The Mailbox: Interview with Theater Director Sarah Murphy

The Mailbox
“The Mailbox” is a new play premiering courtesy of NYC’s Tiny Box Theater from May 27 to June 6.

“The Mailbox” is a new play premiering courtesy of NYC’s Tiny Box Theater from May 27 to June 6. The interactive show was created by Ya Chin Chang and it unfolds through theatrical text, original illustrations, audio and video (with closed captioning), text-based puzzles, and branching story interactives.

“The Mailbox” features a delightfully whimsical plot line that invites participants to join the Worldwide Wildlife Investigative Firm (WWIF) to solve a case involving the vanishing of every mailbox on earth. You are accompanied by the characters of WWIF’s agency: Lynx, Hound, Chameleon, and Raccoon. Participants are encouraged to dig, swim, and climb to uncover mysteries. The show begins with each participant receiving a packet of original artwork and theatrical text delivered to their own mailbox.

Sara Murphy, co-director of Tiny Box Theater, recently discussed the project via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?

Sarah Murphy (SM): I came to theater in a pretty traditional way. Studied it in undergrad at Drew University, and did some professional training with Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. My love of Shakespeare has been a major through-line in my life, leading me to the stage, but also back to school as both student and teacher. But I never stopped creating work with Joy Tomasko, who was the person who first introduced me to immersive and environmental theater way back in college. Along with Justin Steeve, another Drew alum, we founded Tiny Box Theater in 2015 with the goal of using found objects and repurposed boxes to tell tiny stories in intimate settings.

MM: Why were you drawn to “The Mailbox”?

SM: When Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin of Real Time Interventions conceived of the Post Theatrical festival, Joy and I knew that Tiny Box needed to be a part of it. We had used literal mailboxes in several of our past pieces, but delivering content through the mail and online was something we hadn’t yet tried. Joy’s first instinct was to bring artist Ya Chin Chang into the collaboration. Ya Chin is a classically trained fine artist, who also creates whimsical illustrations that reside in the visual language that Joy and I imagined for this piece. We were inspired by children’s story books by Richard Scarry and Brambly Hedge author Jill Barklem. Joy started with the question, “what happens when all of the mailboxes in the world disappear overnight?” and the three of us developed the story from there.

MM: How tough was it to plan this show during a pandemic?

SM: In some ways the pandemic offered us more time and space to create, and we developed this piece over a considerably longer period of time than we have had to create work in the past. But because our work had always been centered in close-up and tactile interactions between audience, performers, and objects, we had to design and discover entirely new ways of storytelling in order to make work that fits this socially distant present. From the beginning we knew that voice over would be a key component of The Mailbox, and we brought composer David Lamoureux on to engineer audio and to create original compositions. Working remotely on audio and video content presented challenges like trying to coordinate at-home recording set-ups with each voice artist, and we were lucky to have David, who made magic happen.

MM: What’s your favorite part of this play and why?

SM: My favorite scene is the one we call “Underground.” Ya Chin created a stunning cross section of an elaborate burrow featuring dozens of tiny animal characters, all of whom, as it turns out, are working to save life on earth. Joy and I wrote short snippets of dialogue for these creatures, and David and the voice artists gave audio life to them. Participants investigate the details of the illustration as they listen to the audio moments. The main characters and the audience members all learn a lot about the mystery of The Mailbox in this short scene.

MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?

SM: Several of our participants noted that they were unexpectedly moved by the way the story, which starts off like an amusing storybook, turns into a complex investigation of our relationship with wilderness and wildlife. We’ve also loved to hear about how audience members have connected to the various characters. We have them take a sort of personality quiz at the beginning of the piece to determine which of the main characters they most closely resemble, and this seems to have helped people maintain a personal relationship with the story.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

SM: With Tiny Box, Joy and I are hoping to present The Mailbox at least one more time this summer. We also have plans to dig into more longform audio work, and we want to explore the ghost-lore genre. As individual artists, we are keeping busy, too. I recently performed a monologue by playwright Ashley Minihan and produced as part of Faultline Theatre’s “In the Time of Corona…” project, which has been running for a year on Instagram. Joy and David are working on Denman Theatre & Dance Company’s piece about The Donner Party, and there are plans for that to be performed outdoors this August in Buffalo. Ya Chin consistently paints new compositions, each one so fascinating, and she regularly posts them on Instagram. She’s also planning to start teaching workshops exploring techniques she uses to connect the classical with the cute.

The MailboxMM: What kind of work does the Tiny Box Theater typically seek out?

SM: When we began creating work, we were usually inspired first by a box. A traditional mailbox, a vintage microscope box, an old cash register, a dollhouse. The story ideas came from an exploration of the boxes, and Joy brought them to life with her words. We are interested in participatory work that connects the audience to the objects of nostalgia and history, to the natural world, and to the seemingly simple questions of human existence. We want our participants to look and listen closely and to feel themselves to be part of the story.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

SM: We can’t wait for the time that we can bring our work back to live audiences and to visit festivals (like Figment and the Edinburgh Fringe) again. But on the other hand, we have loved being able to connect with participants all over the world with The Mailbox and to allow them to experience our story on their own time and from anywhere. We want to take what we’ve learned from this pandemic year and to continue to create new ways to connect stories to audiences.


Tickets and information for “The Mailbox” are available at Tickets are on sale now through May 14. Mailings are postmarked on May 17, the experience continues through June 6, with website access through June 30.