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Interview: Julien Planté celebrates the enduring power of LETTERS LIVE

Here's one of those rare projects that through its universal and simple medium - the humble and yet majestic letter - can touch all walks of life, you and I alike. LETTERS LIVE is the innovative series of curated events celebrating the enduring power of written correspondence.

Following its success in 2013 and '14 at venues ranging from The Hay Festival to the Southbank Centre, LETTERS LIVE returns to London from Tuesday 31st March to Saturday 4th April for its most ambitious run yet. Taking place at the unique art deco Freemasons' Hall, a stone's throw from Covent Garden, the event will invite high profile figures from the creative industries to read and perform each night.

Allow us to indulge you by alluding to some expectations, here's a snippet from their teaser: ‘From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter to the recipe for drop scones sent by Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower; from Elvis Presley’s crazed letter to President Nixon to Gandhi’s appeal to Hitler for calm on the eve of World War II; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan to a remarkable job application from Leonardo da Vinci, LETTERS LIVE captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that infect all our lives.’

Run-Riot caught up with the Managing Director and Curator Julien Planté to find out more about the event, the inspiration behind the project and how letters still hold such intrigue in our increasingly digital age.

Francesca Goodwin: How did the idea to focus upon letters come about?
Julien Planté:
LETTERS LIVE was born, like many good ideas (and numerous bad ones), in a pub in London in the Autumn of 2013. The trigger for this conversation was the imminent publication of two great books that in very different ways paid testament to the enduring power of the letter – Simon Garfield’s To the Letter and Shaun Usher’s anthology, Letters of Note.

Francesca: What do you think makes the actual performance so key? Did the idea for the events come at the same time as the interest in the letters themselves?
We believe that bringing letters alive through memorable performances is one of the most powerful ways in which the joy, pain, humour and tragedy of being human can be shared. Promoting literacy remains an important part of why LETTERS LIVE exists and we are happy to be supporting three brilliant literacy charities (First Story, The Reading Agency and Ministry of Stories) through this run of events.

Francesca: What would you say is the main differentiation, in terms of the delivery, between reading a letter to a novel or a script?
A letter is short and it can be more powerful than reading an excerpt from a novel or a script. Also it’s written from one person to another, and it’s usually not meant to be read in public. This is why we can reach a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement of imitation with the performance of reading a letter out loud. It’s the short format of a letter that attracted me the most, because it’s accessible.

Francesca: Could you tell us about how you go about selecting and curating the content for the events?
I like the idea of mixing emotions over the course of one event. We’re going to have around 20 letters each night, and we will shift from one mood to another, with different feelings throughout the night. We are going to give love letters, letters from jail or funny letters to our readers. The exciting thing in terms of curation is the connection between the reader, the letter and the location.

We’re going to have a former Bishop reading a letter by Albert Einstein answering the question ‘Do scientists pray?’; Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan will read Kurt Vonnegut’s powerful letter to Charles McCarthy about censorship; actress Sally Hawkins has chosen to read a letter by Vincent van Gogh… There is no theme. It’s all about celebrating letter writing.

Francesca: You don’t just curate letters but also performers - and you have a great line up planned for the 2015 season - how do you select them?
As with the letters, I like the idea of having a wide range of readers. Alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey who will read every night, we’re going to have many other high-profile, inspiring talents from the worlds of film, music, TV, art, literature, theatre and fashion. Our celebrated performers are all talented and experts in their fields. Many of them can’t come this time but love the idea of performing at future events.

Francesca: What influence has the setting of the March-April series in The Freemason’s Hall had upon your curatorial decisions?
The Freemasons’ Hall is an incredible art-deco building, with a lot of marble and high ceilings. It’s grand, it’s majestic and it’s quite impressive. We’re going to welcome 1,500 people every night in there. It’s a venue with stunning acoustic and excellent visibility. The reading of letters actually fits really well the Grand Temple where the performance will take place, because the audience will surround the readers. It’s a very inspiring venue.

Francesca: What do you hope for the audience to take away from experiencing the echoes of history’s correspondents?
The best thing would be to incite people to write letters! The act of writing letters is something that has disappeared, in our digital age of email and social media. I don’t expect to change people’s habits, it would be impossible, but at least the audience can appreciate the beauty and the power of literary correspondence. They will realise that writing and/or receiving a letter is something authentic and much more real than writing a Facebook post or being retweeted.

Francesca: What has been your favourite correspondence from the events so far?
My favourite is that wonderful, heartfelt letter of fatherly advice on the subject of love that John Steinbeck wrote to his 14-year-old son who had fallen in love with a young girl called Susan. I also love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter written to his daughter Scottie while she was away at camp at 11 years of age (‘things to worry about’ and ‘things not to worry about’). I found these two letters so inspiring.

Francesca: …and what’s your top tip for what we have to look forward to this season?
Hard to say, since guest readers will be different each night, apart from Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey… We also want to keep that element as a surprise. Well, I could reveal that we’ve got a good chance to have the amazing singer and pianist Tom Odell with us every night, and also that Matt Berry will be our 'voice of God’ as we say in theatrical productions and staging.

Francesca: Lastly, are there further plans for expanding LETTERS LIVE - later this year and beyond?
Definitely. Next event we’re doing is in Los Angeles on the 16th June with 826LA. It will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and we’ve already got an impressive line-up of great artists confirmed for that one. In the UK we’re talking with a couple of literary festivals for events in the comings months, and also with a wonderful venue in Central London to organise open-air readings of letters. Stay tuned, sign up to our newsletter and follow @letterslive for updates!

Tuesday 31 March - Saturday 4th April
Freemasons’ Hall
60 Great Queen Street
London WC2B 5AZ

Photo of Julien Planté, credit: Ki Price

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