our chosen family, reconnecting and (it's about) celebration, love and friendship. It's kind of a surprise," she said.
The unconventional format of "Special Delivery" makes the most of a reorganization at Fuse Theatre over the past year, a shift that's still underway as the group moves from a more traditional hierarchical model, with a board and executive positions, to an artists' collective — a group of artists that Fuse calls "SPARKS".
"We have a collective of 12 artists now. We've been working a lot on the company and the structure and dealing a lot with (the idea of) how do we run this company, being very mindful of dismantling systemic racism within those structures," Ardelean said.
The SPARKS artists' collective created "Special Delivery" together, each contributing to the show.
Ironically, the online realm of video conferencing, chats and emails that the show is deliberately avoiding in its presentation actually aided in its development. The era of Zoom has allowed Fuse Theatre to broaden its reach and the SPARKS collective features actors from beyond the Bay Area, including Southern California and Boston.
Theater-by-mail may be low-tech compared to performing via video conference, but the concept came with its own array of unusual logistics.
With the U.S. Postal Service's well-publicized delivery troubles over the past year or so, the company made sure to put a system in place to deal with any letters that go astray. Each missive is numbered so that audience members don't accidentally open anything in the wrong order that would spoil the show for them (the correct order is also shared on the show's website).
As they developed "Special Delivery," the collective had to approach creating a theatrical experience in a new way, such as having to take into account a sensory element, which doesn't come into play much with traditional in-person productions or those presented online. Company members had to consider not only how the letters would be designed, including instructions on how to read them, but also what paper each letter might use, not to mention how to incorporate props in this production.
The unique challenge was, Ardelean said, "'How do we create not only the storytelling aspect of it, but also that theatrical aspect of it?'".
And then of course making sure every piece of mail actually reaches its destination has involved a multitude of mailing labels.
"We have to have mailing labels for every single thing. With just the labels alone, it was like, 'My God, how do we do this?'" Ardelean said with a laugh. "It's just been a new way of thinking."
If "Special Delivery" does well in its first outing, the company will look at potentially offering it again this fall, she said, and could even add a theater-by-mail production as a regular feature of coming seasons.
Subscriptions for "Special Delivery" are $20 and offered on a limited basis; as of press time, subscriptions were still available. For more information, visit fusetheatre.org.