So here's a dilemma for you. You have Jude Law, Gillian Anderson, Michael Palin and about thirty other stellar names on a whiteboard, and you have to suggest what on earth they might like to perform in a few days' time. There's only one clear guideline: they - and the list also includes Juliet Stevenson, John Bishop, Toby Jones, Lily Cole, Peter Capaldi, Toby Jones, Jarvis Cocker and Sophie Dahl - will all be reading letters at Freemasons' Hall in London's Covent Garden next week. There may be letters from Napoleon Bonaparte, Lewis Carroll or Tom Hanks, and they might be about love, injustice or the upcoming US elections. But who reads what and when? Should they pair up or read individually?
The whiteboard is propped up on a desk in a Bloomsbury production office. The event in question is called Letters Live, and I'm one of several anxious and excited producers putting together a string of evenings that won't compare with anything else on any stage. The event runs for five nights from 4-8 October, and as the first night approaches the board is getting both full and smudgy. It's astonishing to see so many talented names up there keen to read; it's frustrating when we get emails during our meetings explaining that others we've invited can't do it because they're filming in New York or on holiday that week; it's wonderful when Sophie Dahl and Jamie Cullum confirm that they're on board and keen to support Help Refugees, one of the three charities that benefit from Letters Live performances (the other two are the literacy champions First Story and Ministry of Stories.) And it's rewarding to think one can create something from nothing that one hopes the audience will remember for a very long time.
Letters Live began its life in a Notting Hill pub in the autumn of 2013. Jamie Byng, the managing director of Canongate Books, wanted to launch two new publications in an exciting way. One of them was mine (To The Letter, a history and celebration of the art of letter writing) and one of them was compiled by Shaun Usher (Letters of Note, a superlative collection of letters through the ages culled from his website of the same name). The letters were great - some by superstars, some by unknowns, some moving and historically significant, others just hilarious - but they would be even better read aloud. As we sat in that pub we wondered who should read what, much as we do now. Life was made easier by the fact that the line-up at the launch featured Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Cave, Gillian Anderson and many other astonishing talents. The night was a great success, raising £11,000 for good causes. And then the thought occurred: why don't we run with this for a bit?
So the shows continued, and grew, and Benedict Cumberbatch's management and production company, Sunnymarch Ltd, came on board as a permanent partner. The list of performers soon also included Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Ben Kingsley, Olivia Colman, Carey Mulligan, Tom Odell and Benjamin Clementine. We'd tapped into something enriching and necessary, the mingling of emotions in a unique way.
There's music as well as readings each night, and it's very difficult to describe the feeling when a great performer just nails it: a whole world revealed in a few minutes of beautiful and intimate writing. The show lasts about two-and-a-half hours, and in that time the audience may be transported to the office of the British ambassador in Moscow, the MTV awards, a palliative care centre in Cardiff, the London board of film censorship, and the keyboards and fountain pens of the likes of Tina Fey, Groucho Marx, Alan Turing, Maya Angelou and Roald Dahl.
To date, Letters Live has travelled to Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well as the Calais Jungle and Los Angeles. But precisely where we'll go in the next few days is still difficult to say. The performers - and in the upcoming run they'll also include Julian Clary, Louise Brealey, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kelvin Jones, Jon Snow, Edith Bowman, Romany Gilmour, Nicholas Parsons, Amanda Abbington, Omid Djalili, Colin Salmon, Matt Berry, Simon Day and Robert Rinder - will occasionally bring their own favourite letters to the mix, but the key is always balance: the right blend of material each night from far-flung locations and many centuries, and all the emotional bases.
Despite all our efforts in front of that whiteboard, the running order remains fluid until showtime. We always want to make it as topical as possible. And a few star performers always surprise us by turning up at the last minute, rejigging the programme and shredding nerves. But the letters always seem to pull everyone through, those raw and inspiring tokens of humanity that never fail to show us who we really are.
Letters Live is at Freemasons' Hall from 4-8th October. For more info please visit www.letterslive.com and for tickets, please visit Ticketmaster.co.uk
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