The Give & Take: A Conversation with Shelley Butler and West Hyler

(Photo by Shelley Butler and West Hyler)

In March of 2020, everything changed for theater directors Shelly Butler and West Hyler. 

After their graduations from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California San Diego, respectively, the couple found their professional careers flourishing – assisting and directing a number of productions both nationally and internationally. West spent six years as the Associate Director of Jersey Boys and went on to direct for the Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil’s first Broadway musical, Paramour. Shelley moved into the realm of regional theater, directing productions including A Doll’s House Part 2, A Wrinkle in Time, and the Japanese premiere of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo.

When the COVID-19 pandemic turned theaters across the globe dark, Shelley and West were put out of work indefinitely and decided to drive up to a tiny, oceanside cabin in Maine. As they sat without Wi-Fi and television for six weeks, they dedicated their time to brainstorming ways in which they could bring the beloved elements of live theater into homes across the country.

It was here where their company, Artistic Stamp, was born.

I had the chance to sit down with Shelley and West to hear first hand about their experience starting Artistic Stamp during this time. In our conversation, they discussed their pre-pandemic work-life balance, the COVID-19 shift, the inspiration behind and future of Artistic Stamp, their words of inspiration, and their thoughts on the future of the entertainment industry. 

Below is their story.

Yearning For Balance

What was happening in your professional lives before COVID-19? What was a typical day like?

Shelley: “There wasn’t a typical day except that we were both slammed at the time that COVID-19 hit. A typical day meant that either one or both of us was in rehearsal, quite possibly not in the same city. I was starting to yearn for a little bit more work-life balance. I had begun to try to figure out how to carve out a life that gave me all of the artistic fulfillment but have just a little more control over the schedule. I think you work so many years to be in the position to get the work that you don’t even question when you get to juggling the many, many things.”

West: “A typical year, I would say each of us would direct two shows out of town minimum. That would mean that each of us was gone at least four to six weeks for each of those shows. Then, in addition to those two shows we do anywhere from seven projects in New York. There’s a show that I’m working on right now with the dance company iLuminate that we were actually supposed to open during the pandemic. We were actually in Las Vegas in tech when the whole strip shut down.”

The Seismic Shift

How has your professional life been affected by COVID-19?

Shelley: “Everything changed. We had been in New York for 15 years and then COVID-19 hit. We are now in Greenville, South Carolina. So, we’ve taken sort of a gap year. We’ve been married since 2007 and this is by far the longest time we have been in the same location. By far. That was true three months into COVID-19. We went from frequently traveling and always being in rehearsal or design meetings to being in our house. It’s a seismic shift.”

The Hunger For Connection

How did Artistic Stamp come to be?

West: “I was doing the Orchard Project Liveness Lab and it was this whole investigation into what is ‘liveness’. How do you define this thing we love about live theater and how does this happen? We started thinking about a shared space, we started thinking about a one-on-one experience. We started thinking about how the audience, when you’re doing theater, it is a two player game. The audience’s reactions are informing the piece, and there’s something about danger too. 

We’re asking all these sorts of questions and we stumble upon the idea of letter writing and how that captures all of these things. I’m not saying it’s live theater, but it does have a danger to it because you do share space and you can send things through the mail. It does feel like the audience directly affects the actor. You are actively involved.”

Shelley: “We started questing for a way to create but also a way to generate work for other artists. So, we started Artistic Stamp, a plays-by-mail company. Our inaugural season was six playwrights. We really put it together and just a couple of months. We launched Season One in September and Season Two just went on sale.

We were looking for a way to capture the give and take between the performer and the audience. We landed on a reach back for snail mail, creating an experience that you receive at home alone. Sort of intimate, but the shared space of the page. We dramaturg the arc of the story and we work on what the story is going to be. The actors do the handwriting, but also they do a fair amount of improvisation. The story comes to you, you write back, and the actor is going to respond directly to what you said and weave it into the story. You have the opportunity to alter the course of the piece and to potentially change the outcome. People were hungry for connection, ready and eager to respond. It became a way for us to capture so many of the things that we love in a way that we didn’t expect to.” 

Spokes On The Wheel

How is your work as a theater director similar or different to your work with Artistic Stamp?

West: “We both are sort of the epicenter of the creative communication process in our work. You have designers, actors, producers, playwrights. But it all comes to us, like the spokes on the wheel, before it goes out to anyone else. Whether it’s a design discussion, audience relationship, talking to the actor, all these things we make sure that we know what’s happening. We’re in every one of those triangulating ourselves. There was sort of a preparation from what we’ve done before, to be able to do this kind of work. We’ve set it up very much like a theater company.”

Returning To The Mailbox

What do you think lies ahead for the future of Artistic Stamp?

Shelley: “We created this company because we wanted to generate work, because we wanted to continue to create. I believe Artistic Stamp will have a life after COVID-19. I think we will continue to direct live theater as well. We’re in conversations with some schools and thinking about taking some more pieces, particularly those that are historical education pieces, and engaging students in that way. We have some other ideas about exploring multiplayer adventures in which you are interacting with other audience members. We’re talking to theater companies about partnering and offering Artistic Stamp within their seasons.

But, what we found was, there is a hunger for this one-on-one, bespoke experience. This tailored experience. People are hungry for connection. They are also hungry for the ability to have their own response. There’s something really powerful about that we want to continue to investigate. The audiences will continue to want to have a reason to be excited to go to the mailbox even when we return to live theater.”

The Spark

Do you have any words of inspiration to those who may be going through or have gone through similar experiences?

West: “If you’re an artist, you’ve got to make art. You just have to. If you can find a way to make some living out of it, that’s fantastic. But you need to do it, whether or not you can. That’s going to be true of everyone, every actor or designer or director. I’d say you’ve got to get together and do something, whether it is creating Zoom plays with your friends, whether it’s writing something, whether it’s making stop motion videos, whether it’s doing magic shows socially distanced for your family. Whatever it is, you have to do it. If we all keep doing it, then I think tons of people are going to find new ways and safe ways to do it and innovate things that we never even thought about before.”

Shelley: “However you have to get through this is okay. I work with a lot of playwrights, and after touching base with several of them over the last many weeks a lot of them have said ‘I don’t know what to write about. I don’t feel the spark.’ And that that is okay too.”

Opening The Door

What do you think lies ahead for the future of the entertainment industry?

Shelley: “I think there is great value in streaming. Maybe we’ll learn an economic lesson from Hamilton. In creating live experiences, dynamically capturing them, and then making them available to exist beyond the production, it expands the audience. We throw all of this energy into this beautiful live experience which should be special and valued. However, why should we not open the door so that when that production closes you can continue to purchase or stream that show if you want access to it? I’m lobbying for a combination of visions in the future.”

West: “I think there’s going to be a shift. I think live entertainment is going through a bit of a rethink, and I think we are doing something that we’re very proud of and have felt very inspired by. I think there are others out there that we don’t even know about that other people are dreaming up in their home right now. Those will come to the surface. I think we’ll have a whole lot more options about what theater is and what live entertainment can be once we come out of this.”

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