Misery Loves Company
'Mortified' turns teenage writing into performance
By Robyn Ross, Fri., Feb. 15, 2013
In high school, I hid my diary in a dresser drawer. Two decades later, I squinted into the stage lights and read it aloud to 150 beer-swilling strangers.
I was performing in Mortified, the show where everyday people read embarrassing things they wrote before age 21. Mortified originated in Los Angeles with Dave Nadelberg, who in the late Nineties rediscovered an awkward adolescent love letter he'd written (and never sent) and started sharing it with friends. By 2002, he'd turned the impromptu readings into a live show with others reading their own past material. Today, Mortified is staged by local chapters in cities across the U.S., including Austin.
Anything that's unintentionally funny – journal entries, poetry, artwork, song lyrics, home movies – can make it into Mortified. For audiences, the show is both disturbing and cathartic. It becomes clear that your peers felt just as awkward as you did in high school, even though back then you felt completely alone. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy adolescents are all alike; every angsty teenager despairs in her own way.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what my diary would contribute to this conversation.
"Before the project," says local performer Roxy Castillo, "I would read through my journal and wonder, 'If people found this, what would they think?'
"And then having to present it to a crowd of strangers was like, 'Oh, okay. That's what they think.'"
Mortified's not an open mic show. One Saturday morning, when the Austin producers were seeking new performers, I brought them my diary and read a few passages aloud. It would be the only time I've shared my work and actually hoped people would cringe.
Producers are careful to call these meetings screening sessions rather than auditions. "That's because it's not a talent tryout," Nadelberg says. "But the other reason is, we try to keep an environment where we don't want people to feel ashamed or weirded out. People often cry during our sessions. When you come face to face with the words that you wrote as a kid, it can be a big head trip for a lot of people."
One of them was Castillo, a comedian and burlesque performer who found Mortified to be more revealing than her usual shows.
"When I first heard about Mortified, I thought, 'I've totally got this; my journals were meant to be read aloud,'" she said. "But having [the producers] validate the pain and confusion I went through, and having someone interpret it for me, was actually very therapeutic."
After the screening, I met Erica, my story producer, who would become a combination theatre director-therapist-detective-friend. We pored through my high school diaries, looking for writing that was unintentionally funny. We also had to find a theme. I would be playing a character who was my former self. Erica's job was to pinpoint her identity.
"Who were you in high school?" Erica asked. I skipped a grade and was the youngest kid in my class, I told her. "So were you considered a nerd?" By some, but I was also really school-spirity and on the drill team. Choosing my Mortified identity was unnerving. For the five minutes I'd be onstage, I'd be identified completely by a single dimension of my personality.
But the limited view is necessary for storytelling, Nadelberg says.
"Stories are windows into a house," he says. "That house is your life. You can look into as many as you want, and they're all accurate, but you only have a limited time onstage. It's about figuring out what window we should peek through."
Erica and I ultimately decided to present me as "the girl who wanted an awesome, all-American high school experience." My grades were good, and I was in a host of clubs. More importantly, I approached everything with incredible earnestness, framing routine events as milestones in an epic narrative.
Nov. 9, 1991: I am awesome! Drill team is awesome! Marble Falls is awesome! We are awesome! We played Llano last night and beat them at district. It was the best night of my life.
Castillo read from diaries she kept in eighth grade.
"I had a very strong sexual urge," she says of her 12-year-old self, "but I didn't do anything about it because I had so many insecurities. But on the Internet, I could go into AOL chat rooms, talk to guys, form relationships, and lie to them about being 16 and a model for Hot Topic, so I could validate all the sexual energy."
Castillo's story producer suggested the label "virginal slut," and she immediately agreed. "It was so nice to put a title to it," she says, "like when you're sick and then you get diagnosed with an illness."
Together, Erica and I chose excerpts from my diary, applying the mortification test: "The passages you don't want to read are the things we need to use." In most aspects of life, we edit out the embarrassing bits. Here, we were intentionally keeping them.
As we created my script, Erica coached me on where to pause for laughs and how to amplify the earnestness of my delivery.
Oct. 8, 1994: I'm so happy – we got a '1' at band contest. Once we got to Glen Rose, I was like, 'This is everything.' We did 'to the ready' and drill #1. I was going, 'This ... is everything.' I kept thinking, I'm going to miss my aerial, I'm going to drop it – no, I'm not! Then it was over and Mr. Davis said it was now between us, 3 guys in the press box, and God Almighty, and we already had 2 of those 3 on our side.
Erica was scribbling notes. "That's good, but play it up," she said. "Don't be afraid to go a little over the top – that's who your character is. This ... is everything."
My own words sounded ridiculous. It wasn't the first time they'd appeared in the diary. Everything? How could I have believed that a color guard routine was that important?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I still treated some experiences as "everything." Job interviews. Cocktail parties with Important People. I still obsessed about opportunities to prove myself, as though each one was my last chance.
It was liberating to realize how I was the same as that high school kid – and to decide consciously to change. Nadelberg had a similar experience with the letter that started Mortified. The letter – which he read during an Austin show last fall – introduced himself to a potential love interest and made the case that she should date him.
"The guy writing the letter is sincere, but he's trying a little too hard," Nadelberg says. "He's a bit of a salesman. Those are key elements that have driven my own triumphs and failures as an adult.
"Reading it allows me to be like, 'I'm not that guy anymore,' and it also allows me to be like the parts of me that are still that guy." By laughing – publicly – at ridiculous things we once did, we are simultaneously claiming and casting off our past selves.
Mortified turned 10 this year, a milestone for Nadelberg, 38. "I've spent the majority of my adulthood surrounded by and immersed in other people's childhoods," he says. That unusual vocation has led him to encourage everyone to participate in what he calls the "Mortified process."
"Even if you have zero interest in performing," he says, "go home and dig up one thing from your past, especially if it embarrasses you today, and share it with somebody – your sibling, your best friend, your spouse – out loud. Have the person ask questions about the kid who created that artifact. Whatever neuroses and skill sets you have as an adult, you can trace a lot of those back to your childhood and these pieces of paper."
When my turn came to perform, I stepped up to the microphone with my heart pounding. This, I wisely realized, was not everything. "Hi, I'm Robyn, and when I was a teenager, I wanted the quintessential high school experience ..."
The passage that got the most laughs was where I compared myself, with no sense of irony, to a more famous diarist: I finally borrowed Carl's letter jacket! I feel like Anne Frank, but I would like to describe what it feels like to wear it.
My performance wasn't the edgiest or the funniest, but I'm glad it's part of Mortified history. I now have a go-to story to tell around the campfire or to my seatmate on long flights. Besides, once you've stood onstage and read your ninth-grade secrets to a tipsy crowd, not much can scare you.
The process helped Castillo finally look directly at the awkward past: "It's not just a show. At first it just seems like a funny concept, but at the end of the day the audience is connecting with you, and I think that's really important in an art form. To be able to share ourselves with each other – to be honest with each other about our human plight – that we're all just 12-year-old horndog insecure weirdos. And that's okay."
Mortified Austin: Doomed Valentines Show will be performed Friday and Saturday, Feb. 15-16, 8pm, at the Spiderhouse Ballroom, 2908 Fruth. For more information, visit www.getmortified.com.