Julia Stanisci’s Leaning on Letters


An advertisement for IYRT’s Leaning on Letters

Catherine Gunther, Staff Writer

“When was the last time you wrote a letter?” The opening line of Leaning on Letters, Julia Stanisci’s directorial debut, poses a question central to the performance, her thesis, and the work she has done during her time at Villanova. On January 25th and 26th in the Communication Department Studio on the Villanova campus, Stanisci, in partnership with Caitlin Coleman Martin and Dr. Evan Schares, presented a performance which uniquely accessed the realities of mental health, the stigma associated with it and the power of sharing one’s story. 

Stanisci is the founder and leader of the Villanova chapter of If You’re Reading This Nova, an online campaign which presents open letters from members of the Villanova community in which they share their experiences with mental health struggles and foster an encouraging environment for their peers. Stanisci describes IYRT Nova as “a place where we can use our voices to touch the lives of those around us.” As the name demonstrates, the letters submitted serve not only as a means of sharing one’s journey, but also as a source of reflection, guidance and hope for the reader. Sometimes the reader is reassured they are not alone in the difficult feelings they face. They may be reassured that there are resources and a support system of loved ones they can fall back on. Readers may discover new methods of coping or develop a better understanding of the difficulties they face. Most of all, readers are shown that there is hope, that the people writing these letters have been stronger than their struggles and recovery is possible. 

The piece began with simple staging consisting of various elevated surfaces, and pieces of paper littered around the space. The performance began with Stanisci guiding the audience through her journey with mental health. As she spoke, she clutched a green envelope. This envelope served as a thread which visually linked each unique story weaving Julia’s experience with the letters of other Villanova students. Actors represented the authors and recited their letters reminding the audience “we are all broken, that’s how the light gets in (Charlotte D. ‘22).” The performances were poignant, and each cast member communicated the deeply personal struggle of the author while also emphasizing their courage and the hope they found. 

The show acts as an integral piece of Stanisci’s master’s thesis on “the power of therapeutic letter writing performance in the context of mental health advocacy. In presenting this work, Stanisci hoped to discover what happens when the letters “jump from the page to the stage.” Having led the Villanova chapter of IYRT, Stanisci has experienced, first-hand, the tremendous power of therapeutic writing as well as the power that comes from sharing these stories to a larger audience. Taking the stories from the page to the stage provides a unique opportunity to witness the effect of such a performance on the actors as well as the audience in the moment. What happens when you bring people together to hear each other’s stories and discuss mental health. 

Maybe you haven’t written a letter in a while, maybe when you have it always had a narrow purpose. Stanisci and the cast of Leaning on Letters invite people to write a letter for themselves, to write letters to discover things they did not know, and thereby discover the “power of therapeutic letter writing.” The performance furthers this mission by breaking down the barriers of stigma surrounding mental health and initiating a dialogue because it is “through dialogue that cultural change may take place.” 

There is a certain delicacy necessary when dealing with topics of such great importance, weight and emotion as well as in telling the true vulnerable stories of real people. Leaning on Letters brilliantly creates a space in which the authentic stories of community members are presented truthfully, from the source and with the essential purpose of inspiring those struggling and communicating a message of perseverance above all else.