ON A WARM June evening inside Old Town’s Someday Lounge, Portland writer Beth Keegan steps boldly to the microphone, clears her throat, and begins exorcising some long-lingering secrets. Thirty-plus years ago, when she first developed a clandestine crush on her junior-high science teacher, Keegan wouldn’t have dreamed of confessing her love for Mr. Anderson to anyone, much less a roomful of strangers. But tonight she’s standing onstage, her battered diary in hand, poised to read pages she penned alone in her room shortly after Richard Nixon resigned.
The details are uncomfortable, self-flagellating, and hilarious. “I realized what I wanted all along was just to hang out with Mr. Anderson,” she reads, “and get stoned with him.” Amid the reassuring laughter of a packed house, Keegan’s attempts at winning her teacher’s affections have gone from awkward to a sort of artistic catharsis. At the back of the bar an onlooker shakes his head in admiration: “I wouldn’t read my old diary in public if you put a gun to my head.”
But as the presence of 200 people squeezed into the room seems to attest, plenty of folks will pay to watch somebody else humiliate themselves. Welcome to another night at Mortified, a literary high-wire act that invites otherwise-sensible adults to blow the dust off their youthful stabs at fiction or share a few pages from diary entries, poems, and other juvenilia.
This month, Mortified hosts its fourth performance in Portland. The Rose City faction is the latest outcropping of a neurosis-fueled empire that was born in Los Angeles and that now includes readings in nine cities, two books, and a fleet of cringe-worthy YouTube shorts.
The success of the series hinges on its unique ability to harness the universal experience of teenage embarrassment and transform it into empowerment, or at least a hearty giggle. “It’s therapeutic to be able to laugh about that time in my life,” says Emily Tretter, who, as part of the June reading, revisited a junior-high journal about her melodramatic mourning for dead rock star Kurt Cobain. For Jimmy Radosta, a columnist for local newspaper Just Out, taking the crowd back to his high school days—when he wore a Eurythmics T-shirt to signify his newfound homosexuality—is more of a thrill. “It’s like skydiving,” he says. “It’s a rush.”
This cross-pollination of head-shrinking and humor is the brainchild of Dave Nadelberg, a self-described “failed television writer” who makes his home in Los Angeles. He says the idea came to him during a visit to his parents’ house in Michigan, when he unearthed a shoe box full of old junk that included an unsent love letter to some long-forgotten crush. “I was horrified,” he admits. “But it was also hilarious. I was struck by the huge disconnect between that desperate kid I was and the person I am today.”
He seized on this potential for comedy and, in 2002, rented a space in L.A. and invited members of the public to share similar artifacts from their pasts. Almost immediately, Mortified was a success. Participants included actors Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings) and James Denton (Desperate Housewives), as well as Maurissa Tancharoen, a writer for director Joss Whedon’s new hit web series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along.
But not just any angst-ridden teen sob story will do. Working under direction from Nadelberg, handpicked Portland curators choose prospective readers and then put their work through a round of stiff edits, often working one-on-one to shape 20 years’ worth of reminiscences into a 10-minute dramatic arc.
“It’s got to be more than just a nostalgic show-and-tell,” Nadelberg says. “That’s what VH1 countdown specials are for.”
It might seem odd to deconstruct manuscripts full of pubescent fawning and bad Dirty Dancing quotes, but the end result gives performers the kind of beer-fueled release you’re unlikely to find on a therapist’s couch. Especially if, like Keegan, your long-pent-up desire to make out with your junior-high science teacher is met with applause—instead of a trip to the principal’s office.