The recent blaze in the hills behind Montecito reminded Santa Barbarans of a feeling too familiar: the destructive nature of fire and its ability to destroy the artifacts that represent a person or family’s recent (and distant) history. It was in such a fire that Andrew Carroll, author of the upcoming production If All the Sky Were Paper, lost everything — most importantly, letters he’d saved from his ancestors, a family history in a series of first-person accounts. When he fully realized his loss, relief came from an unlikely source: A distant cousin contacted Carroll and sent him a bundle of letters that he was planning to throw away if Carroll didn’t want them. Carroll accepted the gift and was inspired by the contents — letters from wartime and letters sent from combat half a world away. While only this tiny portion of the family legacy in letters remained, their impact motivated Carroll to begin building a new, global legacy.
“So many people have letters that they would otherwise throw away,” Carroll said. “But these letters are part of our national history.” Carroll’s theory was confirmed when, after running a column in Dear Abby asking readers to send him photocopies of their wartime correspondences for his Legacy Project, letters from every American conflict and state started arriving in crates via post.
Currently, the collection numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Many notable letters — such as one written on a piece of Hitler’s stationary, pilfered by the American serviceman who found his private apartment, or a gripping, real-time account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, told from a sailor trapped in the USS New Orleans as Japanese bombs barraged the naval base — have been displayed in the historical context provided by museums. But Carroll still yearned to create an artistic presentation of these intimate glimpses into wartime life. If All the Sky Were Paper is the narrative born from these letters. All the Sky features authentic accounts of the servicemen and women in combat and the people they corresponded with back home. There are passionate love letters, letters of loneliness, and letters that describe the bravery and sacrifice of comrades. This show demonstrates the perseverance of humanity, despite living in the most frightening of times.
Carroll describes the play as one with the continual capacity to evolve. With the constant influx of dispatches donated to the project, potential new dramatic material is frequently discovered. All the Sky features a narrative based on Carroll’s global search for wartime letters. The narrator travels to military bases throughout the world asking troops to save their letters and emails; as he journeys, actors perform the letters, illustrating the human capacity for survival that remains consistent across continents and centuries. All the Sky shares true accounts of people from the American Revolution to the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. “The language has changed,” Carroll noted, “but the sentiment hasn’t.”
The letters in this show not only describe heartbreaking moments of cruelty and courage but also demonstrate an encouraging sense of humor and playfulness to comfort worried friends and family back home. Missives from people in other countries are also featured, to include the non-Americans’ perspectives on American conflicts. Early versions of the show lacked closure for characters, but Carroll’s updated concept allows for the narrator to provide insight about the actual fate of each character so the audience has a sense of completion. A well-crafted tribute to American history, If All the Sky Were Paper features letters that are a definitive touchstone in the campaign to save these important primary-source accounts of wartime experiences dating back to the very birth of our nation.
If All the Sky Were Paper plays Wednesday, November 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For information, call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.com.