By Ingrid Taylar, About.com
Mortified Live – Teen Angst as Performance
At first glance, the concept of Mortified Live seems like a high school bully’s dream: Take the kid who got pummeled in gym class and put him on stage with a mic, reading his most embarrassing teenage confessions, in front of a crowd of bar patrons . . . and then start the party.
But as with any decent film trailer, that’s just the set up. The beautiful twist in the Mortified story is that the tables actually get turned on the bullies.
Mortified Live has its roots in Los Angeles, and is now a monthly event in San Francisco and other cities. The show features everyday adults reading aloud their most mortifying revelations — from old teen diaries, letters, and memoirs. In the process, they bring the audience to alternating moments of laughter and empathy. The bullies get called out for the fools they were, secrets get purged for the silliness they are. And the end result is vindication for almost everything that was idiotic, humiliating, and terrifying about our adolescent lives.
“We say the show is half comedy, half self-help group,” says Scott Lifton, producer of the San Francisco Mortified show, which plays every month at the Make-Out Room in the Mission. “If the performer actually messes up at some point or gets really embarrassed, the audience will clap them on and be even more supportive. It really is cathartic and therapeutic.”
What bred this multi-city phenomenon known as Mortified was a note discovered by the show’s founder, David Nadelberg. The note — described as a “creepy” love letter penned in the 10th grade — launched a reading with friends which then morphed into a popular public gathering in L.A. Soon, other brave performers showed up to read their postcards, notebooks, and even to sing songs they’d written as kids. These shards of teen angst (coupled with a dose of courage) comprise an evening out with Mortified Live.
The San Francisco Show
On the night we attend the San Francisco show, the Make-Out Room is packed — I would say to the rafters except in this case, it’s to the glitter-ware that adorns the Make Out Room’s ceilings and walls. It’s a small venue, so chairs close to the stage fill up quickly. For late-comers, the amplified voices filter back to the bar area where the audio is good, even if the line of sight isn’t perfect.
I’m sure every show has at least one highlight. The highlight of ours is a performer named Will Seymour whose piece is so engaging and funny, you’d think it was scripted. Seymour’s entire journal is an escapade in skipping school to get out of P.E. class . . . peppered with encounters with his mother’s employer, Liza Minelli and Liza’s celebrity friends.
On the surface, it may seem just that. But as with all Mortified presentations, it’s the incongruity of tempestuous adolescence, streaming from the mouth of a dignified adult, that gives the Mortified Live show its character and its heart. What might seem unbearably painful coming from a 16-year-old, is funny and poignant with the help of age and context — not to mention the cheering crowd at the Make-Out Room.
“Our show is always sold out,” says Lifton. “The crowd here is like a poetry slam crowd. They’re loud and they laugh, they shout stuff back. . . . The audience is actively involved, empathetic, getting angry for [the performer].”
Shoebox Sessions – Read Your Material at Mortified Live
It’s this type of reception that makes reading at Mortified Live less of a daunting prospect than it may seem. In fact, presenting your material is not, as Lifton says, a “Flashdance” style court with a panel of judges. Aspiring participants show up with their readings and basically have a conversation — and a few laughs — with Scott Lifton and his co-producer, Heather Van Atta.
“It’s definitely not a big, intimidating process,” he adds. “Most people are not actors and comedians. That’s not what we’re looking for. We want everyday people to read their normal stuff.”
David Nadelberg, founder of Mortified likes to think of the screening process as shoebox sessions. “Basically, people just show up with a shoe box of stuff they wrote when they were kids, and we help them sift through that….We’re not judging, our goal is mainly to help people find stories buried in the pages of their lives.”
It’s precisely because the readings are so raw that Mortified plays with the punch that it does. “You get to see that it’s hip to be a nerd — it’s cool to share those faults,” Lifton says. In fact, this is one venue where rejection is a testament to your integrity, rather than a personal affront. “Ultimately,” he says, “if we can’t use someone, it’s a compliment — that they’re too well-adjusted.”
Lifton says the show is always looking for new material, new performers — and the more diverse and eclectic, the better. “We’d love to see even more ethnicities, more age varieties, more sexual preferences.” You don’t have to have a diary. Letters, postcards, songs, poems — they all qualify you for consideration.
Check it out once as a spectator, and you may be inspired to root around in old shoe boxes for your own cathartic moment.
Mortified Live continues to push the creative envelope into other realms of performance — including dance, film, and all manner of youthful, personal expression. Fans of Mortified (and also just the curious) can explore the show in print by virtue of the book Mortified: Real Words, Real People, Real Pathetic and in the 2008 lovelorn release known as Mortified: Love is a Battlefield.
3225 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Telephone: (415) 647-2888