Drama Tween: Sarah Wildman performs for Mortified

By Sarah Wildman
Sunday, December 6, 2009

On Jan. 9, 1988, a girl in a quiet New Jersey suburb let a boy take off her bra for the first time. "Going to second is so weird," she wrote a few days later. "It's just like -- I don't know how to explain it. Does it give the guy a lot of pleasure? I will probably never ask."

That girl? Me. Those questions? Mine.

Two months into my 13th year, I was terrified and adventurous, shy and extroverted, teen and little girl, overwhelmed by everything from

the boy I was "dating"to the girls who were my best friends. "Does anyone ever figure themselves out?" I asked my diary that winter plaintively, sincerely. For four snowy months of eighth grade, I recorded my experiences in a navy cloth-covered journal named Lucy, so called because my first diary sported the Peanuts character on the cover. And so, Lucy the comic book shrink became my therapist for those painful tween years, and it was Lucy with whom I would share what I couldn't share with anyone else in the world.

That is until the evening of Oct. 22, 2009, when I confided the whole affair to a purple-lit dance hall packed with a few hundred instant-intimates, mostly strangers and a smattering of friends. Like a high-wire act of full-frontal Facebooking, I lay bare the innermost secrets of my childhood self. Mortifying? Pretty much. Liberating? Totally, as my eighth-grade self would say.

That night, six other former teens took to the stage and read their diaries, letters, novellas and poetry -- a madcap breakfast club of onetime misfits, all grown up. Neither random assemblage nor open-mike night, this was a purposefully and carefully curated collection called "Mortified" -- a seven-year-old theater project that gathers "the artifacts of adolescent expression" and brings them to the stage in a performance where the actors are the protagonists of their own stories and the weightiest fears of our adolescence are aired as comic relief.

Said my cast mate Adam Ruben: "The success of a 'Mortified' show is that it's kind of like a party where all of us who made it out of childhood alive get to celebrate."

***

Nearly a decade ago, David Nadelberg, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, came across a desperate high-school-era love letter he had written. Far from the crushing despair he'd felt at the time, he now found his text hilariously funny. Friends mentioned they had material from the same era: poetry and journals, song lyrics and notes passed in class. So Nadelberg got the idea: What if we did a whole night of this? What if we put something up live? In 2002, an old college theater buddy, Neil Katcher, joined Nadelberg, and the two began producing a monthly show in Los Angeles. The idea spread to Washington, New York, Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and a smattering of international cities.

The trick to the performance is that it isn't simply raw -- the producers act as both director and editor, carefully paring away the naturally repetitive verbiage of youth, and winnowing it down to a humorous and sometimes painful nut about love or loss or social mishaps. The joy is in exposing what was once secret, but the revelations are in keeping with the very public way we live now, from Facebook to Twitter to blogs.

And yet, while it makes perfect sense that crowds are drawn to "Mortified" shows (the word-of-mouth buzz has remained steady since the project launched), it still prompts the question: Why does anyone get onstage? "There is no one single motivation," said Katcher, noting that while some participants are professional performers, the majority were simply avid diarists as kids. "I think, when you keep a diary for that long, you can't help but see your life as somewhat entertaining." Katcher calls it a kind of inexpensive group therapy -- commiserating with the audience matched with the thrill of being onstage and the knowledge that you've had the courage to bare yourself.

I first heard about "Mortified" from Robin Katcher, sister of Neil and a friend from years back; I caught a Washington show last winter. As embarrassing as the show's material was, the idea of taking that which was so painful and making it comedy was immensely, almost inexplicably, appealing to me. The next time I visited my parents in suburban New Jersey, I spent an hour in the dusty attic, stooped under a slanted roof, pulling apart old boxes and yanking diaries from sixth through 11th grades, as well as a smattering of notes, letters and other detritus from my adolescence. I found a Capezio jazz-shoe box filled with every note ever sent me. As I sifted, I couldn't stop wondering about the girl I'd been. Old social anxieties rose up -- mean girls and botched friendships -- fresh as they'd been 20 years ago. But it was far from all stressful: I marked my physical development ("I got a bra!" observed 11-year-old Sarah more than once); and the first forays into sexual activity in my later diaries were mostly comic. I read entries aloud to my partner, Ian. He was amazed by how much time I'd spent obsessing over the smallest sexual choices. But going over diaries at home was one thing. Harder was the idea of sharing my childhood neuroses with an audience of strangers.


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