Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A performance series and podcast builds community around cringe-worthy moments.
A microphone stands on stage, bathed in blue light. The audience hums and shifts in their seats. Backstage, Scott takes a swig of water to steady himself. “I’m gonna throw up again,” he says, laughing, towards the beginning of the documentary Mortified Nation. Soon, he’ll walk out, blink through the glare, and read excerpts from his childhood diaries.
“Mortified,” a performance series, print anthology, and podcast, invites participants to excavate their childhood ephemera, sculpt it into a narrative, and deliver it to an audience. Since 2002, live shows—some of which are captured in the documentary—have been held throughout the U.S. and Europe, including Oslo, Portland, Boston, Helsinki, and Dublin. They often take place in performance venues or bars, and occasionally outdoor festivals—including one in New York City where participants, baring their vulnerability on stage, looked out at a sea of nudists.
Prospective participants approach “Mortified” producers with a trove of diaries or other primary sources that have been gathering dust bunnies. Topics emerge by sifting through all that material. They range from the superficial—wanting a prom date—to the psychological, such as sketching oneself as a superhero endowed with badly desired powers. A TV project, shooting in October and scheduled to air in 2017, is organized by broad themes such as love and family.
Why would someone spill their guts in front of room full of strangers? Dave Nadelberg, the founder of “Mortified,” founder, chalks it up to a cocktail of “comedy and pathos,” coupled with the jolt that sparks a performer given the chance to command the stage. There’s also an element of rooting around for authenticity. Online, we might fashion avatars that represent the choicest elements of ourselves. Diaries, in contrast, are unabashedly unselfconscious; most people who scribble in them assume that the contents won’t be aired. In the documentary, released in 2013, 14-year-old Chloe pages through a paisley notebook in a pearly white bedroom. “When I get older, I’m afraid I’m going to forget everything,” she said. “I want to preserve my thoughts and my feelings.” Dusting off those diaries is a way to reconnect with an unfiltered younger version of yourself.
In doing so, Nadleberg says, participants can cut their younger selves some slack for neurotic obsessions or questionable fashion choices. “A lot of us have this love/hate relationship with the kid we used to be,” Nadleberg says. Behind the impulse to revisit these dispatches, he adds, is the desire to figure out how to “live in harmony with the ghost of our past.”
“Mortified” has some thematic overlap with other confessional projects, such as PostSecret. But here, anonymity is anathema; the personal element is the glue that holds the whole thing together. It’s catharsis through vulnerability that’s recognized, shared, and validated. The audience is key.
I attended a recent show in Brooklyn, where I learned that S.M. Shrake believed in gnomes. He told the audience how, for his 5th grade science class, he made a diorama exhaustively categorizing their taxonomies. (He’s also given presentations about his collection of Barbara Streisand memorabilia.) To flesh out his science report, he staged photos, propping gnome statues up in his yard. He made red caps for them and arranged the figurines in piles of leaves. “I can remember thinking, ‘The only reason I have to do this fakery is because they’ve been hiding themselves,’” he told me after the show.
During his performance, Shrake projects his artwork on a screen behind him as he reads from his old school report. On one page, he’s sketched gnomes’ ears over and over, trying to perfect their creases and folds. After the show, I ask him about how he pushed past any discomfort around his story. “If we focus on the part where I thought gnomes were real, yeah, I’m embarrassed about it,” he tells me. “Is 10 too old to believe they’re real? Is that magical thinking?” I tell him no; I could imagine myself having done something similar with fairies, if I’d had more patience. “Or more markers,” he adds.
There’s something baldly, marvelously relatable about listening to someone detail the quicksand of childhood or adolescence—crushes, evil teachers, parents who just don’t understand—and see the speaker arrived safely on the other side. Sharing those angsty writings on stage disarms some of the stuff that felt so explosive at the time.
Vulnerability gives way to connection. The audience is rooting for the storyteller, because their woes are ones that are painfully and hilariously familiar. Nadelberg says people often tell him the performances won’t quite work for crowds in some cities, where people might be buttoned up. He finds that this prediction is often disproved. Touching on similar themes, the stories strike a nerve, and similar through lines pop up across varied geographies. “I could go to Dallas, Baltimore, and London and find that exact same story,” Nadelberg says.
Listening to one of these performances, it’s tempting to pipe up to swap anecdotes—which has the effect of shrinking a hulking, faceless city, at least temporarily, into a neighborhood. Growing up in suburban Michigan, Nadelberg says, “I knew my neighbors. I think many of us live in a world where we feel alone and disconnected all the time.” The stories demand empathy for the teller, and maybe among the audience members themselves.
Nadelberg says viewers often line up after the show to gather the storyteller into a hug. “I love seeing that hug happen,” he says.