It’s a spring evening in downtown Bellingham, and people are enjoying the sunset on Bellingham Cider Company’s deck. It’s tempting to join them, but there’s a show starting soon next door at the New Prospect Theater. A walk through the labyrinthine rear entrance makes the outside world fall away.

In the theater, the performers mix with audience members in a casual pre-show gathering, then Jayne Entwistle steps to the podium and announces, “To Whom it May Concern,” and a show that is unlike anything else in Bellingham begins.

The one-hour production starts with a local musician performing three songs — in April, it was Allijah Motika, whose beautiful, catchy piano melodies transport the audience all the way out of their bubbles into the unique world of To Whom it May Concern. Throughout the rest of the show, the musician accompanies the reading of letters with riffs.

Entwistle starts by reading a letter taken from the Whatcom Museum archive. The selection provides a window into the past when, letters were the main method of communication. Often the address is simply “John Smith, Bellingham, Washington.” No zip code — and even a street address wasn’t strictly necessary. If a general location was written down, the USPS would find you.

A guest reads the Lobby Letter, a hodgepodge of sentences typed on a manual typewriter displayed in the lobby throughout the month. Random visitors type a sentence, and the resulting letter “reads like a fever dream,” says Entwistle.

Jayne Entwistle introduces a recent show. Photo courtesy Jayne Entwistle

Next, other people read their letters. They can be letters they received, letters they wrote, or letters they wrote and did not send. Entwistle read a spoof letter she wrote to Enya, about her hilarious experience working in a Japanese restaurant where Enya’s music was played for atmosphere. Letters can be aimed inanimate objects or concepts — anything you like.

In April’s show, visiting author Michelle Cox read a letter that appears in one of her books. Ventriloquist Brady McAtee read a letter narrated by his dummy, and closed his act by having the dummy sing a song.

April’s show held a lighthearted tone throughout. That isn’t always the case. The letters run the gamut from funny and sweet to cathartic — once a woman read a letter to her rapist. “Where else would she get the opportunity to express herself in that way?” Entwistle says.

Frequent readers Holly Witte and Sean Walbeck read a letter duet, an exchange between Witte and a conceited man via the personal ads of the 1990s. (The exchange did not end in romance.) “I saved those emails for years,” says Witte, “knowing I wanted to share them somehow. This was the perfect venue.”

The New Prospect Theater on Prospect Street in downtown Bellingham. Photo credit: Kristin Noreen

Walbeck adds, “Getting to run through it together before the show really helped nail the contrast and see how far I could take his tone, which really helped the audience hear that guy the way he was.”

You never know what you’re going to get at To Whom it May Concern. Entwistle says curating a show is a challenge, because she doesn’t receive enough submittals to stick to a theme for any given show. “Letters can be sad, funny, powerful, tremendous, and eye-opening,” Entwistle says. “They all tell a story.”

To Whom it May Concern was born 10 years ago in Los Angeles, when one of Entwistle’s friends asked her to write a regular feature in her online “zine.” At a loss for what sort of column to write, she started with comedy letters to her plants, her car, and to cheese. Friends urged her to do a one-woman show, which she thought was “cliché,” but she liked the idea of highlighting letters.

Entwistle moved to Bellingham in the middle of the pandemic and found it hard to make friends during that isolating time. She had gone to Western Washington University, so she was no stranger to the town. She had always found her people in the theater, so she went to the New Prospect Theater to volunteer. After getting comfortable there, she pitched the show.

Photos courtesy Jayne Entwistle

“Letter writing is a lost art,” Entwistle says. “Letters are intimate, but there is a communal aspect to sharing them.” The show is unrehearsed, but she vets the letters first to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises.

Entwistle’s “day job” is the product of a long and somewhat accidental career. Born in England, her parents split when she was young, and she moved with her mother to Canada. As an adult, she settled in San Francisco for a time, then moved to Los Angeles. She had friends there, but they were too busy to help her get oriented. She looked for odd jobs on Craigslist, “back when it was non-seedy,” and did everything from pet sitting to auditioning for commercials. Eventually she got an agent and studied voiceover acting. She shifts seamlessly from her American accent to her natural British accent, with convincing regional variants of both. She became a “working actor,” appearing in a few episodes of many popular TV shows, including Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. “Auditions during the pandemic were by Zoom,” she says. “That made it easy to audition for a lot of roles. Now that we’re back to live auditions, they involve travel, so I do fewer of them.”

Acting kind of happened for Entwistle, but she always really wanted to make a career out of reading. “I think I’m addicted to reading,” she says. “Seriously, I never go anywhere without a book. I look forward to my reading time, and I’ll cut off social time so I can get back to my book.”

Photo courtesy Jayne Entwistle

A few years ago, she saw an ad for a “voice and general actress” to portray an 11-year-old British girl. The ad turned out to be from Penguin-Random House Publishing, to narrate a series of 10 audiobooks. Entwistle was a natural at narrating.

“Every character has a distinctive voice,” she says. “You’re narrating for men and women, adults and children, people from various walks of life. Every character needs their own voice.”

Entwistle has won awards for her narration from the Audio Publishers’ Association and the American Library Association. She rents a studio near the theater to do her narration in a sound-controlled environment. “It’s my dream job,” she says with a smile, “getting paid to do what I’d be doing anyway.”

Narration is a lot of work, though — before reading the book out loud, she must read through it and look up every word she isn’t certain how to pronounce correctly and take other notes relevant to the reading. “There’s a lot of planning before I say the first word out loud,” she says.

To Whom it May Concern is a labor of love, and provides a more social situation than narrating audiobooks, which is solitary by necessity. Anyone can be on the show, just submit a letter you’d like to read to letters@readyourletter.com. Check the website for show dates — they are based on availability of the theater. Whether you join the readers or the audience, you’re in for a great evening.

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