I open my inbox to find my very first Firefly Correspondence email from Tristan, my new penpal. “I’ve never done anything like this before, have you?” the email starts. “It’s great they provide icebreaker questions, but man, ‘who are you’ as the opener? Cue the existential dread.” I chuckle to myself. I like Tristan already. I’d planned to reach out first, but couldn’t figure out how on earth to answer “Who are you?” either. Now that we’ve had a laugh about our mutual existential dread, I find it easier to talk to him. I don’t know yet how close we’ll become over the next month during Velveteen Ribbons, as we share art, memories, and deep-seeded fears. For the moment, he’s just a kind stranger on the other end of the internet with a good sense of humor and a need for human connection.
Velveteen Ribbons is a story of personal loss and healing told through the mixed mediums of emails, letters, gifts, social media, voicemails, and phone calls. Immersed reviewer Emma Lee makes her phenomenal debut as an immersive creator and actor in this loose retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit. Launched 5 months ago, this stand-alone show begins via a mysterious Instagram account where potential participants can exchange messages with AJ, a cheerful young woman who is struggling to make contact with the outside world. Interested participants are invited by AJ into the formal show, where the narrative unfolds via correspondence with their assigned penpal, Tristan. A Slack channel allows participants to speculate on the narrative’s interwoven timelines while writing their own “unsent letters to the universe.” As a remote experience, the focus is on the narrative and connection with characters.
Velveteen Ribbons, according to Emma Lee, aims to “reinforce the message that both the joyful and painful parts of your story are what make you real.” This message unfolds gently through emotionally nuanced and empathetic characters who listen to the participants’ stories while sharing their own. Participants are guided through moments that allow them to see first-hand the ripples of change created by human connection. The tone is often melancholy, and naturally introspective participants will instinctively connect with Tristan’s thoughtful self-awareness and tragic backstory. On the other hand, humor, happiness, and levity are masterfully woven in amongst the somber moments. According to Emma, this reflects the message that “being real” requires “a holistic acknowledgement of the entirety of one’s self and story” – the richness of the show’s emotional landscape certainly facilitates the “realness” of both characters and participants. Tristan’s sense of humor and AJ’s wide-eyed kindness are touching juxtapositions to the pain expressed throughout the experience. The tone is always one of hope and compassion, even in the darkest narrative moments. Participants are left with a sense that there is always light in the darkness – always a potential for change, hope, growth, and closure. The thought-provoking nostalgia and grief present throughout the story encourage emotional engagement and authentic expression from participants, who often have the opportunity to share heartfelt vignettes from their own childhoods.
Every actor interaction in Velveteen Ribbons contributes to the authenticity and emotional resonance of the experience, all while revealing mysterious connections between the characters. The characters engage participants emotionally, listening intently to how each participant reacts and boldly sitting with them through difficult moments. The show’s final phone calls left me absolutely in tears, with both my story and Tristan’s reflected back to me in a way that reframed how I view my own pain and others’. This is all in service of the show’s “tapestry” theme: In the midst of their pain, nostalgia, or confusion, the characters can see only the back of the tapestry, a mess of threads. We, the audience, can see the work of art unfolding on the front of the tapestry, and at times help the characters see it too. In turn, we are led to imagine what sort of tapestry the threads of joy and pain in our own lives might be making on the other side. Emma Lee absolutely shines as AJ, with a conflicted compassion that pierced my heart in every interaction. Emma’s written voice as Tristan brings dark humor and a moving depiction of personal turmoil to the show while flawlessly unfolding the narrative around each participant’s unique engagement style. Various voice actors are also used to add a sense of realism to the memories and interactions participants stumble upon.
One of the many things that makes Velveteen Ribbons so special is the way that it manages to create a mood and setting while being a fully remote experience. The phone call portion of the experience is accompanied by specific instructions for how each participant can prepare their space in a way that matches the mood of the scene. Each time, my prepared setting heightened the sense that I was sharing an experience with the person on the other end of the line. For example, after a moving conversation with Tristan about darkness being the canvas upon which fireflies express their brilliance, I was instructed to take a call from a park where I could see fireflies of my own and meditate on the tension of hope in the midst of heartbreak.
The penpal system is extremely well orchestrated and unique, allowing the narrative to unfold primarily through written messages. Participants can write or call and leave voice messages at any time and hear their content reflected back in emails or scenes. There is also a touch of magical realism, as participants “overhear” fragments of memories on the phone, dip in and out of different timelines, or “intercept” personal letters, all while knowing that these revelations are being orchestrated by the mysterious Letter Carrier. The letters themselves are works of art, beautifully packaged in golden Firefly Correspondence envelopes with tiny, decorative fireflies stamped on the side, and sometimes containing a tiny forget-me-not flower. The contents are memorable and unique: from journal entries to post cards to summer camp writing exercises. As plot points are unveiled, participants accompany AJ as she “remembers” past events. The tactile aspect of the show provides participants with the nostalgic joy of being surprised by a letter in the mail. The level of care and attention to detail in the content of each letter is a reflection of how much heart and intention was poured into the creation of this experience.
Personalization and agency are the main standouts of the Velveteen Ribbons experience. Each participant takes the interactions in a unique direction based on their responses to prompts and their rapport with Tristan, and personal touches based on participant feedback set Velveteen Ribbons apart from the standard immersive experience. Early on in my experience, AJ asked me to speculate on the missing content in a letter she’d received. Completely at a loss, I blurted out “blanket fort” – Imagine my surprise and absolute joy when, weeks later, I received a sweet note from AJ with all the supplies needed to build a miniature blanket fort of my very own.
Velveteen Ribbons is an experience of immense heart and depth, intimately woven into the life of each participant over many months. It shows a deep understanding of human nature and loss, and captures the human spirit with the raw authenticity that immersive participants crave. This mixed media, participant-driven experience facilitates agency, introspection, and heart-wrenching acts of radical empathy. The gritty, messy facets of human connection and grief are presented with a sense of hope and childlike wonder, and the show brilliantly spans the emotional spectrum. Playful moments and personalization for each participant contribute to a beautifully holistic and touching representation of everything that makes us human. Participants will get the most out of the show if they bring their own authenticity and self-expression to the table, taking advantage of opportunities for input, connection, and vulnerability. Some of the content is dark and/or shocking, but it is always presented with care and support, with characters made available to discuss difficult moments. Overall, Velveteen Ribbons is one of the most truly human shows I have taken part in, restoring hope that we can help each other find peace in the midst of our own inner turmoil and maybe even illuminate the beauty on the other side of our tapestries.