“I have terrible handwriting,” Sheetz confesses. “I actually had dreams that I would send out these letters, and no one would be able to read them.”
Her solution was just one of her contributions to “Ken Ludwig’s ‘Dear Jack, Dear Louise’: Love Letter Experience,” whose nine installments-by-mail will start going out to ticket buyers in early March. Containing simulacra of handwritten and typed letters, telegrams, and other artifacts — such as a Broadway ticket stub — the mailings will evoke the bantering epistolary courtship between Jack, a U.S. Army doctor, and Louise, an Ethel Merman-idolizing actress. The characters are based on Ludwig’s parents.
For the handwritten letters, Sheetz sought out fonts that evoked Greatest Generation penmanship. A font called Dawning of a New Day seemed right for Louise, while Mulder’s Handwriting fit Jack. She transcribed the correspondence using those fonts, traced the text onto stationery with the help of a lightbox, scanned the tracings into a computer, fine-tuned in Photoshop, and copied the resulting documents on a laser printer.
“I actually like projects that take time,” Sheetz says, via Zoom, from the crowded Arena prop shop, with a surface piled with paper behind her.
“Love Letter Experience” was the brainchild of Arena casting director and line producer Teresa Sapien, whose real-life buddies communicate by snail mail. “Shout-out to my friends who kept me entertained through the post” she says.
Inspired by her pen pals, Sapien conceived of mailings that would reimagine Ludwig’s narrative — for audiences who had missed the original play as well as those who had seen and loved it — while also generating work for Arena artisans. The company has experimented with films and other ventures during the pandemic, but because safety measures (at least initially) dictated that the film actors bring their own props, Arena’s properties team hadn’t had a big project to tackle, Sapien says.
“Love Letter Experience” follows in the wake of epistolary ventures by other theaters. It also coincides with renewed public appreciation for — and strain on — the Postal Service, which has become a lifeline for lockdown-era shopping, voting and connection.
Sapien’s mail-dependent concept won over her colleagues and Ludwig, but the adaptation process was challenging. The original play chronicles years of humor, awkwardness, misunderstandings and growing intimacy between the characters. “Love Letter Experience” had to be succinct. “It was important to not have it drag on too long. So we worked with Ken and really abridged the story,” Sapien says.
When it was time to create the packets, Lance Pennington, Arena’s associate properties director, was able to return to work after being furloughed. While Sheetz was never furloughed herself during the pandemic, her work schedule had been scaled back to part-time, even as she coped with processing an uptick in donations (a neon beer sign, a lobster crate and more), seemingly because cooped-up locals were cleaning house.
She returned to a full-time schedule to design, manufacture and keep track of the “Love Letter Experience” artifacts: Arena is prepared to send out as many as 1,000 complete sets.
Sheetz had worked on “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” in 2019. But since almost all the physical letters in the stage production had been blank — in accordance with director Jackie Maxwell’s wishes, Sheetz says — that experience was of limited relevance now.
In late 2020, she plunged into preparations for “Love Letter Experience.” The project’s creators have employed some creative license: Louise catches the musical “Oklahoma!” earlier than she actually could have, for instance. But Sheetz’s research has been extensive. She trawled military-related websites to figure out what Jack’s return addresses would have been from various Army posts. She sourced envelopes that had the right 1940s-style back flaps. She worked with a vendor to create reproduction “Western Union Telegram” and “It’s Wise to Wire” inkpad stamps.
On eBay, she purchased a letter sent via V-Mail, the system that transmitted mail to U.S. troops overseas during World War II. Seeing an example of the standardized stationery allowed her to mimic the paper texture and approximate dimensions (she enlarged slightly for readability).
The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum website was a helpful guide to 1940s postage. Sheetz used Photoshop to reproduce historic philatelic images on sheets of linen paper, then cut out the facsimile stamps with a perforated blade that created the right ragged edges. A three-cent stamp celebrating the 150th anniversary of Kentucky statehood suited Louise’s first letter, dated June 1942, whereas a subsequent missive could sport the three-cent “Win the War” stamp, issued on July 4, 1942.
With research completed, there has been a factory-line aspect to producing the packets, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After nearly a year of disruption, Sheetz says, her “Love Letter Experience” tasks are a welcome return to all-but-vanished routine.
“It feels a little bit normal,” she says. “It’s fantastic to be working with my hands again.”
Ken Ludwig's 'Dear Jack, Dear Louise': Love Letter Experience
Dates: Mailings begin in early March and run through the end of the month. Subsequent purchase available, depending on demand.